Politics and Architecture

Blog — 28 Apr 2015

As we near election week, it is timely to ponder how politics affects our profession. The building industry has always been a barometer of the economic fortune of the country. As we have recently seen, one new idea from Ed Milliband devalued shares in the major house builders by £200m in 24 hours. The result of the election will affect all of us in the property world, but the debate has been dominated by the minority parties, which adds a further degree of uncertainty.

Single-issue politics and the end of the two party system is also reflected locally, and it is at this level that we architects engage most closely with the public. Ten years ago public consultation on a planning application would have been reserved for major infrastructure projects or town centre redevelopments. Today it is more or less a pre-requisite of a planning application for a relatively minor replacement commercial building. Inevitably an industry has evolved around this, and PR companies are now an integral part of the pre planning application team.

This is not surprising when you consider the impact of the internet and social media. It is very easy to set up an online petition about a local issue that will garner thousands of supporters from across the globe. No one monitors who is behind them or validates the questions that they raise, so it is easy for these democratic tools to be hijacked by individuals with extreme or eccentric views, ultimately devaluing the debate and reducing their impact and influence.

The internet has replaced human interaction in so many fields, from shops and banks to dating and gossip. It is instantaneous and disposable, your thoughts and ideas are virtual, and momentary. Today you can probably still find an old postcard in a junk shop that describes a point in time 100 years ago. I don’t think our tweets will be re-read in 2115.

But hopefully our buildings will last a bit longer than that, and in London we are in a great age of rebuilding, something akin to the Georgian and then the late Victorian and Edwardian era where the London we know was created.

The last five to ten years have seen London transform itself. It is being modernised and enlarged, scaled up and regularised, it will, in effect, become a new city. Which is why anti gentrification protests are increasingly noisy and well organised. The protestors usually resist change, they are essentially nostalgic, trying to preserve an age that has gone and cannot be recreated. Nevertheless they have a point, London is potentially morphing into a dull corporate shadow of itself, independent and creative thinking pushed to the margins as the centre becomes a monopoly board for cash rich investors and speculators.

So we should encourage the democratic process, invite debate and listen to opinion, it would be foolish to ignore them.