Dear Mr Boles, there’s a lot worse than living among disused offices

I'm starting to pine for life among office blocks. 9-to-5 workers don't play loud music in front of open windows, nor do they have noisy children


When the Planning Minister, Nick Boles, called for developers to be able to convert office blocks to housing without planning permission, I wondered why this was hailed as such a departure.

Only yards from our sitting-room windows is a gigantic orange crane; its hook swings menacingly to and fro. You can set your clock by the drilling that starts at 8am, six days a week.

The former building of HM Prisons Department is being converted into flats. Or rather, it’s being demolished to be rebuilt, even taller and bulkier than its ugly 1960s predecessor, after the application sailed through plan-ning procedures. And, no, we aren’t compensated in any way for the – years of – disruption and noise.

This is no isolated example. In a location that was completely built-up when we moved in 12 years ago, we now have building sites on four sides, producing quadrophonic crashing and drilling. The magi-strates’ court was demolished in weeks; part of the Environment Department is well on the way down, and a wing of the Transport Department is next. 

One consequence is that I’m starting to get quite nostalgic for life among office blocks. Offices have the great merit of being quiet. The workers by and large don’t play loud music in front of open windows; they don’t have balconies to hang laundry or football flags from – and even if they did, they wouldn’t be allowed to. They don’t have noisy children; they don’t skateboard, and they keep themselves to themselves.

Now it might be that all the flats in the vicinity will be sold in the Far East and no one will actually move in – which would be a solution of a kind. London councils seem to like the idea of more housing, occupied or not. If the flats are occupied, though, there are implications that seem to have passed the councils by. Not one of the half-dozen conversions under construction comes with any shops on the ground floor. Yet people need services, and residents need more than sandwich and coffee bars. Until now, I could just about persuade myself that our fresh-food desert reflected the lack of real residents. But that is less and less true.

Meanwhile, the  developers build blocks that have no evidence of life beyond the entry phone; only dark doorways that foster crime. If it’s going to become even easier for developers to turn offices into housing – though it seems easy enough already – councils need to be much more demanding about what else developers must provide.

More female brains are what’s needed

Maya, the heroine played by Jessica Chastain, who tracks down Osama bin Laden in the new film Zero Dark Thirty, is supposed to be based on an actual CIA agent, who was at least as single-minded and lone-wolfish as her cinematic depiction. Real female spies have long fascinated, in part surely because they are so few. But also, I suspect, because when they are good, they tend to be very good. Witness Stella Rimington and Eliza Manningham-Buller who rose to head MI5 and MI6.

After Iraq, much was made of new groups set up inside the security services with a brief to challenge the mainstream view. I wonder, though, whether such institutional counterweights would be needed if women were well enough represented not to be shouted down or outmanoeuvred by the men. A healthier gender balance might make decision-making at once less hide-bound and more realistic, whether in finance, government – or spying.

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