“We’re denser than Manhattan!” The Isle of Dogs responds to claims of NIMBYism

Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs. Image: Getty.

The Conservative councillor for Canary Wharf Ward, Tower Hamlets, responds to criticism that his ward is fully of NIMBYs.

The Isle of Dogs was accused last week of being full of NIMBYs who perhaps deserve imprisonment for objecting to new homes. Actually, they deserve a reward for coping with the delivery of more new homes and office space than anywhere else in the UK – and suffering from construction related disruption, noise and dust in the meantime.

The accusation was made after we objected to 2,000 new homes on the ASDA Crossharbour supermarket site, on the grounds that it would lead to the loss of a local petrol station and overshadowing of the fantastic Mudchute City Farm. It was suggested we should roll over and let it be built, London has a housing crisis and nothing should stop new homes, and anyway who needs cars when you have Crossrail coming? 

The housing crisis is not our fault: on the Isle of Dogs, we have been building more new homes than anywhere else in London. We will have the tallest and densest residential buildings in the UK: buildings like the The Spire, also the tallest in western Europe at 241 meters (791 feet), with 861 apartments; the 75-storey, 239 meter high, 984 apartment Landmark Pinnacle, built on the site of a former pub; or the 68 storey 220 meter high South Quay Plaza with 1,284 apartments in three towers.

At the end of 2016 we had over 60 tall buildings – those over 20 storeys in height – with planning permission. The housing crisis has occurred because the rest of London has not delivered at the same pace as we have.

But we cannot continue this rate of growth without a major investment in infrastructure – and even then, is it sustainable to be building a place denser then Manhattan while most of the rest of London goes undeveloped and remains low density? How do we ensure that the best place to live in London remains so, and that we build rather than destroy a community through poor planning?

We have two great problems. The first is the lack of awareness about the scale of development happening here: the GLA and Tower Hamlets Council almost seem embarrassed about what is happening. One forecast suggests a population of 150,000 people in the future, compared to about 56,000 today and 12,500 in the early 1980s.

Under construction right now we have residential buildings of 75, 68, 67, 60, 55, 56 and 53 storeys in height – plus many more between 40 and 50 storeys (the tallest residential building in the UK right now is the 50 storey St Georges Wharf tower). Three minutes walk from ASDA is the recently completed 45 storey Baltimore Wharf tower. Next to that will be the UK’s largest co-living site, with 706 apartments with shared facilities.

We have 19,500 homes with planning permission, and counting all sites where there is development activity underway we get to a total of around 36,000 new homes. The GLA would also like to add office space for another 110,000 workers at Canary Wharf adding to the 120,000 there today: surprisingly few live locally.


The densest small place in the UK according to the Office for National Statistics is Millharbour, in the middle of the island, with a population density equivalent to 90,000 people per km2 as of 2014. By the end of 2017, when two new developments complete construction on Millharbour the density will be around 120,000 people. The Upper East Side of Manhattan has 44,000 people. The next densest place in the UK has 57,000 people per km2.

This is all happening within 25 minutes’ walk of the ASDA site. We are also an island – and a floodplain – with rivers on three sides, and motorways and docks on our northern boundary. We only have two road exits, on either side of the island: our beautiful docks limit transport connectivity.

You would expect this level of growth to attract record levels of infrastructure investment: Canary Wharf is the third most important economic centre in the UK, and half of the UKs internet traffic goes through data centres in Blackwall. But this is our second big problem: a lack of new infrastructure to support that growth. Money earnt on the Isle of Dogs to fund new local infrastructure has historically been spent elsewhere in Tower Hamlets: we are the local cash cow.

In fact, rather than gaining new services and infrastructure we are losing them.

For example, last year we had four petrol stations in the E14 post code area. Two have been knocked down for redevelopment, ASDA is due to go and the last one Texaco on Cotton Street is in a physically small site which is often inaccessible due to traffic jams waiting to enter the Blackwall Tunnel. Yet the E14 postcode is the fastest growing place in the UK: including Poplar, we may well achieve a population of 250,000 people. That’s one fuel station for a place bigger than Brighton, York or Hull.

Something will get developed at the ASDA site: developers already have planning permission for 850 homes up to 23 storeys, yet had wanted to replace it with 2,000 up to 38 storeys. But we should not sacrifice quality of life by allowing anything to be built just because there is a crisis: that just stores up different problems.

London usually rates poorly on quality of life in international surveys and we need to do more to remedy this. Rather than building homes which are poorly thought out, which are not beautiful, which worsen the provision of infrastructure and which reduce the quality of life of existing and future residents we need to build the best homes possible: BIMBY (Beauty in my Backyard), not NIMBY.

It is also why we set up the Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood Planning Forum to ensure development is sustainable. Such a unique place requires unique solutions.

And if you do not believe any of the above I am happy to give you a personal tour of the area.

Andrew Wood is a Conservative councillor for Canary Wharf ward on Tower Hamlets council.

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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