China represents a good example of a country that has to build at an incredible rate just to keep up with its own population growth. I have now visited China on three occasions in the past two years with the All-Party Parliamentary China Group and visited several first and second tier cities. The first thing you notice is not just the scale but also the prolific expansion of high rise living in city centres. Tall buildings with multiple flats, housing hundreds of people in each one.
To some extent they have little choice – a drive towards urbanisation and significant population growth leads to an inevitable look skywards.
In the UK, we already know that there is a significant lack of homes, especially in our major cities. This is partly due to the availability and cost of building sites, but also the popularity and livings costs of city centres as places to reside. The phrase ‘housing crisis’ is now used regularly in government and the Prime Minister has herself taken charge of finding the answers to Britain’s broken housing market.
The UK now has one of the lowest levels of home ownership in Europe. With land at a shortage and a premium, surely building upwards is part of the answer?
We also know that transport infrastructure is an issue and our major cities have a commuter belt around them with millions of people commuting in and out daily. By increasing housing in our city centres we can help alleviate some of the pressure on our transport networks. If people live closer to their workplace, they are more likely to walk, cycle or take the bus, tube or metro system thus taking the pressure off commuter services.
So why aren’t British cities seeing more high-rise developments?
The UK has long had an aversion to the concept of high-rise living and large scale tower block developments partly I suspect due to the poor quality social housing tower blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s, and also due to the view that they are ugly. As a result, we have sporadic high-rise developments, largely social housing, in certain cities and towns with the odd, seemingly out of place single tower block.
The recent tragedy of Grenfell Tower will understandably concern many people thinking of high-rise living and is evidence of how we must ensure that new build developments have the latest fire and safety equipment built in by design. We can look to the wider world to cities where these kind of developments are common place to ensure that any move in this direction in the UK uses cutting edge technology and is future-proofed as far as possible.
Largely down to our 1960s heritage, there is a misconception in the UK that tower blocks have to be ugly, low quality and places that people don’t want to live in. However, looking around the globe we can see high rise developments in cities where the opposite is true. Individual towers can indeed look ugly and out of place, but multiple high-rise developments can look tasteful and highly desirable. Few would say that Canary Wharf looks out of place because the high-rise developments complement each other. This was the result of a comprehensive master plan for the area which incorporated greenery, restaurants, shops and open space. It was designed holistically and why the high-rise developments there have a sense of synergy and belonging.
Modern high-rise developments exist today with underground parking, shopping and dining complexes and concierge services at ground floor level and high quality flats above. This is the model that we should be looking at – self-contained communities which are bustling day and night.
I believe that we should also be looking at more affordable options for single people with small self-contained bedrooms with shared living, kitchen and dining facilities. Whilst they may not be appropriate for some modern families, they would be perfect for city workers and a first step on the housing ladder for younger people. They would also represent a retirement or down-sizing option for older people looking to be closer to shops, restaurants, the theatre etc.
Whilst controversial, we should give serious consideration to a significant expansion of high-rise residential developments in our major cities. The key, however, is ensuring that these developments are mixed developments that create communities by incorporating retail and leisure facilities along with well-designed public open space.
Building skyward is not the panacea. It will not in of itself solve our housing crisis, but it will make a difference, especially to those looking to purchase entry level properties in our city centres.
The Government is determined to build more housing. I hope that they will look at building urban centres up as well as out.
Will Quince is the Conservative MP for Colchester