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.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

****

Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

****
Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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