With summer parties in full swing, reasons to be cheerful are currently rather tricky for the world of property, architecture and planning. 

Paul Finch

Paul Finch

As far as London is concerned, we are all waiting for three key public inquiry decisions, endorsed or otherwise by a secretary of state, Michael Gove, whose own future is a matter for speculation. Will he be moved/promoted/sacked as prime minister Rishi Sunak prepares his newish team for the forthcoming general election? There are some who are wishing so, simply because Gove seems so opposed to property.

The inquiry decisions in question are M&S on Oxford Street, the double appeal into alternative tower designs at Borough for Great Portland Estates and the Mitsubishi redevelopment of the London Weekend Television site on the South Bank. The respective architects, Pilbrow, AHMM and Make, will no doubt be on tenterhooks as much as their clients.

But then so is much of the developer/investor community, grappling with the implications of slashed asset valuations and scant signs of a truly vibrant office market enjoying a return to work. On a recent visit to City of London offices as part of a judging panel, I was struck by the minimal number of people at work – and this was on a Wednesday, not the zombie world of Monday or Friday.

PW070723_Michael Gove_Flickr_cred Number 10

Source: Flickr / Number 10

Gove: the housing secretary appears to be very opposed to housebuilding

There is an argument that average occupancy rates were only ever 65% maximum, and that current rates, at 35% to 45%, are therefore not as bad as one might have expected. Transport for London reports fare income back at almost pre-pandemic levels. But are people going to work or play? Anecdotally, many employers are seriously reducing the amount of workspace they are prepared to pay rent for, and are happy to accommodate the desire of many office staff to work from home at least one day a week, and preferably two or even more. The latter because staff retention is considered a smart strategy rather than insisting on office attendance and the risk of people leaving.

Pressure to turn up

This is not true of architects’ offices, where there is greater pressure on people to turn up and contribute to office culture, team working and the creative interaction that is extremely difficult to replicate online. But it seems to be true for more conventional office users. Things may change: the downturn in the economy, plus continuing inflation, means redundancies are already taking place in architect offices, antennas for the economy. When this happens, people begin to think it may be a good idea for their bosses to see them working in the office. It is less stressful to dump the invisible.

Architects are nervous on several counts. First, clients are having second thoughts about whether to proceed with projects, particularly office schemes that have yet to start or are still in planning. The risk/reward ratio is increasingly under scrutiny. Second, there is a problem with housing development as a result of increasing pressure for second staircases and the reluctance of investors to take on projects without them because of potential reputational damage if something was to happen to a one-staircase development.

The mayor of London could do something about this, by simply announcing that where a second staircase is incorporated, any lost apartments will be compensated by an automatic planning permission for an increase in height, enabling their replacement. This might unlock some of the estimated 100,000 units currently on hold.

There is also an underlying feeling that government is anti-development and anti-architects. The legal challenge mounted by Berkeley Homes against a decision by Gove to block a rural housing scheme is a case in point. Among other things, he criticised the designs as being “generic”. You must wonder whether he thought about this or just blurted it out. Does he think, for example, that Georgian London is an example of generic architecture? Of course. But if so, does he think it was all a terrible mistake? Of course not.

Things are strange when a Conservative government appears to be opposed to housebuilding, while Labour trumpets its support for it (without any credible indication of how it would go about generating it).

Perhaps it is all a result of a belief that building is bad because, as we are frequently and monotonously told, construction is responsible for the oddly round figure of 40% of carbon emissions; alternatively that it is a suspiciously precise figure of 42%. Both are nonsense, since most of the carbon emissions over the lifetime of a building are the result of the economic activities taking place within them. Let’s hope those activities last for at least a bit longer. Say, 99 years.

Paul Finch is programme director of the World Architecture Festival