To solve the housing crisis, we should give councils freedom to borrow

The government has this week launched a £54m package aimed at helping local authorities make the most out of their surplus land for housing. This includes a £45m ‘land release fund’, through which cities will bid for cash to remediate sites for residential projects, and to build any extra infrastructure required to unlock awkward or remote sites.

The new announcement will also see an extra £9m made by One Public Estate, a partnership between the Local Government Association (LGA) and Cabinet Office which offers funding and support for councils to “deliver ambitious property-focused programmes”.

These initiatives reflect the need for local authorities to make the best possible use of the disused land and buildings at their disposal, as set out in our recent report and previous research on this issue from 2015. Both of these reports discussed the LGA’s One Public Estate programme as a significant help, giving cities and local authorities under huge budgetary pressure the resources to help them look at their public assets and how they can be used to reduce costs, reform services and earn capital receipts from the disposal of any surplus property.

The new package announced by the government this week should make a difference in realising one of the central ambitions for the One Public Estate programme of releasing surplus council-owned land for 160,000 homes by 2020. Few people would doubt the need to do so: house prices are now at least seven times higher than average local wages in 34 of 63 UK cities, and new development will bring life and economic activity to neglected or underused parts of cities. All funding to help get more homes built and support city economies is therefore to be welcomed.


But if the underlying goal is to get more homes built, then the expansion of bid-based, centrally-directed pots of money seems like a needlessly bureaucratic way for cities to try to make the most out of their assets. Instead, it would be simpler – and more in-keeping with the spirit of the government’s continued ambitions of greater devolution – to give cities with existing social housing stock greater freedom to borrow against that steady revenue to build more housing, and in particular affordable housing. After all, local authorities already have the supply chain and infrastructure in place to get more homes built – lifting the cap would give them more of the autonomy they need to go ahead and do so.

We’ve called for the removal of restrictions on councils’ ability to borrow money in order to invest in new housing on several occasions, as have cities and the LGA. But while many local authorities have headed to the Public Works Loan Board to invest in assets that will provide the returns needed to plug their finances (as well as take a greater role in shaping their economic development), borrowing more to build more homes as this programme argues is seemingly off the table.

At a time when Brexit will be consuming the time and concentration of civil servants across Whitehall, adding another round of drafting proposals, entering bids, assessing entries and deciding on winners seems to be an unnecessarily convoluted way of achieving One Public Estate’s aim of getting more homes built on council-owned land.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?

Latitude

You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.

 

Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?

Wikipedia

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.

McDonald’s

I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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