The Artful Bodger and the bloated behemoth: 10 ways Boris Johnson fuelled London’s housing crisis

Why is it all so hard, Boris? Image: Getty.

Boris Johnson’s reign as mayor of London has been over for three months now. He has cleaned out his desk and moved on to bigger and better things.

But Johnson got London’s housing badly wrong – and it is worth reflecting on the reasons why he presided over the rise and rise of the capital’s biggest crisis. Why, on his watch, did housing become the domain purely of the big guys with their overblown solutions? Why is the cupboard bare? Has it all been one big bodge?

To be fair, it was the previous mayor, Ken Livingstone, who created the trend for mega-development, in effect telling developers (I paraphrase), “I don’t care how big it is, as long as 50 per cent is mine for social and affordable housing.”

Livingstone policy shifted social housing from a failing utopian model, to the sidelines of a booming real estate market. The standard investment-led, one- and two-bedroom apartment block was born at a time when money was cheap. Space standards plummeted; urban quality collapsed. We saw the emergence of a foot-loose community with little commitment to place: housing had been reduced to a commodity.  

When Boris came to power, the Ken model had collapsed under the weight of the global banking crisis. But, as we found out later, the banks – and the big housebuilders they were in bed with – were too big to collapse. For the new mayor’s housing policy, this meant one thing: drop the social and affordable housing requirement and plough on. London needs housing. Keep building. The big guys know best.

Boris, as mayor, was born into this complex and changing world. But he cannot escape the blame for what happened next. He could have made a big difference. He had the Olympics legacy and big chunks of land to do something with. He had the energy and creativity of the capital in his favour. People were looking for something new: he had a mandate to develop a new London way of doing things.

He promised change. And his words in the London Housing Design Guide suggested bold ambitions:

We are building places to live in a city with unique character, with examples of great housing and city-making at a range of densities. London’s terraced houses, apartment buildings, streets, squares and the best of 20th century development have created highly successful residential environments with enduring appeal.

My housing strategy aspires to encourage a new London vernacular that can take its place in this rich fabric.

Yet what followed was a catalogue of errors – or, at best, serious misjudgements. Here are 10.

1) Boris appointed his chum, Richard Blakeway, as his deputy mayor for housing. An international policy wonk, Blakeway knew nothing about delivering housing in the capital, so was a very strange appointment for such a crucial role in London. Boris allowed him to bungle along for his entire term, making all the right noises, but achieving little.

Just compare him with Martin Muller, the former deputy mayor for Berlin, who led on such game-changing housing projects as Self-Made City and the Berlin Townhouse project. Blakeway was a disaster for London.

2) Boris surprisingly retained many of the top city officials who blissfully continued in their role as box-checkers and bean counters at a time when we needed enlightened thinking and action. Some of them were at the birth of London’s housing crisis, helping with its delivery.

This group saw no way forward other than getting the big guys to solve their problems. Vast chunks of London’s housing estates were parcelled up to the big few. There was no imagination, no willingness to try anything different and no desire to allow others to do so. They protected their patch and defended against change. Much of the blame can be laid at their feet.

3) Shortly after he arrived, Boris abolished Design for London. The agency’s head, Peter Bishop – London’s best shot of having a city architect again – was banished to the far-flung reaches of his London Development Agency. Here was one of London’s most valuable assets being wasted for political reasons. What was left behind was a band of amateurs with little experience of being at the coalface of housing.

4) The mayor’s housing guide, originally been commissioned by Ken and led by the Head of Design for London, was intended to be a comprehensive neighbourhood design guide showing the London Way of doing things. But under this team of box-checkers, bean counters and amateurs, it became little more than an uninspiring space standards manual that missed the whole point: another wasted opportunity.

5) Boris and his team dallied with self-build, community housing trusts and new family housing models but nothing ever got off the ground. More complex policies were written; more unrealisable targets were set; more bold and brave announcements followed. More opportunity sites were declared, more big masterplans with even greater unrealistic expectations held London to ransom. More hearts sunk.

6) Boris sold the best bits of land to others. The Chinese got the Royal Docks, one of London’s best opportunity sites. The Qatari Development Agency got a big chunk of the Olympic Village; the rest of the Olympic Legacy sites are being parcelled up to sell to the big players.

It seemed that the only game in London was to parcel up big chunks, sell it to the big players and wait for them to deliver. When they didn’t, we sold them more or gave them more money.

Why did Boris sell the family silver? Berlin has shown how smaller developers could deliver housing 40 per cent cheaper on land with the same relative value as London, by dealing directly with the end-users. So why didn’t Boris cut out the middle man and deliver smaller chunks of land to smaller players on land controlled by his authority?

7) When nothing happens, where does his team go to for advice? To those who have a vested interest in the status quo – the big developers and their mega-consultants. It was like the foxes and the weasels advising the farmer on pest control.

New ideas for housing were invited. The big guys and their megaconsultants helped to judge them. The status remained quo.

8) Despite Boris’s calls for a new London vernacular, there is sheer lack of imagination about what London’s rich building fabric might be. The big guys are producing housing as large chunks of exclusive development, not as the smaller individual building blocks that normally make up our socially-diverse and inclusive neighbourhoods.

Every scheme appears to be a victim of bigness. Every scheme calls for unique brand. Every scheme is a “Square”, a “Quarter”, a “Village. Nothing adds to London’s unique character. Nothing hangs together.

9) The housing crisis has spawned the growing trend of “beds-in-sheds” across London. In one way, this is symptomatic of creative people solving their own housing problems. In another, it is simply the exploitation of desperate tenants.

Boris never showed any leadership in dealing with this issue. He should have found a way of capturing this energy and allow for positive intensification of our sprawling suburbs.

10) Boris and his team have made some disastrous decisions on major schemes in the capital. He circumvented the local planning process to take the decision on the Mount Pleasant scheme, another monolithic development that will diminish the rich urban fabric of Clerkenwell.  His shabby support for the megastructural Earls Court Project was yet another reflection of the fact that he was never committed to the ambitions he set out in his own guide.

Caught in a crisis fuelled by his own lack of leadership, anything became acceptable to show the numbers.

Our new mayor Sadiq Khan has a lot to sort out. He cannot waste one single opportunity.

Kelvin Campbell, founder of Smart Urbanism, runs the Massive Small project. He led the team appointed to produce the London Mayor’s neighbourhood design guide.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.