Letter from London
Paul Finch, 18 January 2021
UK architects experienced a traumatic year in 2020, but all is not lost, writes Paul Finch
Judging by some media reports, notably in the New York Times, the UK is in state of semi-collapse, stricken by Covid-19, suffering from the introduction of real Brexit, and led by a version of Donald Trump.
Seen from a London perspective, this is pretty much nonsense. It is true that there are teething difficulties in respect of trading documents and bureaucracy with our former partners on the other side of the English Channel. That was always like to be the case as the UK is ‘taught a lesson’ about what it means to leave a club after 50 years.
However, the key point is that, despite all the warnings and claims about no deal on tariffs being realistic, of how the Irish border would make it impossible ever to conclude a deal, that the US would try to block our departure and so on, the reality is that Boris Johnson, who has no resemblance to D Trump in any sense other than the same sort of hair colour, pulled off a spectacular coup in getting a deal signed. This closes the subject of tariffs for the foreseeable future.
As far as the UK economy is concerned, it is the case that we have borrowed extraordinary amounts of money (or printed it, sort of) to get us through 2020 and two waves of the pandemic. The economy has shrunk – but construction has done not too badly. Latest figures show building/infrastructure activity growing for the last recorded seven months, with no sign of slow-down in the near future.
This is not something acknowledged by the handful of vociferous publicity-conscious architects always ready to condemn a Conservative government in general and Boris Johnson in particular, whatever they may be doing to help construction and thereby architects and architecture.
To take once example: there has been a torrent of moaning about ‘permitted development’, introduced by this government to speed up the conversion of redundant offices into much needed housing. There was a quite legitimate complaint, which was that no minimum space or light standards accompanied the relaxation of planning regulations. However, following the background intervention of Boris, who introduced minimum space standards for housing when he was Mayor of London, such standards have now been introduced.
Do you imagine this was welcomed by the RIBA and others? Not really, and only in the sense that protesters claimed their actions had resulted in a change, when the Prime Minister had clearly signalled (in a virtually unreported Parliamentary statement) that he was going to introduce the appropriate standards.
The latest policy to prompt a furore, which to be fair has found support from some architects, concerns a government proposal forcing public authorities to dispose of redundant land and buildings to community or other parties who can do something useful with them. You might have thought this would encourage creative designers to put their thinking hats on, find appropriate clients, and identify under-used or ‘dead’ assets which would benefit from design thinking. Not a bit of it. The default position of the usual suspects was that this would be a heinous policy, transferring public assets to the worst people in the world: developers.
At least some members of the profession have noticed this policy might be another useful way of increasing housing stock. Let’s hope the apostles of positivity get to make the most of an opportunity.
Meanwhile UK housebuilders, far from crying into their solitary beers, are enjoying a golden glow of success, despite lockdown and the pandemic.
The reason? The scrapping of ‘stamp duty’ during lockdown. This archaic tax increases the price of homes, provides a cheap way of government benefiting from housing transactions, but contributes absolutely nothing to the production of new stock. By definition it affects the total transaction market, as opposed to the market sale of newly built homes.
Anyway, in a sensible move to support housebuilders, said tax was removed. The result? More homes being built; more transactions; and a massive increase in assets of major housebuilders, expressed as cash in the bank. This can be used to purchase land, pay dividends, and generally keep the sector happy. The biggest builders are starting 2021 with record order books.
You won’t hear anything about this from protesting architects, alas. Or indeed from the British Bellyaching (sorry, Broadcasting) Corporation, whose obsession with the failings of government, Boris, Brexit etc knows no bounds.
Oh well. With the vaccine programme going into super-drive, we should be through all this in the not-too-distant future. We can then start obsessing about the Palace of Westminster multi-billion-pound Parliamentary retrofit, London’s tougher new tall building policy, and a planning appeal decision about Lord Foster’s ‘Tulip Tower’ in the City of London.
Meanwhile the RIBA is pondering changes which could be partly funded by its nine-figure disposal of publishing assets at the end of last year. This ought to be beneficial for the culture of architecture, provided the war chest is not squandered on juvenile protests about the irrelevant.
The roller-coaster continues!