To solve London’s housing crisis, we need to think small – and empower the planners

A small brownfield site ripe for redevelopment. Image: Matthew Carmona.

Politicians are finally waking up to the fact that London has a housing crisis. And everyone from the candidates to be London’s next mayor to the prime minister himself have talking about the urgent need to address the crisis.

One reason for the crisis is that London’s population is growing dramatically, and is on a trajectory to reach 11m in 25 years or so.  To address this growth, as well as the backlog in provision we now need to build somewhere between 49,000 and 62,000 homes a year.  Currently we are building just 23,000.

Debating the causes

Many commentators have blamed the dysfunctional housing market on poor planning decisions, or on housebuilders who are more interested in hording land and speculating on its increasing value. Others suggest that the problem stems from all the international money flooding into London’s housing market, buying up housing and leaving it empty as investments rather than homes.

The reality, however, is that we have been building too few homes for other reasons First, we no longer have a viable public led housing programme: we leave it almost entirely to the market.  Second, we over-rely on very few large housebuilders, whose primary focus as private companies is – quite rightly – on their shareholder value rather than on solving the housing crisis.

Third, we don't do enough to seek out and encourage the development of small sites across the city, relying instead on a small numbers of much larger sites.  And lastly, we have allowed our small builders (who once built vast swathes of post war suburban London) to wither in the face of the perverse lending practices of our banks who no longer wish to take the “risk” on housebuilding – this despite the huge amounts of money that those international investors seem to be making.

The potential of small sites and builders

So what is the solution? The very ordinary local mixed streets that form the prime connective tissue weaving its way across London also contains, within 500m of their frontages, 75 per cent of London’s developable brownfield land.

Although small and complex sites, they are sustainable – well-connected to public transport and well serviced by local facilities and amenities. They often need a new purpose as retail declines. And they are already part and parcel of London’s existing communities. They should be the first place we look, not the last – so why don't we look there?

Another site that could be redeveloped as housing. Image: Matthew Carmona.

Part of the problem seems to be that they are not always immediately obvious and viable development propositions. They are often hidden behind existing activities, partially used, or even fully utilised but at a very low level (for example, for single storey developments).

There is also the issue that many of the existing uses on these sites will themselves be valuable activities providing a wealth of employment and other opportunities, either temporary or long-established. Simply clearing all such backland sites for housing would clearly be hugely damaging.

So are there any other options? Today London remains surrounded by its greenbelt, which remains a popular device to constrain the city’s growth. There seems to be little political will to challenge that.

So this leaves only one viable option: the city needs to densify.

London remains a low density city by international standards (around 75 people to the hectare), and there are plenty of opportunities to densify it. We could start by bringing forward the sort of sites referred to earlier, but there and many other opportunities as well. The acres and acres of land alongside, over (and occasionally under) the city’s roads and rail infrastructure for example; the voluminous quantities of space given over solely to parking; the low grade space, within and surrounding many of our public housing estates; and all the wasted “spaces left over after planning” that are liberally dotted across the city, offering us maintenance headaches but no real amenity value to their localities. Once you start looking, the opportunities are vast.


A generational challenge

Yet densification is not an easy option. To grasp it, our public authorities will need to work much harder on planning and design strategies that engage with existing uses and communities – and that work to optimise the local opportunities whilst avoiding stripping out the sorts of marginal uses that still have tremendous value to London.

This will not be achieved by cutting back on the role of the public sector and by deregulating planning. Instead, to stand any chance of bringing forward the legions of smaller sites that we will need across the city, we will require a renewed investment in these vital functions of the state. In particular, we need to free planners up from the sorts of reactive planning that typically dominate their in-trays.

We will also need to convince communities of this strategy. They can often be highly sceptical of any mention of increasing density, associating it with the discredited high rises of the past, rather than with the sorts of terraces of townhouses and mansion blocks that characterise the highest density and highest value parts of London today.

Ultimately, I contend, we need to think small to think big. We need to unleash a new dynamic and entrepreneurial spirit in the city – among the smaller developers, but also among local communities, housing associations and the public sector, who will also all need to be part of this effort. We are facing a generational challenge, but the next generation will not thank us if we fail to deal with it.

London has always risen to such challenges in the past, and will do so now. We owe it to all our future Londoners, from wherever they hail.

Matthew Carmona is professor of planning & urban design at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL.

UCL’s Question Time on London’s Housing Crisis will be held on Wednesday 13 April at the Darwin Lecture Theatre, Gower Street.

 
 
 
 

Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.