Let's build our houses for the way we live now


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The Independent Online

George Osborne's attempts to solve our housing crisis are heading in the same direction as Parliament's attempts to hijack press freedom – destined for the pending tray, criticised on all sides as unhelpful and unworkable.

I took part in a well-attended debate on housing in London last week, organised by the Evening Standard. From the audience, it was plain that people are desperate. Earlier that day, Osborne used his Budget speech to announce three important policies. First, an extension of the First Buy Scheme (now renamed Help to Buy), aimed at helping people on to the housing ladder. From April, he's offering interest-free loans worth up to 20 per cent of the value of a new-build home that costs up to £600,000, repayable when the property is sold.

 Buyers putting down a deposit from 5 to 20 per cent on property up to £600,000 will be eligible for government guarantees. There is no restriction on applicants' earnings, so the wealthy could use these schemes to buy second homes. Finally, council tenants wanting to buy their properties will have the right-to-buy discount increased from £75,000 to £100,000 in London.

These measures do nothing to solve the housing crisis, especially in London where it is most acute. By making it easier for first-time buyers to get mortgages, competition for the few flats available will intensify, and prices will go up – demand exceeds supply at every level in the market. These new loans could encourage people to speculate on property, the very thing that got banks into a mess in the first place, triggering off the recession. Underwriting mortgages so that people who are stuck in negative equity can move, by paying a tiny deposit of 5 per cent on a new home, is a risky undertaking that could saddle the Government with more debt. Making it easier to buy council homes removes precious rental accommodation from the housing pool and places it in the private sector. The only way to house people in inner cities is to build high-density accommodation for priority workers that is state owned or run by housing associations so that it can be recycled back to new occupiers.

When I studied architecture in the 1960s, the visionary Archigram group (Peter Cook, Ron Herron) and Cedric Price proposed future cities with high-rise pod-living in small prefabricated units, stacked in tower blocks where residents shared facilities. A huge amount of airspace over railway lines, goods yards and major roads, is unused in central London. There are empty office blocks that could be recycled, and derelict high-street shops. Drive to City airport and you pass acres of underused space that could house thousands, right near to existing shops and transport hubs. Building ever outward must stop. We need another Archigram-style visionary to tell Osborne a few home truths.

Why build new communities, when it's easy to demolish the low rise and second rate, using brownfield sites, and put in state-owned housing where people actually want it? There's no need to build on one green field. "Affordable" new homes with garages too small for family cars and dinky rooms that can't hold real-sized furniture are an anachronism, an unworkable solution for a society that's increasingly made up of singletons and the retired, who value human contact over lawns.

Nowie Bowie

By staging an exhibition built around his stage and video costumes, the V&A presents a somewhat diminished view of David Bowie. Old clothes look creased and shabby without a warm body filling out the tailoring, no matter what their provenance. In short, this sell-out show brings the Space Oddity firmly back to earth, rather like the character from Nic Roeg's brilliant film.

Bowie exists best on film or in performance – granted it's nice to see his spidery notes, drawings and letters, but does it add to or subtract from our relationship with pop's supreme Man of Mystery? One room consisted of the same ephemera and comic junk I hoarded – we are both former design students of more or less the same age. The difference is, I flogged my Whole Earth Catalog ages ago, whereas Bowie clearly saved his artefacts to flog more product.

This show represents a rare misjudgement for the Thin White Duke, because it reveals too much. As an artist, he's second-rate. As a clothes horse, he was superb, but his most iconic costumes were created by a succession of creative geniuses, starting with Kansai Yamamoto, whose first show in the UK I went to in 1971, and whose clothing Bowie appropriated for Aladdin Sane. A Kansai gold and black brocade jacket from that show is one of my most treasured possessions.

The So-so Book

The Book of Mormon, written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone with Robert Lopez, is a thoroughly enjoyable evening, with great dancing, costumes, and staging. But does this story of a band of Mormon missionaries attempting to convert an entire village in Uganda live up to the hype? Sadly, there's not one shocking moment in the whole evening, in spite of much chat about female circumcision and anal sex. Compare this show with Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas's brilliant Jerry Springer: The Opera and you will come away feeling short-changed.

JS was a truly offensive, gut-wrenching experience, one that left audiences breathless with the sheer chutzpah of the undertaking. I still remember the sharp intake of breath when Jesus appeared in a dirty nappy in Act 3. Sublime! Jerry Springer faced demonstrations and sustained trashing from Christian Voice and other religious groups throughout its UK tour. After the show was broadcast on the BBC, Christian Voice tried to bring legal action, citing an archaic blasphemy law. Maggie's cancer centres refused to accept a donation from the show, following threats from the same people. Jerry Springer has toured the world, but a planned Broadway production was cancelled. The Book of Mormon has been a huge hit there, but jokes about maggoty scrotums are hardly thought-provoking. Time for a Jerry Springer revival?


Last week I gave a talk at Excel in east London. The day before, environmental champion "Two Jags" John Prescott had given a keynote speech, so I was a bit worried about following the great man, who is advising China on building 1,000 sustainable cities. The sound engineer said that Prezza was "quite good". Luckily, I attracted a full room and plenty of interesting questions. Afterwards, I quizzed techno-man again about Prezza's performance – it turned out that "good" meant "spoke loudly": the venue did have a lot of background noise. A member of the public later told me Prezza tried a couple of jokes, but forgot the punchlines. Must be all those delicious Chinese meals in Beijing.