Walking around the exhibition stands at MIPIM UK in Olympia, you can’t help but be impressed by the extraordinary plans for the redevelopment of many of the country’s under-utilised urban environments. Fantastic models abound, from an immense display encompassing a scale model of almost the whole of Cardiff Bay, to a beautifully detailed diorama of London’s newest quarter in Nine Elms, on the south bank of the Thames – destined to be home to 18,000 new residential properties, a relocated US Embassy and a new branch of London Underground’s Northern Line. Marvelling at the detail and sheer scale of the plans, it’s hardly a surprise the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who opened the proceedings here yesterday, has described Nine Elms as ‘possibly the most important regeneration story in London’.
But one thing that’s striking by its absence from these models, and many of the equally impressive images of new developments on display around the arena, is people. These pristine models and pictures celebrate amazing architecture, but lack a human element.
It is the question of people – and which people these stunning new developments are going to serve – that should be at the heart of the discussions at MIPIM. And that doesn’t seem to be happening. Broadly speaking it is agreed that the UK needs to be building 250,000 homes per annum to address current shortfalls and to meet future needs. Both the public and private sector are in agreement on this, but there is less consensus on what form this housing should take, and even less on how it can be delivered in a way that doesn’t exclude the huge proportion of the population that is currently financially excluded from home ownership.
The protestors who were outside MIPIM yesterday want more council houses, but the councils don’t have the money to build them. Councils need to work with private investors and developers to meet housing need. Private developers naturally, and fairly, want to make a profit from their substantial investment, and the associated risk entailed in making that investment. Contrary to the protestors’ viewpoint there is plenty of scope for the public and private sectors to work together to meet the country’s housing needs. It is happening in some boroughs already and many local authorities that used to be averse to working ‘too close’ to the private sector are now very much open for business. But, it also needs the private sector to be more imaginative about how it can help to really meet the housing needs of the majority of people, not just those able to secure ever bigger mortgages needed to purchase stylish city-centre apartments. The money and the ability are there, but we need to see a fair bit more will. The private sector has a vital role to play in meeting housing need – it also needs to work more creatively in partnership with local authorities to ensure the solution is more inclusive.
By the way, by far the best model on display was the one of the new Leadenhall Building in the City of London, better known as the ‘Cheese Grater’. Not only was the whole thing made of Lego, but it even featured tiny Lego people too…