The more expensive a property in London, the more likely it is to be empty

If only people lived in them. Image: Getty.

More than 500 high-rise developments are in progress across the city of London. For a nation in the grip of a housing crisis, this should be good news. But in reality, this will bring hardly any benefit for many of those seeking a decent home. Almost none of the new homes are reserved for people with no or low incomes and, although house prices in London are falling – particularly at the upper end of the market – construction for wealthy people and international buyers continues.

Much of this building is actually intensifying the stress on the affordable housing market, as developers grab cheap land and resources that can be converted into expensive, for-profit housing construction. Many public housing estates have been demolished, while others threatened with demolition may be replaced by expensive rented housing and units for sale at eye-watering prices.

London hosts the highest number of super-rich individuals per capita of any city globally. Around 3,100 residents are ultra-high net worth individuals (UHNWIs) – those with assets, not including property, of £20m or more. And a further 6,100 UHNWIs have second homes in the city. The 2018 Sunday Times rich list suggested there were 92 billionaires in London.

Abundance and austerity

Affluent buyers continue to build and purchase property. In spite of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, more homes were sold in London at the £10m-plus mark in 2017 than in each of the preceding two years (435, 397 and 401 respectively, according to Land Registry data). Yet the large flows of international investment capital and borrowing to buy into the “safe bet” that is London’s housing market is being shaken by anxiety about the potential impact of Brexit.

It seems perverse that London is incapable of providing for most of those who work in and maintain the city – whether in periods of economic abundance, or austerity. Capital investors, planners and the city’s various tiers of government appear increasingly disconnected from the human need for decent, affordable shelter. This has become a familiar story to Londoners and residents of other cities such as New York, which have been touched by investment capital lacking a sense of social mission or responsibility.

High-cost homes in Kensington. Image: Klovovi/Flickr/creative commons.

In collating new research on new-build luxury apartments and houses, I have found that many of the homes in these developments lie underused or vacant. Around one in 20 homes in central and west London lies empty, according to the UK government’s statistics agency. A full 89 per cent of all new builds in London are apartments, and between 2014 and 2016 around one in six of these was sold to overseas buyers – that’s 13 per cent.

This figure rises to more than one-third of buyers, or 36 per cent, if we look at the “prime” market areas of central London over the same period. Here, vacancy was measured by looking at homes with little or no “transactional data”, relating to finance, retail or other forms of administration, such as tax records and bills.

On this measure, we find that half of residences in new builds in general are empty, as are 19 per cent of dwellings across London’s inner boroughs. The likelihood that a home is empty rises alongside its market value: 39 per cent of homes worth £1m to £5m are underused, and 64 per cent of homes worth more than £5m. Of the homes owned by foreign investors, 42 per cent are empty.


Housing for whom?

The appearance of large numbers of essentially vacant luxury homes says a lot about the ability and motivation of authorities to address society’s need for housing. With roughly a year’s worth of housing production devoted entirely to the construction of luxury apartments – many of which are unsold – it seems fair to offer a damning verdict.

Yet for some, the city’s new architecture indicates a move in the right direction. Patrick Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, has argued for public housing to be removed and for a deregulated, free-market approach to be the means by which housing is allocated in all cases.

Even while misjudging the views of the wider audience of these comments (London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, for one, slammed his ideas), such notions nonetheless remain dominant among those who believe that the market should dictate what is built and where, with no concern for wider public value or contribution.

In a time of austerity, many local authorities appear to be seeking to reduce the cost and presence of low-income housing. In this context, expanding the role of private sector development may seem appealing. But it’s increasingly clear that allowing markets and profit motives to trump social concerns could lead to growing anger, given the failure to address the housing needs of low and moderate income groups.

Where inequality, austerity, a major housing crisis and Brexit will lead is not at all clear. It will take an injection of new thinking and a challenge to the dominance of markets and austerity measures, to tackle the housing crisis effectively.

The Conversation

Rowland Atkinson, Chair in Inclusive Societies, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.