Sunday, 5 July 2009

Perverse policy and the Camberwell blocks

Central government has been responsible for some inane public policy decisions. Not least of these was a Soviet-style State commitment to high rise public housing. From 1956 to the late 1960s, the government distorted local decision making by providing councils with a generous subsidy for each storey built in excess of six. Stories seven to fourteen of the Camberwell blocks are not there because they are the most economic building solution, but because of a misplaced ideological distortion by the State. The nonsense is that the spaces between the blocks - nowadays car parking, vandalised play spaces and dog-toilet grass, with a few sad looking Korean cherries stuck here and there - are by necessity large, and low-rise traditional terraces could have housed the same number of people on the same footprint.

When the private sector builds high-rise, as at Canary Wharf, in the absense of site constraints the buildings will be square, or even circular like the Gherkin, giving maximum floor space for minimum cost; the cost of constructing and maintaining the envelope of a building shaped like a matchstick, and the increased heat losses from the larger surface area, is hardly attractive to those who have to make commercial returns from such structures. Surface area and volume. It's why mice freeze to death in temperatures that leave bigger creatures unaffected.

If the cladding, the infill panels and the envelope of buildings such as the Camberwell block are found to be at fault in the fire, creating an inherent risk, it may be cheaper to flatten them than re-clad them.

The TV interviews I've seen with survivors and residents of neighbouring blocks suggests a resident population rich in Nigerians, Brazilians, Portuguese and Vietnamese, with a sprinkling of the English middle class living in rented RTBs. Comments have mentioned practices such as barbeques on the balconies. If there is truth in this, it adds another danger. High rise flats designed for a culture that has never been short of cooking fuel, and whose cuisine has therefore refined long roasting and slow simmering, relatively low fire-risk cooking methods, may not be as safe when used by cultures whose cuisine has developed rapid high temperature open frying or grilling, often in the open air, in response to traditional scarcity of cooking fuels. Probably not a major risk, but an additional one nonetheless.


Anonymous said...

When you wrote 'matchstick' did you mean 'matchbox'?

Yokel said...

Even not very high rise flats don't survive when common sense gets a chance. In the Brent area of NW London, 5 or six storey blocks at Wembley and Harlesden have come down to be replaced by proper terraced and semi-detached houses. Its what the tenants want!

Blue Eyes said...

Why did they go mad for high-rise then if the same number of "units" can be provided at low-rise?

banned said...

Blue Eyes, because they were 'system built ' ie cheap ( supposedly ).