Here's how we solve the housing crisis

This green and pleasant land. Image: Getty.

Great news, Londoners: the capital doesn't have Britain's biggest housing crisis. Let's hear it for Oxford where, relative to wages, prices are even worse. Yay, Oxford, woo.

This thrilling news comes from a report from the Centre for Cities think tank, published today, on the never less than entertaining train wreck that is British housing policy. The report as a whole is kind of a good news/bad news thing.

Take the bad news first. In the most over-heated cities – which also include Cambridge, Brighton and Bristol – high housing costs are a side effect of economic success. These places have lots of jobs, so attract lots of new residents, but because they're not building enough homes to house all these people, prices are inevitably going up.

This doesn't just hurt those paying through the nose for a roof over their heads, the report argues: “This matters to the national economy as well, because these cities are the most productive”. So, high house prices are hurting us.

There's more. Recent housing policy has focused on building more on “brownfield” areas - land that’s been developed at some point in the past - as a way of preventing urban sprawl. However you look at it, though, there isn't enough of this to meet demand. Oxford has enough brownfield land for less than 2,000 homes; it needs an estimated 30,000. London needs something like 50,000 extra homes ever year; it’s not building anything like that, but if it was, it'd run out of brownfield land within a decade.

That's the bad news. But! It turns out that actually, we have loads of space for housing. To build 1.4m extra homes, at low-density, and near existing infrastructure like railway stations, we'd only have to build on 5.2 per cent of the green belt. If we built on 12.5 per cent of it, we could have 3.4m homes. All our problems would be solved, and we’d still have 90 per cent of the green belt the go for walks in.

Then it's back to the bad news, which is that nobody with the power to make this happen wants to because the pro-green belt/anti-building lobby is basically all-powerful.

So, that’s all good.

The key message of the report, though – the one overriding lesson it contains – is that Britain needs to free up more land for building. That's basically non-negotiable. So, if any of Britain's politicians do fancy growing a spine, the Centre for Cities has a few recommendations as to how we can do that.

1. The catch-all “green belt” label isn't massively helpful: we need to “evaluate land on its merits rather than its existing designation”.

In other words, we need a more nuanced planning system that can distinguish between, say, scrubby wasteland which would be perfect for development, and genuinely beautiful countryside.

2. “Brownfield” land often requires state action to make it appropriate to housing. That means infrastructure, land assembly, even direct development. That'll all cost money, and political will.

3. The economic footprint of cities often extends across local authority borders, whether to contiguous built up areas or commuter towns miles away. Councils should thus be incentivised to work with their neighbours when working on housing plans.

The report contains other, more technical suggestions, too: streamlining Compulsory Purchase Orders, to make it easier for councils to assemble land; allowing cities to buy land at its current value, so that they, rather than previous owners, benefit from the increase that comes with planning permission; create development partnerships between councils and builders, which will be able to borrow to invest.

All this means that there’s no quick fix. If we’re ever going to solve this mess, we need use brownfield land and build at higher densities and re-designate parts of the green belt.

But – we can solve it.

Here, for your delectation, is one last map. Build on just a fraction of the areas marked in red, which are all within 2km of railway station, and we could solve London’s housing crisis. The full report is available here.

 

 
 
 
 

This colour-coded map shows the speed limit of every road in London. Cool

Mmmm, road-y. Image: TfL/Ordnance Survey.

As ever, in times of darkness, I find myself turning for comfort to cartography. Specifically, on this occasion, it’s a map of London’s road network that’s caught my eye.

Maps of London’s road network are ten a penny of course, but this one’s a special map of London’s road network because it’s colour coded:

The vast majority of roads in the capital are coloured either blue (a limit of 30mph) or green (one of 20mph).

And what you can see is, well, some boroughs have been much more enthusiastic about the “20’s plenty” safety campaign than others:

Click to expand. Image: TfL/Ordnance Survey.

Some boroughs seem to be, main roads excepted, coloued green in their entirity: best I can tell, that covers the City, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Islington and Camden. Others – Lambeth, Lewisham, Greenwich, Newham, Waltham Forest – have large blocks of green, showing that significant chunks of the borough are restricted to the lower speed limits. (UPDATE, 10.42hrs: The map dates from June 2016, so may be slightly out of date: a Twitter user informs us that Lewisham is all 20mph now.)

Central London – click to expand. Image: TfL/Ordnance Survey.

Most of the rest, though, have green in patches, if at all. Of these, by far the blue-est is Westminster, which, despite being right at the heart of London, is blue basically in its entirety. (There may be a couple of streets in the museums quarters just south of Hyde Park, but I’m not entirely sure those aren’t just across the border in Kensington.)

One hates to rush to judgement about these things, but I can’t help but wonder whether there’s any link between this and the fact it’s the Tory-iest borough in central London.

Two other things leap out at me about this map. One is that you can see the colours mean that, in much of town, you can the shape of the main road network: lines of blue snaking through green in inner London, and red or pink snaking through blue in outer. (Once again, Westminster lets us down. Bloody Westminster.)

Hillington – click to expand. Image: TfL/Ordnance Survey.

The other thing that leaps out at me is – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – quite how empty the outermost boroughs are. There are large chunks of white space in almost every border borough, with the possible exception of Sutton; but there are vast swathes of it in Hillingdon (out west) and Havering (out east).

Havering – click to expand. Image: TfL/Ordnance Survey.

The emptiest, though, remains London’s largest borough: Bromley, down in the south east corner, is basically half empty.

Click to expand. Image: TfL/Ordnance Survey.

Just thought I’d mention, in case anyone was thinking of building any houses anywhere.

Anyway, you can see a zoomable version of the map on TfL’s website.

(Hat tip: Paul Wellman of Estates Gazette.)

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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