To create housing for the many not the few, we should reform Britain’s land market

Jeremy Corbyn points at a house. Image: Getty.

Housing policy was centre stage last week when Jeremy Corbyn unveiled the Labour party’s Green Paper on social housing. With commitments to build 100,000 affordable homes a year and introduce a new definition of affordable housing, the party’s plans certainly don’t lack ambition.

These ambitious commitments are long overdue. Housing supply has not met housing need for decades with house price growth far exceeding wage growth for years. There are over a million families on the waiting list for social housing, and rough sleeping has increased by 169 per cent since 2010. The list goes on.

At the heart of the housing crisis is a set of political choices which have rarefied the concept of housing as an asset rather than a place to call home. Central to this process has been the marginalisation of the role of the state in the housing market.

Since the Second World War, we have only ever met housing need with a significant contribution from the public sector. Between 1948 and 1978, local authorities built an average of 90,000 council homes a year, but by the 1990s it was next to nothing. Housing associations have made a growing contribution – but they’ve not been able to fill the gap. Research by IPPR last year showed that 92 per cent of local authorities were failing to build the number of affordable homes their areas needed.

Concerted action is needed, and the role of the state is crucial. It should begin with much greater investment in affordable housing and the freeing of councils to build the homes their communities need. Arbitrary rules introduced by the current government prevent councils from borrowing prudently against future rental streams to build council homes: these should be scrapped as Labour recommended.

The justification for these limits is that it will add to Public Sector Net Debt (PSND) the UK’s measure of government debt. The main international measure of net debt – the General Government Gross Debt (GGGD) – excludes debts of public corporations involved in such activities. We should adopt the international standards, and free ourselves up to allow greater investment in housing – just as our global competitors do.


Investing to build more affordable homes is critical, but ensuring they are affordable in the first place is just as important. That’s why Labour’s proposal to scrap the current definition of affordable housing is vital. Under the current definition, ‘affordability’ is linked to prices, not wages. As a result, research by IPPR has found that a couple with a child on low incomes, one working full-time and the other part-time, would find many ‘affordable’ homes unaffordable. In places like London the problem is even more acute. We must return to an affordable housing measure that is linked to incomes, not market prices.

Perhaps the most crucial, and under reported, aspect of Labour’s plans was a small section on an “English Sovereign Land Trust” which will allow local authorities to buy land at cheaper prices to build affordable homes.

It is here, through intervention in the land market, that the state could have the biggest impact – not to just build more affordable homes, but to make all new homes built more affordable. The price of land has risen exorbitantly over the past few decades, and in high demand areas is the most significant cost of building a home. Yet the increases in the value of the land often has very little to do with the actions of a landowner and everything to do with the awarding of planning permission by a local council on behalf of their local community.

Under our current system we have few mechanisms to capture that value effectively for the community, with the majority of it going to the landowner or developer. Moreover, we rely on private developers and land speculators to bring this land to market, meaning they carry all the risk but also get most of the reward.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In other countries they have far more effective ways of dealing with these issues, either by using more effective property and land taxes which help capture land value increases, or through planning mechanisms which reduce the cost of land for development, or help capture the land value for the community.

Labour’s green paper yesterday was a huge stride forward in setting out substantive proposals to tackle the housing crisis. But on land reform, there is scope to be bolder and go further to ensure that affordable housing really is available ‘for the many’, rather than the preserve of the few.

Luke Murphy is associate director for the environment, housing and infrastructure at the IPPR.

 
 
 
 

Mexico City’s new airport is an environmental disaster. But it could become a huge national park

Mexico City’s new Norman Foster-designed airport, seen here in a computer rendering, is visually striking but environmentally problematic. Image: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/creative commons.

Mexico City long ago outgrew the two-terminal Benito Juárez International Airport, which is notorious for delays, overcrowding and canceled flights. Construction is now underway on a striking new international airport east of this metropolis of 20m. When it opens in late 2020, the LEED-certified new airport – whose terminal building was designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster in collaboration with the well-known Mexican architect Fernando Romero – is expected to eventually serve 125m passengers. That’s more than Chicago O'Hare and Los Angeles’ LAX.

But after three years of construction and $1.3bn, costs are ballooning and corruption allegations have dogged both the funding and contracting process.

Environmentalists are also concerned. The new airport is located on a semi-dry lake bed that provides water for Mexico City and prevents flooding. It also hosts migrating flocks and is home to rare native species like the Mexican duck and Kentish plover.

According to the federal government’s environmental impact assessment, 12 threatened species and 1 endangered species live in the area.

