London doesn't only need houses – we should protect its industrial land, too

Like this, but less pollution-y: Ford's Thames-side car plant in Dagenham, east London. Image: Lars Ploughmann/Wikimedia Commons.

The cost of housing is undoubtedly London’s most severe crisis – but putting the construction of new homes above all else risks making other crises worse. Cities are complicated places that need a range of jobs, as well as mundane goods and services to keep them ticking over. So we should be more wary of the rate at which the industrial sites providing these jobs, goods and services are being turned into flats.

This broader perspective was lost on outraged tweeters when I published my report raising alarm about the loss of industrial land in London. They accused me of standing in the way of new homes being built.

But why not build on parks and gardens? They take up more than half of London’s space, after all. The obvious answer is that they provide vital functions to Londoners and the many other species that inhabit the city. You can’t have homes without space for recreation, plants to cool the air in the summer, permeable spaces to stop rainfall causing floods, and so on.

I wrote my report because I think industrial sites can also provide some vital functions to London. I’m not opposed to all development on them, but I’m worried the mayor has been allowing too much to disappear based on faulty assumptions. Here are five reasons I think you should worry too.

1. They shelter a lot of viable businesses

In 1998 you’d find 14 per cent of industrial sites in London sitting empty, and the impression remains that these are wasted space supporting dying industries. This chart, which inspired my report, shows the mayor’s predictions for the extinction of many industries in London:

 

Source: GLA.

Predictions like these underpin the policy of supplying less and less land, handing it over to housing. But that policy can also cause the loss of these jobs.

In 2010, vacancy rates on London’s industrial land had dropped by half to 7 per cent – lower than most high streets. In Hackney Wick, a site I visited for my report, the vacancy rate is just 4 per cent. The remaining land is used by a range of viable businesses like a mid-scale brewery, a kitchen furniture manufacturer, catering firms, a scaffold yard and more.

But Hackney Wick has been designated for conversion to flats and a few artists’ workshops. So the land owners and developers have bought up the land, are giving shorter and less secure leases, and will eventually boot them out. Some businesses will move, some will fold.

2. We’re losing skilled manual jobs

It’s easy to think that London’s job market is booming, so why care if these businesses go?

The problem is that London, like the rest of the UK, has been experiencing something called “hollowing out of the middle”. This is where the middle-ranking jobs disappear, while new jobs are created at the bottom or the top of the scale – baristas and barristers, but not brewers, if you will. The problem is illustrated on this chart from a recent government report on the problem.

Source: BIS.

If the mayor’s predictions for industrial jobs come true, opportunities for skilled or semi-skilled manual work will disappear almost completely. The extra jobs in constructing homes on ex-industrial sites will fall a very, very long way short of making up the difference.

This crisis has been slowly unfolding for decades, and is one reason for the decline in social mobility and the rise in income inequality.

3. We need jobs to be spread across London

Unlike the media, banks and government, industrial jobs are spread all over London. We have the really large industrial areas in places like Park Royal in the north west and Belvedere in the south east.

At the other end of the scale, you can find small industrial sites peppered all over the city; my flat is on the edge of one in the north of Peckham. Here’s a selection of the bigger ones taken from OpenStreetMap:

This means that people can find work near to their home, which reduces the need to travel.

If everybody ends up working in central London, that would add to the strain on our transport infrastructure. It’s much cheaper to spread the jobs out, and unless we spend huge sums of money on tunnels there are physical constraints on the capacity of our road and rail network anyway.

4. We need some industries in London

Some people seem to think that all industry should move out of London. But the capital depends on many of them to function.

Economists outside the dismal mainstream have coined the label “foundational economy” for “the sector of the economy that provides goods and services taken for granted by all members of the population”. That’s the companies who service the City’s lifts, process and distribute their food, recycle their waste, and so on.

Here’s a sample out of the window of a business I visited in Charlton, including a paper recycling plant:

Location is often critical for these businesses. The lift repairers need to be close to the central London towers, while fresh food producers and distributors need to be close to their markets.

Industrial sites shelter these mundane but essential goods and services that keep everything ticking over. Planning policy locking in the industrial use keeps the value of the land down, keeping the businesses viable. How would we build homes without scaffold and builders yards?

Ironically, the ongoing conversion of these to homes has meant longer journeys for suppliers, which has been driving up the cost of building those homes.

5. It’s good for the environment to be in London

The extra costs for builders point to my final reason to keep some industry in London.

