Sadiq Khan’s housing strategy is good. But London still needs to build on its green belt

The start of the green belt in Upminster, on the London/Essex borders. Image: Google.

A few weeks ago, the mayor of London Sadiq Khan published his draft housing strategy to the Greater London Authority.

The headline aims are impressive: in addition to the more than £3bn to build 90,000 affordable homes in London by 2021 announced back in November 2016, Khan wants to raise a further £250m from land value capture to fund new housing starts, and is calling for the Government to devolve London’s £4.3bn stamp duty revenue to the city.

These are all good objectives, and Khan is right to push for control over stamp duty, something we at the Centre for Cities called for in our 2015 report Beyond Business Rates. Unfortunately, however, the mayor has also continued one of the less helpful policies of his predecessors by ruling out the reform that could most immediately relieve London’s housing crisis – building on the capital’s green belt.

The reality is that London is not building enough new homes. The housing strategy notes that while London should be building at least 50,000 homes a year to keep up with demand until 2035, it is building less than 20,000 a year. As the second least affordable city in the country, London is building fewer homes per person than Barnsley, the second most affordable city in Britain.

This shortage in housing squeezes living standards and fuels poverty in London. As the strategy points out, a third of private renters are spending more than half of their income on rent, while one in fifty Londoners are now homeless. Working across the public, private, and non-profit sectors to improve the housing market, such as through supporting SME builders and improving the skills base, as well as innovative methods such as building 10,000 homes on TfL land, are all needed to stabilise housing costs in the medium term.

But despite the mayor’s ambition and the positive proposals in his plan, these reforms do not go far enough in tackling the emergency in London’s housing market. Although the mayor wants to prioritise development on brownfield land, there is too little to meet London’s housing needs. If London met all of its annual need for housing on brownfield land, all of the land would be used up in less than eight years.

Even this is an overestimate, as three decades of a “brownfield-first” approach to housing has already creamed off all but the least suitable sites for new homes. Those brownfield locations left in London are unusually expensive, complex, or undesirable to develop and are therefore less viable for affordable housing, if they are viable at all.

The short supply of land in London could be solved if we were prepared to build on green belt land with little environmental value close to existing infrastructure. Our report Building Homes Where We Need Them shows that if 60 per cent of green belt land within 2km of a train station in Greater London was developed into suburban housing, London could build an additional 432,000 homes.


Rolling this out to the rest of the capital’s green belt could unlock a further 3m new homes. Across the ten least affordable cities in Britain including Oxford, London and Bristol, building on less than 5 per cent of green belt land in the ten least affordable UK cities would supply 1.4m homes close to train stations. These new homes would be cheaper to develop and more locked into existing infrastructure than those on London’s remaining poor-quality brownfield sites, making it possible to supply more affordable housing.

However, at the moment, almost no housing is built on London’s green belt. From 2014 to 2017, local authorities released 170 hectares of London’s green belt for development – just 0.03 per cent of the capital’s green belt land, which at 514,030 hectares covers an area three times the size of London.

The mayor’s decision to rule out building on the green belt (as his predecessors did) not only blocks hundreds of thousands of potential new homes: it imposes a hidden cost, by making the housing that is being built on brownfield land more scarce and therefore less affordable for Londoners. In other words, London’s high housing costs subsidise the lack of new homes on green belt land.

London’s housing crisis can be traced back to a range of factors, and many of the mayor’s proposals will help tackle them. But by ruling out new homes on the green belt, the mayor is leaving the lowest-hanging and biggest fruit unpicked, and making housing less affordable for Londoners. To solve London’s housing crisis, green belt land will have to be released – the only question is when.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared. 

 
 
 
 

Communities can take control of the regeneration agenda. Hastings Pier proves it

The remains of Hastings Pier in 2010. Image: Getty.

I was blown away when I learned that Hastings Pier – once an abandoned and derelict Victorian relic – had won this year’s Stirling Prize. A community-led development has been officially declared the UK’s best new building. This victory demonstrates that excellent architecture and meaningful regeneration can be achieved through projects that are led by local citizens, and rooted in their communities.

I came to know about Hastings Pier through my involvement in the campaign to save London Road Fire Station in Manchester. These two very different structures have a few important things in common.

Both buildings are held in deep affection by their local communities; both recognised as having important heritage value by official bodies such as Historic England – and both were left to decay.

London Road Fire Station: inspiring. Image: Andrew Turner/Flickr/creative commons.

Sadly, it is not unusual for significant buildings to be left to ruin for decades, when owners can’t or won’t act to sell or save them. Situations like these can be described as “difficult” or even “delinquent” ownership.

In such cases, the ownership of the site becomes a long-term stumbling block preventing regeneration – often with a knock-on effect to the wider area. Even where there is the investment and the political will to bring a building back into use, a project can be stalled permanently by a landowner who refuses to cooperate.

Local consultant Jericho Road Solutions, which was involved with the campaign to save Hastings Pier, established the Community Assets in Difficult Ownership (CADO) programme to work with ten such projects, including Hastings Pier and the London Road Fire Station. Between them, these ten buildings have been empty for a total of 224 years, representing a loss to the economy of more than £1bn.

Local community groups associated with each project received grants, advice and mutual support to help them progress.

People power

Hastings Pier was eventually freed from its private owner, Ravenclaw, through the use of a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). CPOs are legal powers available to local authorities, which can force land owners to sell land or buildings under certain circumstances.

A balance has to be struck between a person’s right to own property and the wider public interest. One example of when a CPO might be used would be to acquire land for major infrastructure projects, such as HS2. For this reason, CPOs can be viewed as a threat by local communities looking to protect their homes and land. But CPOs can also be used to buy a site needed to support urban regeneration, or to save a historic listed building which is in urgent need of repair. This latter mechanism was the one used to save Hastings Pier.

In desperate need of some TLC. Image: jtweed/Flickr/creative commons.

In Hastings, the pressure for the CPO actually came from the local community. Councils are often risk averse and prefer to avoid confrontational action such as CPOs – which can result in significant legal costs if things don’t go according to plan.

By 2011, the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust (HPWRT) had been established, and was raising funds with the long term ambition of taking over the pier to run it as a community asset. But the project remained in limbo due to its “difficult owners”.

With expert advice on both sides and a series of productive meetings, the HPWRT and the local council came to an agreement. The necessary building repairs were identified and Ravenclaw were given an opportunity to carry them out. When this didn’t happen, the council was in a position to acquire the pier using a CPO.

The pier was then immediately transferred to the HPWRT, in what is known as a “back-to-back” agreement. The success of this strategy is a credit to the willingness of both parties to work hard at developing a constructive relationship and to try a new approach.


Inspiring change

The CADO programme has recommended new laws to support the regeneration of buildings that are languishing under a “difficult owner”.

But until those changes can be made, I hope that local authorities and government can take confidence from the success in Hastings and view community groups as partners, working carefully to use enforcement powers that are already available to them. These strategies can secure the highest standards in architecture and – unlike much private investment in development and regeneration – the buildings belong to the community.

The ConversationThere are also lessons here for community activists. Those working to influence their local area often find themselves reacting to proposals by developers. Precious time and resources are consumed with this essential scrutiny work to fight inappropriate developments. But the story of Hastings Pier should inspire citizens everywhere, reminding them to sometimes take a proactive approach to pursuing the kind of built environment they yearn for.

Emma Curtin, Architect and lecturer, University of Liverpool.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.