High rise has had its day

Almost since they first started to loom over our city centres, there have been dissenting voices against high rise tower blocks. This despite the argument they represented the future of urban living and solved the housing crisis of the sixties.

The crescendo has grown in recent months, with the tragedy at Grenfell the catalyst to a growing chorus of voices calling for an alternative to be found. And quickly.

On a regular basis, my work involves offering property advice to Registered Providers of social housing and I see the difference modern, low-level housing makes to people’s lives.

I believe we now have to break with the past and consign high-rise tower blocks to history. They have served their purpose, but never truly fulfilled their promise and we have learned valuable and tragic lessons from their brutal, brooding presence in our housing stock.

There are better answers to the crisis in housing and social housing in particular, than depositing luckless, often vulnerable families in homes above the reach of the tallest ladders the fire and rescue services can call upon.

Already Scotland’s biggest Council housing landlord, North Lanarkshire has announced it will demolish all 48 of its tower blocks. They will be replaced with housing much closer to the ground in what the council is calling the biggest housebuilding programme in a generation in Scotland.

Whilst many tower blocks are structurally sound and cladding issues aside, pose no immediate risk to the families they house, most are difficult to raise to 21st century living standards.

Tower blocks are costly to run and maintain, with vandalism, costly lifts and litter collection systems all adding to the problems.

Tower blocks are not even as good as you might expect at delivering high-density housing. The unused land that surrounds these estates ensures most provide an average density from 75 to 200 flats per hectare, which is lower than terraced housing.

A house on a street
In 2013, Policy Exchange, one of the UK’s leading think tanks published its report Create Streets. It advocated the demolition of UK tower blocks in favour of a return to terrace style, low-level housing, which it calculated could still deliver a similar if not better housing density as the high-rise, with far fewer problems.

In a poll undertaken as part of the research, 89% of Britons said they wanted to live in a house on street. In stark contrast, not one person of those asked, said they wanted to live in a tower block. I suggest if the poll was taken today, post-Grenfell, the results would be exactly the same.

The findings from the research indicated that more than 50,000 households with children, who are social renters, live on the third floor and above. There were more than 20,000 similar households living on the fifth floor and above.

But we must not solely think in terms of physical safety when we consider the future of high rise living. A large number of controlled studies from around the world, all show similar results; residents of high-rise blocks suffer more stress, mental health issues, neurosis and even marital problems.

Many will point to the socio-economic status of the residents surveyed, but when these factors are comparable to those in low-level housing, the results are clear; children are found to suffer more hyperactivity, hostility and juvenile delinquency.

Don’t look down on your neighbours
The Government must find ways to encourage developers to unlock the land banks and increase the rate at which new houses are built. Then we can address the issue of high-rise blocks and perhaps offer social renters in particular, a return to living in houses on streets; terraced houses even.

They offer the privacy of a garden where children can let off steam while safe and supervised, which is never as easy when living five stories or more from the nearest piece of open land.

It is the time for neighbours to chat over fences and look each other in the eye, rather than look down on one another from on high. The Grenfell tragedy should inspire more to join the fight to bring down these towers, even if they are merely cut down to manageable proportions.

If we are to take our cues for future developments from history, then the post-war pre-fabs, made off-site and erected quickly where needed would be a better choice to inspire us. The innovative UK construction industry has much to offer on this score, with land and investment the only inhibitors.

Surely improving the future of households and social renters in the UK and ensuring no family faces the risk posed by living in old, high-rise blocks is the true legacy we can aim for in, our post-Grenfell world.