To fix London’s housing market, Sadiq Khan needs to stop listening to the big developers

London mayor Sadiq Khan worrying about the housing crisis again. Image: Getty.

For many years now, housing has been the domain of the big guys: big developers have replaced big government.

This is a natural consequence of government’s withdrawal from its post-war promises to house all its citizens.  By passing the buck to the private sector to solve the housing crisis, it hopes for different outcomes.

The only problem is that the new big guys are not delivering.

London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan needs to change this – but he cannot afford to commission another long, protracted strategy to bring about this change. He needs to ignore the big developers, and instead get a small group of people around the table to give their best shot at defining the new London Way of tackling the housing crisis. Have a draft out in a month; tweak it and evolve it within six months.

He should start by starting, and learn by doing. Using rapid and continuous feedback to evolve the London Way, he must always keep it open to challenge. By using simple protocols or rules to ensure open, responsive and collaborative environments, he should make it comprehensible to all.

Here’s what Khan’s strategy should involve.

1. Don’t get caught in the headlights of big numbers.

The big risk is that London continues to do even more of what it did before in the hope that it will solve the problem. This means more big visions, more big masterplans, and more big procurement processes that promise big change but always fail to deliver.

Khan should rather focus on the collective power of many small actions and see how quickly they add up to the big numbers. The best way of solving the affordable housing problem is to have many, many more homes.

2. Develop the conditions for all Londoners to help solve their own housing problems.

The mayor cannot solve London’s housing problems alone and nor should he: housing must move from a problem to be solved to a potential to be realised. That means widening the spectrum of housing players to include the individual, the collective and the institutional.

He must open up many fronts, and not dwell on the big guys alone. He must focus on the small guys, fostering many developers, many small builders and many community makers.  He must make housing a distributed system done by many – like it used to be.

3. Concentrate on early intervention and not being obsessed with fixed endstates in an uncertain future.

Khan should provide the lightest touch up front that will achieve maximum impact later. Instead of trying to command and control the whole process, he must seed projects to give them early life and let things evolve.

In doing so, he must manage in the present and not be caught up in the past. He must be nimble and agile. In order for Londoners to operate within the sweetspot of creativity and innovation, he must provide sufficient constraints in the system without unnecessarily over-constraining the process. By doing this, a new way will emerge, unpredicted outcomes will be found and housing will flourish again.


4. Rethink social and affordable housing contributions

It will always be difficult to eke out the 50 per cent social and affordable housing requirement from large developments, especially in this tight money market. Besides, the big bloated developments of the recent past never seem to deliver the quality of urban life we expect from our cities. 

Khan should take developers’ contributions in the form of a tariff, and spend the money wisely in releasing thousands of development opportunities across London.

5. Create a new Neighbourhood Enabling Agency and provide high-level support to the boroughs.

Khan needs to move his land and property department from a remote, single-focused, large developer procurement authority to a multi-focused, small-scale project based agency operating at the local level.

This means he needs to get some good experience in there. He must appoint wisely; no box-checkers or bean counters. The focus must be delivery at the coalface. Actions speak louder than words.

6. Focus on the popular home by developing a default range of London housing typologies.

The mayor must structure choice: moving away from housing as a developer product to establishing the London Way of building housing that will best serve its citizens.

These should run from the mews house to the townhouse, from the small apartment to the mansion block. To facilitate this, he must develop a common building code or method to drive down the costs of housing and drive up innovation. He must show the way by example. More importantly, he must always be open to new ideas.

7. Don’t let the boroughs think they can solve the problem by building their own housing.

Council housing hardly ever worked and it only made the poor poorer. Let them rather focus on building catalytic projects and social infrastructure that will stimulate action and set the standards for new development. Everything they do must be directed to helping people realise their dreams of having their own home.

Boroughs must give them every support in this process. This means that authorities must act as enabling leaders, using their funds and resources to release potential and create responsive environments.

8. Think creatively about how the housing associations, too, can build neighbourhoods and not just housing.

Housing associations are our great untapped asset and we cannot afford to waste them by just getting them to build houses alone. In addition to providing a whole-life “staircasing” offer, for people to own part, or all, of their home at any stage of their life, they could act in a loan guarantee role to de-risk projects for commercial lenders. This will take advantage of their “Triple A” status and will unlock much more finance.

They could provide a neighbourhood management role alongside the local authority. They could also be agents of the Neighbourhood Enabling Agency, procuring services locally, parcelling land and delivering infrastructure. They could evolve into being the Agency.

9. Allow the suburbs to intensify incrementally. They are doing it anyway, despite government.

The mayor should show a creative way of dealing with the beds-in sheds challenge that afflicts many of our boroughs. This shows that in preventing our suburbs from intensifying, we are stifling one of our greatest natural processes: small-scale incremental change done by many hands.

Just imagine if we released this potential: we wouldn’t have a crisis. Housing must be allowed to start simply and improve over time to make it even more affordable to many. 

We must not set the bar too high. To formalise this, Khan must demonstrate fast track ways of getting planning consents. He could use local development orders, or use his own powers more effectively and fairly. This is where his Neighbourhood Enabling Agency could operate in a targeted way to open up the potential for effective intensification.

10. Create a neighbourhood challenge fund.

Finally, Khan can galvanise people’s inherent creative abilities to solve their own urban problems. Like the UK government’s City Challenge programme of the 1990s, he can direct funds to catalytic projects by making the process exciting and competitive. This will get communities to self-organise around the problem; with this, social capital will be built and valuable relationships will form.

When people work collectively with government in shaping their own environments they achieve far better outcomes that neither could ever achieve alone. This is how we should be thinking of solving our housing crisis and building better neighbourhoods.

On your marks, get set – go!

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.”