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.

 

 
 
 
 

“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.