The High Life: Living high up


This podcast was produced and presented by Lee Millam

Lee Millam has lived in high-rise blocks of flats in London for years.  In this podcast he explores the highs and lows of living high up, and also asks whether high rise is a viable option for tackling current problems in the housing market.

Lee Millam:  I used to live on the 16th floor, then moved to my current flat which is on the 8th floor.

Even after all these years, I am still fascinated by how incredibly light my living space is. I love the views from the windows – and the sense of the whole city being below me. I watch the trains as they go in and out of the train station – they look like toys; the cars as they travel on the roads and people going about their business.

Up in my flat I get a different perspective on the way the city of London moves.

I wanted to know about other people’s experience of living up high. Firstly, though, I take you to The London School of Economics, to talk to Paul Cheshire, Professor of Economc Geography about the housing crisis.

Paul Cheshire: There is a housing crisis because we have been constantly not building enough houses for more than thirty years so we have a shortfall of building compared to what we should have been building in England of between 1.6 and 2.3 million houses.

The lack of building is a symptom of the problem.. But the root of the problem is our planning system. Simply, it does not permit you to build. And there is very little land; it is highly constrained with our urban containment boundaries around all our major cities – the Green-Belt covers nearly thirteen percent of England for example. But equally, we have height restrictions so you can’t build upwards either.

LM: And is this just a problem for London or is this a problem across the country?

PC: The housing is worst in London and the pressure on space is worst in London but it is a problem across the country; worst in the South East of England. Outside London, Oxford has the most expensive housing relative to incomes

Vox pops: I like living High up because, living in London, it is very hard to see horizons but when I come home, I can see a distance. I have a lot of light; I feel safer because I can leave my windows open without anyone coming in. But really it is the fact that I can see a long distance, and people can’t actually look into my flat. So there is a sense of space, a sense of freedom and a sense of privacy that I really enjoy.

Paul Cheshire : Basically the planning system zones so much land as off limits, you simply can’t build on it. Green-field land, or green-belt land, covers 13% of the surface of England, compared to cities which cover only 10% of the surface area of England. So all the people in England are crammed into ten percent of our space and we don’t allow any more. And as people get richer then they try to buy more space; they try to get better homes with bit of gardens and bigger rooms.

LM: But some of us are going to have to compromise, maybe live in flats?

PC: Of course, some people indeed want to live in flats, or flats can be very suitable for some people. But is it difficult to build them too because you can’t build high. And flats are much more effective and efficient if they are in relatively large chucks of housing construction.

Vox pop: I have been asked to say how I would feel about living in a high rise flat, and I definitely wouldn’t like it. I think the only advantage would be the view. But I think I would feel quite cut off from the rest of the world if I lived quite high up. I would see it as a barrier to the outside world because you can’t just open your front door and be outside and there is all the palaver of using the stairs, and having to depend on the lift. And I could get quite scared, if I was stuck in the lift with someone that looked a bit frightening. Yeah, so I really don’t think I would like to live very high up. I sort of like to think that it is easy to get out, and living in a high-rise block, I wouldn’t be able to dash in and out of the flat all the time which is something that I am able to do at the moment.

Vox pop: I don’t think there is anything that I don’t like about it. I really do enjoying living high up. I would always, if I had the choice, I would always go for somewhere where I live high up. With a big …  well, actually it’s more the views. If I lived high up and had a building opposite me that is also high up, I wouldn’t enjoy that. It’s actually the sense of space that I have, and you have a greater chance of having that when you live high up.

Vox pop: My tower block that I live in is twenty-three stories high. I like the fact that it has an aerial view and I also like the fact that is it quieter up than it is on the ground-level.

Vox pop: I think the view, particularly in the City of London here, the view is towards the Barbican, and the City generally. And I can see the Shard; I can see the Cheesegrater, bit of the Walkie-Talkie, all the buildings, so yeah, I love it basically.

PC: Of the high-rise flats that there are in Britain, probably a rather high proportion were rather poorly built, been inadequately maintained and have been, sort of, ghettoes for poor, deprived people. So out in the Home Counties, the Green-belt, if you like is the ghetto for the rich. It’s discriminatory zoning – keeping out the poor; where the high-rise social housing that was built in the 60’s and 70’s tend to be a ghetto for the poor. That doesn’t mean to say you can’t build perfectly nice, highly acceptable, well-managed, blocks of apartments. Go to New York, you’ll find that these are some of the most desirable housing in New York.

Vox pop: There are times when I feel a bit isolated, but then, as I said, I like the view so I choose to stay put, you know, stay living up high.

PC: It is only worth building high if the land is expensive in the first place. It is perfectly true that in London, land, a lot of land, all land is very, very expensive. But you can only build high where the planning permission permits it. People may not realise this, but for most of London, in it is impossible to build high, the planning system doesn’t allow it. Where there are high-rise blocks going up, it is an accident. – here there happens to be a little spot, a little parcel of land where the regulations do not absolutely prohibit building high.

There is an increasing number of housing have-nots. Owner occupation is falling as a form of tenure, for the first time in nearly one hundred years. It is creating huge divisions of assets of wealth within society – and it is going to get worse because the demand for housing goes on rising against almost totally constricted supply.

I think we only have two options: we either have a strategically informed, carefully thought out and very radical reform of our planning system or we’ll find down the road, we are going to run into crisis after crisis; housing is going to become progressively more unaffordable and ultimately the system will simply collapse in disarray. It’s much better to reform the planning system in a considered way, carefully and fairly quickly than to let the problem just build up and get worse and worse, which it will.


  • The music in this podcast is NME of State by Curha
  • Photograph of Golden Lane flats in London by Richard Holt

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