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.

 

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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