How many more homes could we squeeze into London’s housing estates?

South London's Central Hill Estate. Image: Charlie Clemoes.

London’s council estates are increasingly considered a valuable source of additional housing supply, primarily through densification of existing sites. The number of estate redevelopment schemes being undertaken in the capital has doubled over the past decade.

Yet despite this emphasis on estates as a source of housing supply, we know surprisingly little about the location, size, and density of the capital’s estates. Here at Centre for London, we decided to explore this further.

We undertook an analysis of large estates (those with over 200 dwellings) in four London boroughs: Barking and Dagenham, Hounslow, Lewisham, and Waltham Forest. Here’s what we found.

Large estates are generally as dense as, or denser, than their surrounding wards.

In all four boroughs, estates were generally denser than their surroundings. With the exception of those in Lewisham, large estates were roughly as dense as, or denser than the wards they are part of.

This is not to say that these estates constitute the best possible use of land – London’s housing challenge requires higher densities across the city. But it does highlight that, in three out of the four boroughs, the density of large estates is not significantly lower than that of the surrounding area as is often assumed.

So what would happen if we turned the dial up, redeveloping estates at the maximum densities specified in London Plan policy?

To generate an estimate, we tested two scenarios: one in which estates were densified to the “urban” density of 145 dwellings per hectare (dpha), and the other in which estates were densified to the “central” density of 210 dpha. Our estimates of course come with some methodological limitations, given that we mapped estates by eye, calculating density by gross rather than net area.

Densifying estates could lead to a lot of additional housing

There are modest gains to be had by densifying estates to “urban” levels - in the four sampled boroughs, densifying estates to the upper limit of the urban level could provide around 10,000 new homes.

Over twice as many homes could be achieved by building to “central” density levels. This would supply at least 50 per cent of the Greater London Authority’s 10 year new homes target in three of the four boroughs.

But introducing “central” level densities to large estates in outer London boroughs would likely involve major changes to neighbourhood characteristics, and would need to be carefully considered in both the design and community consultation.

Estate densification is a long-term game, and one that requires a serious amount of investment.

Our findings indicate that we could see an uplift of between 80,000 (“urban” level) and 160,000 (“central” level) homes in London’s large estates through densification. But these numbers come with a range of caveats.

It would take around 10 years to get all these projects started, with extensive community engagement and careful design required to ensure their success, and another 10 to complete them. In many cases, particularly in outer London, projects would also require subsidy to make them viable – a n issue we explore further in the Another Storey report.

So what did our analysis of large estates in these four boroughs show us? We learned that estates do offer some scope for densification, even though realizing the potential is a long-term process, needing significant investment. Estate densification is not the single answer to London’s huge housing supply challenge – but it should form one element, alongside densification of other land uses across the capital.

Kat Hanna is Research Manager at Centre for London and co-author of the Another Storey report. She tweets as @HannaFromHeaven.

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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”