NIMBYs near Canary Wharf just blocked 2,000 homes to protect a petrol station

At least nothing will spoil this view. Image: Getty.

Whenever I’ve suggested – sometimes gently, sometimes not – that London might soon need to build housing on its green belt, someone has almost instantly replied, “What about brownfield?”

Brownfield, you see, is the label for any site which has already been built on: its redevelopment is thus seen as the cost free option, which won’t necessitate any hard choices about which fields we’re going to brick over. Never mind that no one seriously thinks there’s enough of this stuff to meet housing need: so long as there’s a square inch of brownfield left, the NIMBY lobby will say, we shouldn’t even think about looking at reviewing the green belt.

Which is a problem. Because now it turns out that the NIMBYs don’t want to build on brownfield either.

The Isle of Dogs is a peninsula in east London, surrounded by a loop of the River Thames. At its northern edge sits Canary Wharf, a rapidly growing forest of commercial and residential skyscrapers. To its south is the island proper, a mixture of Victorian terraces and new residential developments, surrounding a grid of docks and a city farm.

This is not an area filled with listed buildings, or where sites of great historic interest require protection from the ravages of greedy developers: over the last 40 years, indeed, Docklands as a whole has been London’s biggest re-development zone, radically transformed from a collection of bomb sites and derelict low rises to a second financial centre.

Nor is it a place where concerns about transport links should slow us up too much. As well as half a dozen stops on the DLR, the Isle of Dogs has a tube station, and will soon be getting a Crossrail one, too. When people say we should build on brownfield – when they suggest we should densify the city around its existing transport links – this is exactly the sort of place they’re talking about.

Unfortunately, however, nobody has told the residents group which has been campaigning against plans to build 2,000 homes on what is currently a car park; ultimately, the developer, Ashbourne Beech, withdrew the application. (In an earlier version of this article I said the plan had been “blocked”, which was a slightly misleading way of putting it.)

From the East London Advertiser yesterday:

Second Tower Hamlets ‘people victory’ as Asda scraps Isle of Dogs development

“It’s down to ‘people’ power through sheer weight of objections,” a delighted councillor Peter Golds told the East London Advertiser.

“We fought this for years and have managed to engage the community—so the developers can’t claim they’re representing anybody with this crass example of over-development.”

What, you are wondering, have those campaigners managed to save? A children’s play area, perhaps? A lovely park? A site of outsanding natural beauty? An over-crowded and under-funded orphanage?

Nope: a branch of Asda and its massive car park.

An aerial view of the site. Image: developers Ashbourne Beech.

Among many objections was condemnation of the Asda petrol station closing without being replaced—leaving no fill-up for car-owners anywhere on ‘the island’.

This is a serious concern: without that petrol station, after all, residents would have to drive a whole 1.7km up the road to fill up their tanks, meaning that there is a very real risk of civilisation breaking down entirely like at the end of JG Ballard’s High Rise.

Image: Google Maps.

Alternatively – just a thought – they could take the DLR. In fact that might be a better idea because, while London has a housing crisis, it does not, to my knowledge, have a petrol station crisis.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps there genuinely are concerns about the danger of adding another 2,000 homes to the Isle of Dogs. Extra residents, after all, need extra services: schools, doctors, shops (no, not petrol stations, sod off). And the mess of the British planning system means it’s all too possible to build homes without ensuring the facilities that should go along side them.

But nonetheless, this story gives the lie to the idea that everything would be fine if we just focused our effort on brownfield – because it’s hard to think of anywhere more ripe for development than a supermarket car park on the Isle of Dogs. As things stand, it’s ugly, it’s well-connected, it’s an area that’s already used to high-density housing... it’s as appropriate a site as you’re likely to find to build significant new numbers of homes as anywhere in this city.


And yet, the NIMBYs have beaten it back, on the grounds that it might overshadow the local city farm. And when they did, the local paper described it as a victory for “people power”.

For the people who already have homes, perhaps. Those who are priced out, by contrast, are losing, as they always do.

We can’t build skyscrapers. We can’t extend the footprint of the city. And now, it turns out, we can’t build on car parks either, in case it upsets a pony.

I'm just saying, I think we seriously need to consider the possibility of prison sentences for NIMBYs, that’s all I’m saying.

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

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The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.