New London Architecture

Meet the expert - Carl Vann

Monday 11 March 2024

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Carl Vann

Partner
Pollard Thomas Edwards

David Taylor meets Pollard Thomas Edwards partner Carl Vann discuss the findings of the Expert Panel on housing and some potential ways forward for the challenged sector…

David Taylor  
Hi, Carl, how are you?
 
Carl Vann  
Hi David! I’m very well. How are things with you?
 
David Taylor  
Very good, thank you. Thank you very much for your time as chair of NLA’s expert panel on housing. I wanted to try and pick your brains about that whole period. I know you're still on the panel, but as chair, what would you say were the key takeaways from that time? And did anything surprise you?
 
Carl Vann  
I suppose firstly it's probably important to say it's my third year on the panel, but I was pleased to be asked to chair last year. That's where I stepped in to continue the program that's been really well directed by Jo McCafferty. It's a real pleasure working with Jo. We have an excellent panel of experts; I really enjoyed the discussions and I was very impressed with the generosity of the panel. We had some quite ambitious working groups, so I learned lots from the contributions. And then it was my job, which I managed to achieve, to capture the proposals in the New London Agenda.  
I think the most interesting thing about the housing panel was probably the context that you need to consider that we are working in, in London and to an extent the UK. Since we've all been back to work and leisure, I would suggest housing is probably the sector that has been most in flux since the pandemic. There's the post-Grenfell policy indecision, especially the moving target to the second staircase...
 
David Taylor  
Yes indeed!
 
Carl Vann  
...and it's a period where housing associations, including those on the panel, were consumed with that urgent need to tackle cladding, mould, or rising tenants' energy bills. The developers on the panel that had land options were not able to make those conventional mixed tenure models stack up due to inflation, interest rates, etc. And then, most importantly, I think we were all presiding over key decisions in an industry that accounts for nearly 40% of UK carbon emissions. During the time we were working together, we observed extensive movements on the housing programs we were working on, rising rents, and then increasing levels of people experiencing homelessness. That was always an agenda item raised by Miranda McLaren, who wanted to point that out. I guess the reason for that context is that we were often in danger of quite a negative 'moanfest' (laughs). But the interesting thing for me was that with an expert panel by their nature, people have volunteered their expertise and time. So, they're problem solvers. They're optimistic about London's future. And all that energy and passion quickly moved into strategies to look for positive change.
 
David Taylor  
If you had a notional magic wand for housing, what would the single thing be that you would wish for at the top of your list? If you were that magician?
 
Carl Vann  
Wow! Well, London needs more homes. But it needs to use the homes that it already has better. We know that there is extensive under-occupancy in some of London's stock. We currently tax for moving home too highly, through stamp duty. So downsizing is unattractive and unviable. We need to co-locate homes more. Homes combine really well with other uses. They contribute to the viability and the footfall. But more importantly, we need homes in the right places, so next to infrastructure. connected to nature. I was in Stratford East Village, at the weekend. Have you been recently? 
 
David Taylor  
I have. 
 
Carl Vann  
I was really struck actually how it has matured into a really multi-layered neighbourhood. I met people that knew London but hadn't been there. And we had lunch in a sort of locally supported business initiative. So, it's really resisted the retail chains there.
 
David Taylor  
I think I know the place...
 
Carl Vann  
Yeah, a really distinctive character. And we were looking at that as a place where it's not very London-like, actually. Just the scale of the urban blocks, the open spaces in between, feel very European. It's not like the other London villages. But what they noticed was that it was completely criss-crossed by the river network. So, every vista we looked at you could see nature rewilded and historic marshland.
 
David Taylor  
And it's very car tamed as well. That's what struck me.
 
Carl Vann  
Exactly. That's it. So, whilst we were eating, the kids could play in the park outside the restaurant - they didn't have to cross the road to get there. And the whole thing worked as a kind of piece for a family to live in London. I was really impressed with it.
 
David Taylor  
The rental model is to the fore there, isn't it?
 
Carl Vann  
That's right. Yeah. And so, they and the landlord have very much choreographed that piece, to make that work. So, any resisting of chain dominance, the character is very much developed from the from the ground floor activity, which is, I guess local to that neighbourhood.
 
David Taylor  
So, in a sense, are you holding that up as a potential future model for London?
 
Carl Vann  
I think so. I mean, it's not been without its problems. I moved to London just as the New Labour administration came to power. London was comparatively affordable to live and study and live centrally in, start a career. And in that time, since then, London has become more connected, more innovative, and more of a potent brand, all the way up to winning the Olympics in 2012. And it seems like the village that would follow that would be this new model for London. And so, whereas that's been a real success, to an extent, I sort of watched a lot of the rest of London start to eat itself. (laughs) So, in spite of the problems that London now has - the vulnerability, the inequality that is shown, I did think that that was quite a successful neighbourhood. And quite an interesting model, albeit, as I say, not a London village as we normally would plan.
 
