We’re not building skyscrapers in Stratford to protect the views from Richmond Park

At least these deer will have a good view. Image: Getty.

You're familiar, I assume, with the acronym NIMBY. Literally "Not in my back yard", it refers to any group of people who don't want things built near them because, well, they prefer fields and trees and chemically contaminated flood plains and so on.

You're probably also used to the fact that, by virtue of being pushy and enthusiastic and well-established in their community, NIMBY pressure groups find it easy to get their voices heard, in a way those who'd benefit from new housing development – younger, poorer, more transient – do not.

What you may not have realised, though, is quite how far those back yards can extend, when NIMBYs put their minds to it. Here's a picture of the Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park, in south west London, with a group campaigning to protect that park's view of St Paul's Cathedral:

A youthful and dynamic group, I'm sure you'll agree.

What they are protecting, exactly, requires some explanation. London contains no fewer than 13 protected views: legal requirements built into the planning system to ensure that certain buildings are visible from certain places. These have a direct knock on effect on what you can build where: you won't get planning permission for anything that blocks the view of the Palace of Westminster from Primrose Hill, for example.

 

The protected views. Image: cmglee/Wikimedia Commons.

One of these protected views is the vista that looks from King Henry VIII's Mound in Richmond Park to St Paul's Cathedral. Basically, Olney and her gang are fighting valiantly to defend that gap in the trees.

It's quite hard to spot what they're looking at, so let's zoom in. I've circled it in red to help you. Here's the view in all its glory.

Thanks, Sarah, what would we do without you.

So, basically, these campaigners all trying to protect a rubbish view of something 10 miles away that you can barely see anyway. That seems silly enough, in a city with this sort of housing crisis, but it’s actually worse than it sounds.

That’s because the protection afforded by the planning system doesn't just stop developers from building something between Richmond and St Paul's: it also stops them from building anything behind it that may make the view less pretty. It’s not enough to be able to see St Paul’s: these nice old people don’t want to take the risk that they can see anything new at the same time.

Where does your back yard end? If you live near Richmond Park, 15 miles away it turns out.

This problem may be silly, but it is not theoretical. From Paul Wellman at  Estates Gazette:

Six high-rise projects in Stratford could be in jeopardy due to a historic viewing corridor from Richmond Park.

Architects Allies and Morrison have confirmed their proposals for 30- and 40-storey towers, as part of the Olympicopolis proposals, are to be redesigned and reduced in height.

This comes soon after conservation charity Friends of Richmond Park called on London mayor Sadiq Khan to halt the construction of the 42-storey Manhattan Loft Gardens, E20.

I'm not going to bore you by quoting figures about the scale of London's housing need for the thousandth time. I'm not going to bang on about the other various ways in which we tie our hands as to what we can build or where.

I'm just going to note, very simply, that even at one of London's largest brownfield sites – an area which the government has spent a fortune on reviving, which has some of the best transport connections in the whole of London – development is being stymied by a bunch of old people 15 miles away who don't want to take the risk they might just about see a skyscraper behind St Paul's when they're out walking the dog.

And the local MP is on their side.


We are never going to solve the housing crisis in this country, are we.

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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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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