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.