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Could COVID 19 bring the end of high rise and cramped living?

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Posted by Andrew Dudley on 28 May 2020

Andrew Dudley - Social Housing Lawyer
Andrew Dudley Head of Social Housing

On 14 June it will be three years since the Grenfell tower tragedy, global warming is adversely affecting the environment causing floods and other natural disasters, and the country is on lockdown because of coronavirus. 

The lockdown is probably bearable for people living in houses with gardens and in particular in leafy rural areas, but it must be a nightmare if you are living in a high-rise block of flats with young children. 

The chances are that the virus will spread more easily in cramped environments where it is challenging to keep a safe distance –the figures suggest that there are more cases in the crowded cities than in the shires. The Government's Chief Medical Officer has said that we are probably never going to be able to get rid of it. We will have to learn to live with it.

Just recently there were three nights of riots in the run-down areas of northern Paris. Critics say that it reflects a failure of the French authorities to take account of the fact that these areas are impoverished and densely populated, creating twin challenges of a health emergency and home confinement. The French newspaper Le Monde pointed out, the capital's poorer suburbs is where many of the city's key workers call home and that most of the housing is high rise blocks of flats.

The same could easily happen here across the UK.

Are all these tragedies telling us that we need to create a new way of living? 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.

Regularly, my work involves offering property advice to Registered Providers of social housing, and I see the difference modern, low-level accommodation 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 crises in housing and social housing, than depositing luckless, often vulnerable families in homes above the reach of the tallest ladders the fire and rescue services can call upon and, in an environment, where viruses like COVID 19 can quickly breed and take hold.

In response to Grenfell the Government has introduced new Building Safety Measures including the mandatory installation of sprinkler systems and consistent wayfinding signage for all high rise blocks over 11 m tall -but why not ban the building of any new blocks over 11m? It is also introducing a Fire Safety Bill requiring regular inspections of lifts, reviews of evacuation plans and provision of legible information to residents –all reporting into the local fire a rescue service. This is all excellent but does not solve the fundamental problem that high rise is intrinsically unsafe and unhealthy.

It has pledged over £1.6 billion to remove or remediate dangerous cladding in high rise blocks – why not earmark some of that money to demolish the blocks and house people in low rise and less crowded conditions? If we can get one virus that causes such widespread issues, we can get another so why not start to enable people to live in an environment where they can self-isolate or socially distance reducing the burden on the taxpayer that is going to be massive after the current crisis is resolved.

Tower blocks are costly to run and maintain, with vandalism, expensive 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, one of the UK's leading think tanks, Policy Exchange published its report "Create Streets UK's". The report 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 a street. In stark contrast, not one person said they wanted to live in a tower block. I suggest if the poll were taken today, post-Grenfell and COVID 19, the results would be the same if not higher.

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. They also need to free up more green belt. 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.

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 real legacy we can aim for in, our post-Grenfell and COVID 19 world.

About the author

Andrew Dudley

Head of Social Housing

Andrew specialises in property development and stock transfer for Housing Associations.

Andrew Dudley

Andrew specialises in property development and stock transfer for Housing Associations.

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