Jimmy Black

Jimmy Black

Architect Malcolm Fraser did the impossible at the first Andrew Nicoll Lecture (September 22). He made some revolutionary ideas seem sensible.

He says we should stop building houses out of toxic materials, such as timber coated in preservative. We should stop trying to make new build houses airtight by wrapping them up in polythene. Houses need to breathe … so do the people in them. He gave a favourable mention to Albyn Housing Society’s Fithouses, built offsite by Carbon Dynamics on the Cromarty Firth.

He said the fashion for knocking down sound buildings has to stop. Equalise VAT on repair and new build, take away the incentive to demolish, and turn volume housebuilders into volume house repairers. And he insisted we should build social rented homes with the money we currently spend on housing benefit.

Then he said councils should have the power to force the sale of land. That would tackle land banking, where developers sit on property until prices rise. He pointed out that land values increase massively when councils allow a change of use from, say, industrial to housing. Fraser said councils, not landowners, should benefit, and use the money for infrastructure.

Placemaking came next. He was unimpressed by the layout of many new build estates, the wasteful way so many use land and the failure to provide communal areas where communities can form. “Gobons” … the useless decorative bits stuck on to volume built boxes … came in for scathing criticism. Spend the money on better design and quality was his view. He favoured an updated version of Edinburgh’s Colonies; flats with their own gardens, angled to ensure good sunlight, providing privacy and spaces to be sociable.

Fraser is lobbying hard at Scottish Government level for change to current practice and he believes the important folks are listening. Introducing compulsory sales means taking on powerful lobbies and will require political courage.

Andrew Nicoll was a creative and innovative architect. Funding permitting, there will be another Andrew Nicoll lecture at Hospitalfield House in 2018.

  • A former convener of housing at Dundee City Council, Jimmy Black now works for Dundee Voluntary Action on Technology Enabled Care and writes here in a personal capacity.