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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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.