Smart Cities – what problems are we trying to solve?

Many people are getting excited about Smart Cities and the Smart City Movement. Just over a week ago The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, outlined during London Tech Week his ambitions to make London the world’s leading ‘smart city’.

From the beginning I have been a Smart City sceptic. It’s not that I am against technology – far from it – but from the beginning I have seen too much of the thinking based around the holders and gatherers of data trying to work out how they can make money from it. Too little, if any, thinking, seems to be about what what human problems are we trying to solve. There is too much focus on the technology and not enough on the humans. It seems that the technology is in the driving seat rather than the real needs of people – all of our people.

It seems to me that many of the problems which we have in our villages, towns and cities are not technological problems but are social problems caused through the way we operative our society and the economic policies and philosophies which drive these social choices. We are not going to solve these problems through technology alone.

In the last few days I found a quote dating back to 1961 which I think we can do well to act on when we are thinking of Smart Cities. In the RIBA Journal of November 1961 (page 508) a paper from Henry T Swain at the BASA conference on The Basis for Design, at York Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies, pointed out the following:

“Before correct architectural answers can even be thought about, the right human questions have to be asked”.

I think we need to apply this thinking to Smart Cities: ‘Before correct technological answers can even be thought about, the right human questions have to be asked’ – before we all run off and spend a lot of taxpayers’ money, we need to ask ‘What human problems are we trying to solve?’

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Skills Shortages: has the UK construction industry been let down by its leaders and professional institutions?

Over the last month or so I keep seeing reports from various organisations which talk about the immediate and future shortage of skilled labour in the UK’s construction sector.

I am not going to summarise the various reports but will just highlight the following:

  • we have yet to recover fully the 400,000 construction jobs which were lost in the Great Recession;

  • to meet the demand implied from the UK Government’s policies and announcements, more than 230,000 new recruits will be needed into the industry between 2016-20,

  • and this doesn’t take into account the 700,000 existing workers who are due to retire over the next 10 years.

A report from the RICS warned that the skills shortage in the construction industry could threaten 27,000 projects a year by 2019, and that most surveying firms were having recruitment problems because of a lack of suitability qualified candidates.

These skills shortages include skilled trades and crafts, as well as in the various professions.

On top of this we have seen reports about wide-spread defects and sub-standard work in our new buildings (for example, the schools which have fallen down in Scotland; and one of the large house builders having to set aside millions of £s to rectify defects). A survey from The National House Building Council (NHBC) showed that 98% of new-home buyers who responded reported defects and a quarter of those had identified more than 16.

Taken together, I can’t help thinking that this highlights just how much the UK construction industry has been failed by its leaders and professional institutions over the last 20 to 30 years years.


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Building Legibility and Bad Urban Design

On a visit to Edinburgh I saw what I think are good examples of poor and good urban design.

On an evening walk around Leith (a short distance from central Edinburgh) I saw this building

Edinburgh September 2016 (6)

Upon seeing it I asked, ‘What is it? Is it a disused sports centre? Is it a large indoor shopping centre which is either empty or not yet completed?’ I just couldn’t tell. (I actually asked myself in a much less polite way than this).

Not being able to tell what a building is used for is an indication of a poorly designed building and is an example of poor urban design.

It turns out that this building is actually the Office of the Scottish Executive – something I only discovered by a large sign on the other side of the building.

Shortly afterwards I saw this building,

Edinburgh September 2016 (18)

which I immediately recognised as an old  Co-op store and it turns out that this is exactly what it used to be. I could ‘read’ the building from a distance and understand its use. Although it is no longer used by the Co-op I could tell what the building was designed to be, and to me this is good building and urban design as such legibility helps you to understand a place and its history.

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National Economy Slows Down and Local Economies

I have just seen this from an official paper from the UK Government which backs up what I have said here – According to Para 2.32 it is national economic policy which creates jobs:

Regeneration X Blog

We can do some things to help local economies grow and improve, and we ought to be doing these things. But at the end of the day, the success or otherwise of these local actions are affected by the national economy, and it certainly makes local improvements easier if we have a strong and improving national economy. If I think of the changes which have occurred to some of our cities over the last 15 years I can’t help reflecting how 15 or so years of general, and continuous, economic growth has had a huge positive general effect. So, this has led me to giving some general thoughts on the national situation. Nothing new, but I feel moved to say something anyway.

Last week’s economic growth figures for the UK’s economy suggests that the recovery which began last year has been stopped by actions taken by the Government and George…

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Don’t ignore areas of decline – make them better through parks

Hoensbrook, in the Netherlands, is a place which has experienced population decline. Over the last 20 years it has lost over 8,000 residents and this has resulted in redundant buildings becoming vacant and empty.

Some of these empty buildings have been demolished, but instead of leaving their sites empty and leaving a waste land, a new park has been created on these sites.

