A new report says high rise flats should be replaced with terrace housing to help tackle social problems. Chris Bond reports.
BACK in the 1960s they were seen as the answer to Britain’s growing housing problem in the post-war world.
But far from being some kind of concrete utopia, the concept of high rise living quickly unravelled and within just a few years it came to be seen as a failed social experiment, where tower blocks were left as a blot on our city centre landscapes.
Now a new report by Policy Exchange, the centre-right think tank, says that high-rise housing blocks should be bulldozed and replaced with terrace homes to help tackle social problems and remove “no-go” areas. It claims that around 140,000 households with children live on the second floor or above in England, despite evidence that multi-storey flats attract higher crime rates and social breakdown.
The report’s author, Nicholas Boys Smith, warns that residents of such estates – mostly social tenants – suffered more stress, mental health problems and marriage breakdowns. “It’s time we ripped down the mistakes of the past and started building proper streets where people want to live. We must not repeat mistakes by building housing which makes people’s lives a misery,” he says.
Mr Boys Smith says high-rises could also pose fire dangers and were more expensive to build and maintain. “Replacing them with terrace homes and low-rise flats is the best way to build both the number and the quality of homes that we need.”
A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government says local authorities no longer have to build high-density flats.
“Communities can now use their own Neighbourhood Plans to decide themselves what type and design of homes are built in their area and their councils should actively support them in this process.”
Aimee Walshaw, a research fellow at the Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, says the Policy Exchange report is just reiterating old ideas. “What the report says is a well rehearsed argument, the link between high-rise living and increased crime rates and that it doesn’t match where people want to live.”
Walshaw, an expert on social housing and housing design, says there is a world of difference between badly-built tower blocks with poorly maintained lifts and little in the way of nearby amenities, and the swanky city centre apartments that have become popular over the past 20 years. “There’s been a big clearance programme of high-rise blocks over the last 10 years and local authorities but the problem is the money has just run out.”
She says that some older people actually like high-rise living where the buildings are well-maintained and secure. “In Sheffield there was a big campaign by residents to save a tower block called The Grange in Norfolk Park. They felt it was close to the doctors and shops and they enjoyed the views and the sense of community.”
Walshaw says replacing flats with terrace housing isn’t always the answer. “If you put up terrace housing in the centre of Leeds on the site of the Lumiere building project it just wouldn’t fit.” But by the same token she says simply doing away with tower blocks isn’t the answer either. “High-rise housing is often the most appropriate form of development, they help support the transport infrastructure and the local shops and restaurants and they have an important role in keeping our cities vibrant.”