Why Brownfield is not enough to solve London’s housing crisis

Look at all this lovely brownfield land. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty.

The first of a short series looking at different options for solving London's housing problems.  

In the debate about London’s housing shortage, “brownfield” is often talked of as if there were vast swathes of unused land waiting to be reclaimed. The truth is, almost all London’s land is already used for something – and changing its use is slow, expensive and hard.

Brownfield must deliver much of the housing London needs, but a new report by Quod and homelessness charity Shelter finds that brownfield will not be enough – and urges the next mayor not to rule out other approaches.

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So how is London’s land used? About two-thirds of the developed land already has housing on it. Of the rest, most is used for transport (including 15,000 km of roads), town centres and vital urban infrastructure like schools and hospitals.

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That leaves about 9 per cent of London, which is essentially “employment land”. This is used for all sorts of things – light industry, distribution depots, leisure, retail warehouses, sewage works.

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To build housing on this land means removing something else first. That can and should be done in many places – but it is slow, difficult and expensive. It may mean finding a new place for existing uses, decontaminating land, and building new stations or other infrastructure.

This painstaking land-use change is happening in many places already – so what scope is there for more to be done?

About half of non-housing brownfield land that is currently in employment uses – the half that is most suitable for redevelopment – is already earmarked for change in the mayor’s “Opportunity Areas”. Tens of thousands of homes are being built in places such as Kings Cross, Stratford and Nine Elms. This is already part of London’s current land supply.


If brownfield is to deliver more on top of these Opportunity Areas, some very difficult choices need to be made. Getting more out of brownfield is not an “easy option” – and if brownfield is our only option it is highly unlikely that London will be able to build enough new homes quickly enough.

The history of successful brownfield developments in London – like Kings Cross or Vauxhall/Nine Elms/Battersea – is that it can take many decades to deliver, and may finally need major public investment in infrastructure.

We can get more from brownfield, but it will not be quick and it will not be cheap. And we cannot expect it to deliver all the homes London so urgently needs. To fill the current gap in delivery using brownfield alone would mean the equivalent of another Olympic Legacy sized scheme, every three months or so, on top of what we’re already building. Other options simply must not be ruled out.

We cannot carry on as we are and expect housing delivery to double. We have to change things if we want enough homes. The level of housebuilding we need now has only been (briefly) achieved twice in the past – once through major public investment in council housing, and once through major expansion on greenfield land. 

Throughout London’s history, the private sector has never built more than 18,000 homes a year on brownfield land. To meet the city’s housing needs, we have to consider other options.

Tomorrow, we'll look at one of those options: garden cities.

Barney Stringer is a director at regeneration consultancy Quod. This article was originally posted on his blog.

The firm’s report, “Brownfield is Not Enough”, published with housing charity Shelter, is available here.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.