Terry Farrell: on the London housing crisis

Leading architect Terry Farrell tells Philippa Stockley why Britain is cursed by housing myths and meddling politicians
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'Build homes, not policies'

Terry Farrell housing crisis
© Matt Writtle
Sir Terry Farrell's architect projects include the MI6 building in Vauxhall and Charing Cross Station

Terry Farrell’s architecture practice, TFP, works worldwide from London to Beijing. His big projects include the MI6 building in Vauxhall, and The Deep, an extraordinary aquarium in Hull. His masterplans include the visionary idea of turning the Thames Gateway into a national park.

At the London Planning Awards last week, Mayor Boris Johnson presented him with an award for greatest achievement in planning and development. Sir Terry also won a commendation for the city’s best conceptual project — Embassy Gardens at Nine Elms.

His practice is chief master planner for CapCo’s huge redevelopment at Earls Court, which promises, when finished in 20 years’ time, to deliver more than 8,000 new homes set in new quarters, squares and a street. And his plans for a mega-hub at Old Oak Common, linking HS2 to Crossrail, have just been adopted by the Government.

Brought up on a council estate, at 74, Sir Terry’s ideas are rooted in the importance of neighbourhood and place.

H&P: So, what’s the problem with our housing?
TF: There are lots of myths and misconceptions about many big ideas. With housing, there is the idea that planning and land availability are the biggest barriers. That’s just not true. Planners give consent for lots of things, which then get stalled because of fear of the market. There are a lot of developers sitting on their hands because of uncertainty over the market. I got planning for 10,000 homes in Greenwich Peninsula, for example, and for 1,000 in Chelsea. So that proves it isn’t lack of land, or a planning problem. There must be huge other factors. If houses are needed on one side, and planning has been granted on the other, then what’s in the middle, stopping it? It must be to do with finance. Finance, and a muddled marketplace.

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H&P: Muddled by what?
TF: British governments have, successively, interfered with housing. The housing market has been skewed by political gerrymandering. Take Margaret Thatcher selling off council housing. Thatcher, as a Tory, wanted more [Labour] votes. Before that, in the Seventies, Labour had had a programme called “municipalisation”, or turning private homes into social housing.

It is all political, but I don’t think governments and politicians should be interfering with town planning. What they are really doing is buying votes, and so the British market is distorted and muddled because of political interference, and this isn’t the best way to plan cities.

Also, successive governments have favoured everyone investing in private housing, with tax concessions that almost no other country has, such as no capital gains tax when you sell your home. That means that everyone puts all their money into their house instead of investing in UK Limited; buying shares in industry and cars like the Germans, for instance.

That locks in uncreativity and pushes the price of houses up. In Berlin, homes cost half what they do here. On top of that, before the Nineties, there were tax concessions for the older generation that gave them tax relief on their mortgages, which also pushed prices up. I would like to get the politics out of housing, so it is like any other commodity: if you want something, you buy it. Not a political thing.

H&P: Where should we build?
TF: There have been claims that we need to build on green belt land. But you don’t need to. There is a huge amount of suitable land without doing that. At Old Oak Common [in west London, proposed site of an HS2 interchange] you could get 10-15,000 homes; another 10-15,000 at White City; 3,000 at Convoys Wharf in Deptford and 3,000 at Wood Wharf on the Isle of Dogs. Look east from Canary Wharf tower, to the Royal Docks. I reckon if you build at central London density you could get 30-40,000 homes there.

Terry Farrell MI6 building
Terry Farrell's MI6 building in Vauxhall
H&P: But if we have the land to build on, and planning permission can be got, why isn’t the money there?
TF: For one thing, most young people and first-time buyers can’t afford to buy. They face what the Evening Standard called “the impossible dream”.

Then, some British developers take a view that the marketplace is too risky. So the Chinese and Malaysians are now building. They can take risks because their buyers are overseas investors. Look at Battersea Power Station. It sold — what — 600 apartments in four days? Foreign investment is unblocking housing.

H&P: How does foreign investment help?
TF: These are investors living abroad, with cash. They are buying in London because they think it is a great investment. Some will hold on to the flats, but other flats will end up on the market. In due course, the investors will let them, and that will add to the housing stock, which is a good thing — but on the other hand, they will be too expensive for most first-time buyers. It’s happening all over London. At Greenwich Peninsula, the developer, Quintain, has gone into partnership with the Chinese, and they’re adapting the design so that it appeals to the Chinese investor market. It’s foreign investors who are unlocking the housing market. We are living in extraordinary times.

H&P: What do you think about the new proposals to make it much easier, in planning terms, to convert offices to homes?
TF: It is a very good thing. Planners ought to be able to be as flexible as possible in granting planning for change between uses. I live in what used to be a garage! Power stations, warehouses, Sixties and Seventies office blocks make excellent housing. It is a move in the right direction to make it easier to make new housing from any suitable existing building.

H&P: What else would you do if you were in charge?
TF: My office is in the middle of a council estate [Lisson Green, Marylebone]. It’s half the density of the private sector. You could do the reverse of what happens in private developments: you could put private sector housing in to the housing estates. It’s no more difficult to argue for a mix in a council estate than the other way round. And there are already schemes to “densify” council estates with a broader mix of housing, such as at Wood Wharf. Council estates should have workplaces, cinemas, shops. They need employment, and a social mix, and middle incomes. Housing estates are monocultural. Look at Kensington & Chelsea, it has the highest density in London, but it also has good shops, big museums, big parks, and no high-rise. It is another myth that density equals poverty and crime.

H&P: What’s your recipe for great housing?
TF: That we need to build places first and housing second. Earls Court is going to take 20 years. You’ve got to have different kinds of housing, and different income groups. You need schools, doctors, cinemas, corner shops, cafés. You’ve got to make it like a piece of good town. We all know where the good bits are and they have got to be the model. That’s the first principle.

The second principle is stewardship. In 200 years, we have gone amazingly fast from agricultural to urbicultural. Soon, 70 per cent of the population will live in cities. How do we look after the elderly, and schoolchildren? We have to build that in urbiculture. The aim at Earls Court is to build a balanced community. I looked at community as the starting point.

We need to start cultivating places. You can grow places, like plants. Density, cherished green spaces, streets of mixed-use developments, and social housing mixed in. And the result is: people integrated into society, and happier.

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