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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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.”