The airport project is now so divisive that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist winner of the country’s 2018 presidential campaign, has suggested scrapping it entirely.

An environmental disaster

Mexico’s new airport sits in a federal reserve. Image: Yavidaxiu/The Conversation.

I’m an expert in landscape architecture who studies the ecological adaption of urban environments. I think there’s a way to save Mexico’s new airport and make it better in the process: create a nature reserve around it.

Five hundred years ago, lakes covered roughly 20 percent of the Valle de Mexico, a 3,500-square-mile valley in the country’s south-central region. Slowly, over centuries, local residents – first the Aztecs, then the Spanish colonisers and then the Mexican government – built cities, irrigation systems and plumbing systems that sucked the region dry.

By the mid-20th century, the lakes had been almost entirely drained. In 1971, President Luís Echeverría decreed the area a federal reserve, citing the region’s critical ecological role for Mexico City. The smattering of small lakes and reforested land there now catch and store runoff rainwater and prevent dust storms.

The new airport will occupy 17 square miles of the 46-square-mile former Lake Texcoco. To ensure effective water management for Mexico City, the airport master plan proposes creating new permanent water bodies to offset the lakes lost to the airport and cleaning up and restoring nine rivers east of the airport. It also proposes planting some 250,000 trees.

The government’s environmental assessment determined that the impacts of the new airport, while significant, are acceptable because Lake Texcoco is already “an altered ecosystem that lost the majority of its original environmental importance due to desiccation and urban expansion.” Today, the report continues, “it is now only a desolate and abandoned area.”

Environmentalists loudly disagree.

Make Mexico’s airport great again

I see this environmental controversy as an opportunity to give Mexico City something way more transformative than a shiny new airport.

Nobody can entirely turn back the clock on Lake Texcoco. But the 27 square miles of lake bed not occupied by the airport could be regenerated, its original habitat partially revitalised and environmental functions recovered in a process known as restoration ecology.

I envision a huge natural park consisting of sports fields, forests, green glades and a diverse array of water bodies – both permanent and seasonal – punctuated by bike paths, walking trails and access roads.

The airport will come equipped with new ground transportation to Mexico City, making the park easily accessible to residents. Extensions from the surrounding neighborhood streets and highways could connect people in poor neighbourhoods abutting the airport – dense concrete jungles like Ecatepec, Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl and Chimalhuacan – to green space for the first time.

The nine rivers that empty into Lake Texcoco from the east could be turned into greenways to connect people from further out in Mexico State to what would become the area’s largest public park.

Space could also be reserved for cultural attractions such as museums, open and accessible to passengers in transit.


New master plan

This idea is not as crazy as it sounds.

As early as 1998, Mexican architects Alberto Kalach and the late Teodoro González de León proposed rehabilitating the lakes of the Valley of Mexico. Their book, “The City and its Lakes,” even envisaged a revenue-generating island airport as part of this environmentally revitalized Lake Texcoco.

Under President Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s National Water Commission also proposed building an ecological park in Lake Texcoco, which was to include an island museum and restore long-degraded nearby agricultural land. But the project never gained traction.

Granted, turning a large, half-constructed airport into a national park would require an ambitious new master plan and a budget reallocation.

But in my opinion, evolution and change should be part of ambitious public designs. And this one is already expected to cost an additional $7.7bn to complete anyway.

Toronto’s Downsview Park – a 291-acre former air force base turned green space – has transformed so much since its conception in 1995 that its declared mission is now to “constantly develop, change and mature to reflect the surrounding community with each generation.”

Local communities neighboring Mexico City’s new airport were not adequately consulted about their needs, environmental concerns and their current stakes in the Lake Texcoco area. A revamped park plan could be truly inclusive, designed to provide recreation and urban infrastructure – and maybe even permanent jobs – for these underserved populations.

Presidential race

Three of the four candidates in Mexico’s July 1 presidential election wanted to finish Mexico City’s new international airport. But eventual winner López Obrador was not so sure.

Early in his campaign, he said he would cancel it if elected. Instead, López Obrador suggested, a former air force base could become the new international terminal. It would be connected to Benito Juárez airport, 22 miles south, by train.

López Obrador has since said he would support completing construction of the new international airport if the remaining financing came from the private sector, not the Mexican government. Currently, some two-thirds of the project is funded by future airport taxes.

The ConversationLópez Obrador’s promise to review and likely upend the airport plan could open the door to its wholesale transformation, putting people and nature are at the core of a plan ostensibly designed for the public good.

Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.