Forcing businesses to outer London and beyond will mean more traffic, and so more pollution and congestion on our roads. Many industrial sites around London have rail heads onto the rail network and wharves onto the Thames and its tributaries, keeping huge quantities of materials on trains and boats instead of putting them onto our roads.

Air pollution and climate change are two other crises facing London. It doesn’t make sense to tackle the housing crisis and, in the process, make it harder to reduce pollution harmful to our health and a stable climate.

So let’s build more homes, but as part of a coherent strategy for the city as a whole – a city that can function with good job opportunities and falling pollution.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb is a member of the Green party and of the London Assembly.

 
 
 
 

What does the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan mean for the region’s housing supply and green belt?

Manchester. Image: Getty.

We’re not even halfway through January and we’ve already seen one of the biggest urban stories of the year – the release of Greater Manchester’s new spatial plan for the city-region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) sets an ambitious target to build more than 200,000 homes over the next 18 years.

Despite previous statements indicating greenbelt development was off the table, the plan allows for some moderate easing of greenbelt, combined with denser city centre development. This is sensible, pragmatic and to be welcomed but a question remains: will it be enough to keep Manchester affordable over the long-term?

First, some history on Manchester’s housing strategy: This is not the first iteration of the controversial GMSF. The first draft was released by Greater Manchester’s council leaders back in October 2016 (before Andy Burnham was in post), and aimed to build 227,000 houses by 2037. Originally, it proposed releasing 8.2 per cent of the green belt to provide land for housing. Many campaigners opposed this, and the newly elected mayor, Andy Burnham, sent the plan back to the drawing board in 2017.

The latest draft published this week contains two important changes. First, it releases slightly less greenbelt land than the original plan, 4.1 per cent of the total, but more than Andy Burnham previously indicated he would. Second, while the latest document is still ambitious, it plans for 26,000 fewer homes over the same period than the original.

To build up or to build out?

In many cities, the housing supply challenge is often painted as a battle-ground between building high-density homes in the city centre or encroaching on the green belt. Greater Manchester is fortunate in that it lacks the density of cities such as London – suggesting less of a confrontation between people who what to build up and people who want to build out.

Prioritising building on Greater Manchester’s plentiful high-density city centre brownfield land first is right and will further incentivise investment in public transport to reduce the dependence of the city on cars. It makes the goal in the mayor’s new transport plan of 50 per cent of all journeys in Greater Manchester be made on foot, bikes or public transport by 2040 easier to realise.

However, unlike Greater London’s greenbelt which surrounds the capital, Greater Manchester’s green belt extends deep into the city-region, making development on large amounts of land between already urbanised parts of the city-region more difficult. This limits the options to build more housing in parts of Greater Manchester close to the city centre and transport nodes. The worry is that without medium-term reform to the shape of Manchester’s green belt, it may tighten housing supply in Manchester even more than the green belt already does in places such as London and York. In the future, when looking to undertake moderate development on greenbelt land, the mayor should look to develop in these areas of ‘interior greenbelt’ first.

Greater Manchester’s Green Belt and Local Authority Boundaries, 2019.

Despite the scale of its ambition, the GMSF cannot avoid the sheer size of the green belt forever: it covers 47 per cent of the total metropolitan area). In all likelihood, plans to reduce the size of the green belt by 2 per cent will need to be looked at again once the existing supply of brownfield land runs low – particularly if housing demand over the next 18 years is higher than the GMSF expects, which should be the case if the city region’s economy continues to grow.

An example of a successful political collaboration

The GMSF was a politically pragmatic compromise achieved through the cooperation of the metropolitan councils and the mayoral authority to boost the supply of homes. It happened because Greater Manchester’s mayor has an elected mandate to implement and integrate the GMSF and the new transport plan.

Other cities and the government should learn from this. The other metro mayors currently lacking spatial planning powers, in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, should be gifted Greater Manchester-style planning powers by the government so they too can plan and deliver the housing and transport their city-regions need.

Long-term housing strategies that are both sustainable and achievable need to build both up and out. In the short-term Greater Manchester has achieved this, but in the future, if its economic success is maintained, it will need to be bolder on the green belt than the proposals in the current plan. By 2037 Manchester will not face a trade-off between high-density flats in the city centre or green belt reform – it will need to do both.  If the city region is to avoid the housing problems that bedevil London and other successful cities, policy makers need to be ready for this.

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