This is brilliant, and is one of the things which should be done when places change in a way which leaves buildings of no further use. Instead of leaving a waste land, the opportunities of change and population decline at a local level must be grabbed to make places better for those people who remain.

Can you imagine this happening in the UK?

Apart from a few examples ( which I am not aware of) the answer is ‘no’.

In the UK we even have Local Authorities selling off existing parks and public open spaces because they can’t afford to manage and maintain them.

In the UK we seem to find it acceptable to leave people in areas of change living in a sea of dereliction, and experience a poor environment; until some vaguely considered re-birth occurs through some unknown process, at some equally unknown time in the future.

I recommend this here, from World Landscape Architecture, which gives more details of what has been done at Hoensbroek :

In the UK we need to think, and act, a lot more like this.

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Solving the UK Housing Crisis – it’s Simple but not Simplistic

Solving the Housing Crisis

Whilst we are waiting for the Government’s Housing White Paper to be published I thought I would repeat, with a bit of an update, what I said over 2 years ago and have repeated in other places over the last few years.

I believe that although there is no single, magic bullet, solution to the housing crisis (despite many commentators and politicians coming forward with these single issue ‘solutions’) the solutions are actually quite simple. Therefore I thought I would jot down a few of my thoughts on how the housing crisis can be solved, although it must be stressed that it will take a long time to get back to any sort of equilibrium but this makes it more important that we make a start immediately.

I am not going to fill this note with figures and charts – the figures are out there and I haven’t the time to repeat them here. I will also write, as far as possible, in broad outlines rather than write a dissertation: there is more thinking and detail behind each of the following sections on how to make them work.

Increase Development by the Public Sector:

The UK has not built enough homes for over 30 years since ‘we’ stopped funding the development of Council Homes. The private sector has not substantially increased its annual output of homes over these years – there has, of course, been fluctuations over economic cycles but the private sectors hasn’t stepped in to fill the gap left by the public sector withdrawing from the market, thus destroying any theory that increased public sector house-building crowds out the private sector.

The experiment of leaving everything to the private sector has failed; it has been given long enough to prove or disprove the theory and the latter has triumphed. So, we have to bring back the public sector into the direct funding and development of new (and refurbished) homes. Lack of skills and capacity in Local Authorities will be raised as a reason for why this cannot be done, and in a short note like this I will not respond to this in detail (and there are responses), but will just say that if we are to solve the housing crisis will have to build up this capacity – it will take time, we are likely to have to start off slowly but we must make a start. If we are serious about building more homes we must get away from the prejudice of thinking that the public sector can only be bad and the private sector can only be right.

Switch subsidy from rents to building:

Some say that there is not the money available to fund more directly delivered public sector homes. I disagree: or rather I say that this is only true due to political prejudice.

Currently we are spending something like 95% of a very big sum each year on the subsidising of rents and only 5% on subsidising building of new supply – 30 or 40 years ago we spent the 95% of a smaller sum on building new supply and only 5% on subsidising rents. We have got to return to subsidising the building of new supply and to stop subsidising rents – the latter is never ending, and much of it goes into the pockets of private landlords thus subsidising the already wealthy instead of the needy.

Perhaps it is this continued welfare payment to the private sector which motivates some to say that we can’t afford to build more homes – it is not in their interest to increase supply and so reduce rents.

I mentioned ‘need’ above – we must also get back to public housing being for everyone in more balanced communities, not only for the ‘needy’.

The Planning System, and Making More Land and Sites Available:

The Planning System is complex and it takes far too long to get large developments through the planning process. The work required is so expensive that only relatively few, very large, developers can afford to have vast sums of money tied up doing this work before they can build and sell a single home. I believe we still need to have a plan based system, with room for flexibility where unexpected opportunities arise (after all, the successful Eden Project was dealt with as a departure from the local plan).

In theory, the point of the Local Development Plan process is to have the vast majority of the work already done so that developers don’t have to, but we must provide Local Planning Authorities with the financial, staff and capacity resources to go to the necessary level of detail, and maintain these resources over a long and guaranteed period.

Local Planning Authorities also have to be given the resources to identify, plan for, fund/finance and co-ordinate the delivery of the necessary infrastructure which enables the growth to happen (and which helps to get buy-in and support from their local community). These Planning Authorities also need to have the resources to take on those rich developers who decide that they will ignore the local plan and get their planning consent by out-gunning the Planners by the threat of court action and the threat of damages.

In addition, the Local Planning Authorities may need to over-identify and over-allocate sites in order to remove to some extent local monopolies from those who are fortunate to own those sites which have been allocated. However, this is not really viable where lots of new infrastructure is required to unlock, or respond to, development – but it can and must be done where there is spare infrastructure capacity.

We also need local plans and policies to be focussed on ‘Place-Making’ to help ensure that developers don’t maximise the value of every site regardless of what is best to make a place which works for people and complies with good urban design principles: and surely this is what the Planing System is for anyway?