David Taylor  
Are you optimistic about this broad sector housing under new legislatures - i.e., changing governments, either at the local or national level?
 
Carl Vann  
We have been tracking that; it's been really difficult to understand what the likely changes are going to be. We need to align our funding for affordable homes. The model is broken in London, and the inactivity is going to cause catastrophic problems with things for the next generation. So, lots of our recommendations were looking at not only the next mayoral role and leadership, but also the next central government leadership. We had a member from DLUHC on the panel who gave a really balanced view of the central government position. Yes, it's going to be interesting to see how they develop their agendas for housing in the coming months - but there's not much so far.
 
David Taylor  
On this tack, I noticed that in one of the pieces you wrote you had a call - this long-held call - for harmonizing VAT. I wondered whether you thought this should be, or should have been, a bigger campaign than it has, for the upcoming elections.
 
Carl Vann  
Yeah, we, as an organization agreed that we would try and voice that, at every opportunity. Because that is working in direct conflict with the carbon agenda. Every time we look at a project and try to work with what is already in the place, and look at a retrofit refurbishment solution, the VAT is usually the death nail in the viability study to make that possible. And so, until that is a level playing field with new build, it's in direct opposition to what we're trying to achieve to reduce carbon through demolishing buildings that are probably still fit for a purpose. Additionally, on what Labour needs to do, the New Towns initiative is obviously in keeping with past labour administrations, and is welcomed, but needs to have immediate impact to have a legacy beyond a political term. But perhaps more importantly for London is the ‘Planning Passport’ for urban brownfield sites and government-backed mortgages for first time buyers. We need to see the detail, but these initiatives, alongside a realistic affordable housing grant programme will give confidence back to a housing market which holding its breath.
 
David Taylor  
So, a few other questions relating to your time on the on the panel: what's happened to modular? Where are we on that story?
 
Carl Vann  
I still think MMC is an important part of the future of construction and housing. And by MMC, I mean, a componentized approach to building, whether that be the facades, panelised, systems, pods, etc. I think that fully modular housing is only suited to certain types of housing, which are hotels, student housing, and those types. For the larger family housing approaches, it is really difficult. We've had mixed experience of it through the last few years; we did a fully modular housing scheme in Essex, which was very low carbon, it was all cross-laminated timber. The houses feel great to be inside, they're very solid. They're very thermally efficient. They fitted on the back of a lorry from a factory very close by. But I think that the amount of R&D that is necessary, and the amount of investment upfront additionally, modular is pretty prohibitive, actually.
 
David Taylor  
You mentioned earlier about the need to steer clear from 'moanfests' during these meetings. How do you stay optimistic and what are the grounds for optimism within housing in London and beyond over the next two or three years, say?
 
Carl Vann  
We stay optimistic when we house Londoners and it’s a success. There is nothing more satisfying for architects and the whole development team, I think. Our discussions last year definitely moved from moaning to solutions. We presented the solutions to Kate Gordon, at one point. She is Senior Policy Advisor at the GLA, and she gave feedback on our proposals for the New London Agenda. But she also described her experience of being a wheelchair user in London.  I'm sure she wouldn't mind me sharing that, but that was some of the most powerful feedback that we've received on the panel. It was a Londoner's story of their experiences. And you can't really argue with that. And that really reinforced the panel's view that this year, we would slightly change direction from that top-down approach to more of a bottom-up approach where we look at the lived experience of Londoners and how the information from the neighbourhoods that we've created and the new housing that we've created can influence what we do next. There is a real wealth of post-occupancy data being collected across London, including within the organization; some of this year's panel. So, drawing all of that together, and all those stories, we think will be invaluable to shape how we undertake regeneration going forward. I suppose to me, that's the most optimistic thing, because whilst many of us have been working in that way for decades, my instinct is that more than ever, we need to engage really deeply with our communities, on the future of neighbourhoods. We need to deploy co-production approaches, and we need to take the whole community on that development journey. And what we've seen is that communities are often able to make quite sophisticated compromises if they're given all the tools to do so. And if trust is achieved between all parties. So, I think going forward, that slash-and-burn approach to regeneration just won't leave enough fertility in the soil of London for a community to flourish. So, the projects we're working on now, really magnify understanding for place and how the future will best use what's in that existing ecosystem and what 'additives' I suppose you need to add to that. And when we get that right, yeah, that's really satisfying. That's what gets us out of bed in the morning.
 
David Taylor  
Well, thank you very much for running through all of that. It's given me some optimism as well, so that's useful for a Monday morning. So, thanks, Carl.
 
Carl Vann  
(laughs) Yes! No Problem! Good to speak to you, David.
 
David Taylor  
All right. Cheers.



David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Carl Vann

Partner
Pollard Thomas Edwards



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