In some areas Local Planning Authorities need to reduce planning uncertainty by working up master-plans and frameworks, design guides and creating Simplified Planning Zones. It will be seen to what extent Permission in Principle delivers this – but what I don’t like is the fact that central Government is imposing this across the board in circumstances which they determine rather than the Local Planning Authority.

We also need to get the support of the general public for development – this means giving them the confidence that all of the supporting infrastructure will be in place early on; that the new development will improve their lives rather than making them worse, and even giving them something closer to what they want – houses, rather than giving them flats in high-rise developments?

More Developers and Access to Land:

We need to have more housing developers, especially small and medium sized ones but one of the things which holds them back is access to land with planning consent.

Therefore Local Authorities (or some other body if Central Government doesn’t really want democratic localism) need to acquire sites (by CPO if necessary and in some cases by preference, so the increase in land values can be obtained for the public good and used to supply the necessary infrastructure); draw up a master-plan framework and set of design policies and guides which are loose but detailed enough to ensure that if a small developer does x,y, and z they automatically get the OK to build; and make serviced sites available in medium, small and micro sized plots.

Local Authorities need to have the funds to put in the infrastructure which is required to unlock development sites.

Small developers include self-builders and custom builders, and resources may need to be made available to build up a system where aspiring home owners; small builders; off-site manufactures; local firms of architects and designers can be brought together.

It must also be understood that small developers cannot handle large scale, high rise, developments but they can deal with houses.

To ease the cash-flows of developers Local Authorities (or Development Corporations) need to make the sites/plots available on building licences until developments are completed. The public sector also needs to retain ownership of the freeholds (in Holland local authorities own much of the developable land and hardly ever dispose of the freeholds, – just like the Duke of Westminster). Quite often we are pointed to Holland, Germany and Scandinavia as exemplars of how to build more, high quality, homes and places but it seems ‘we’ don’t want to borrow any of their methods.

New Towns, Garden Cities, Eco-Towns and Sustainable Communities Growth Areas:

We also need some of these but to do so we require all of the resources mentioned above. In some places there will be the need to set up Development Corporations which can concentrate exclusively on planning, delivering and creating sustainable communities. They need to acquire sites by CPO and at existing land values, and to keep the increase in land values in order to fund infrastructure.

All of what I have mentioned above about making sites and plots available to small developers and self-builders also applies here. Whoever is in charge also has to remember that they are trying to create a total-place, so jobs, the environment, and the local economy also have to be fully integrated – it is not only about homes.

Balancing the National Economy:

At a larger scale we do need to plan for and provide an economy which works for everyone in all parts of the country. Only in this way will the pressure on London be reduced to a more sensible level. Some people will always want to come to London but we have to make it easier for ambitious people to be successful everywhere and anywhere in the country, and for less ambitious people to still have a decent life – we really do need a much better standard for ‘ordinary’.

Don’t over complicate things

The Government and some ‘experts’ keep coming forward with initiatives and ideas to speed up housing delivery which tend to be focussed on a single issue but in practice just complicate things.

I don’t think we can simplify things to a single ‘magic bullet’ but it looks like the simplest way to build more homes and bring the prices down, so that ordinary people can afford them, is to re-introduce ‘Council’ housing on a scale large enough to provide real competition to the private sector developers. This will also require properly affordable rents and long-term security of tenure. It also requires occupation by choice rather than based on need.

This isn’t a fully detailed plan or manifesto, but rather a short outline of the few big things which we need to do if we really want to supply more homes which people can afford, in places they want to live. I do have the more detailed thinking of ‘how’ to build on the ‘what’. It isn’t very complicated but is more than doing one thing and expecting this to solve the problem.

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The Failure of Neoliberal Globalisation and how globalisation could save us.

I am not a fan of Jim O’Neill (the man who ‘invented’ BRIC), for reasons I won’t go into here, but I recommend that you listen to this programme on BBC Radio 4 ‘Fixing Globalisation’ – link here:

In this Jim has his eyes opened to the point that it is Neoliberal Globalisation which is the problem not globalisation itself.

It is Neoliberal Globalisation, focused on benefiting the rentiers and the financial systems which is failing and giving an interconnected world a bad name. The programme highlights that where globalisation is working better for most ‘ordinary’ people it is in countries which have refused to implement the neoliberal model.

In the programme Jim seems to have recently woken up to the issues and problems with Globalisation which I have been talking about for more than 30 years – even before I worked in economic, environmental, social and physical regeneration and sustainable growth.

Anyway, the programme is well worth listening to.

But what has this big picture stuff to do with the Regeneration and Sustainable Growth of cities, towns and places in the UK? Well, it is because it is easier to make a difference locally if we have a better (and sensible) national and world economy within which to work. We need to have not just ‘Places which Work for People’ but a world (and economic system) which works for everyone.

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