London needs a bolder relationship with its immediate neighbours

Greater, Greater London. Image: Google.

It’s a classic tale of urban growth: people and businesses move out to find cheaper space, cities absorb other towns in their commuter belt, and politics have to catch up.

For London, this creates challenges at very large scale. The city is core to a much greater economic region, the Wider South East, which is home to over a third of the country’s population and jobs. This Southern Superhub has done well economically: in the last five years, it made up for 53 per cent of service sector jobs creations in the UK. A record number of people commute across the London boundary, and many London firms have offices, suppliers and clients in other Wider South East cities.

The challenges of high living costs, low pay and crowded transport are also straddling boundaries. The government has calculated that the Wider South East will need 1.5m homes by 2026 – but most local authorities inside and outside London have struggled to meet previous, lower housing targets. As cash-strapped local authorities feel unable to accommodate rapid change, the relationship between London and its neighbours has in some places turned sour.

Housing is by far the most contentious topic. Both sides have blamed each other over “whose growth” it is, and whether they are doing enough to accommodate it. Several neighbours are annoyed that London has ruled out changes to its greenbelt land, when they are reviewing their own to find space for housing. Some at the Greater London Authority are frustrated that several other councils have blocked attempts to collaborate over housing and transport investment.

Until recently, London mayors have not really focused on engaging surrounding jurisdictions in their decisions. They have no legal requirement to agree any strategy with neighbours, and to avoid being seen as reliant on them, all three London mayors decided that the city should accommodate all of its growth. This aligned nicely with the interests of most towns outside, who saw “London overspill” as a threat to their identity.

The economic geography of London and its wider region. Image: Centre for London.

The government did not seek to spark conversations about the region’s future either. Its funding is very centralised and formulaic. Large projects are, more often than not, delivered without a regional outlook: London’s neighbours did not contribute to Crossrail, and the new Lower Thames crossing was not seen as a project of regional importance.

But politics is starting to catch up. Among local political leaders, there is more awareness that London and its neighbours are too connected and dependent for councils to tackle challenges on their own. They also feel remarkably underpowered to address them – they have little control over how they raise and spend public money – and hope that speaking with a common voice will grab government attention.

Several local authorities have been partnering to draft economic and transport strategies, and to make a joint case for greater investment. A group of political leaders representing London and the rest of the Wider South East also meet regularly to strengthen dialogue on shared issues, and this year the Mayor is taking part in their annual summit.

But there are difficult decisions ahead, and we think it’s time for this initiative to step up its ambitions. The Wider South East political group needs to evolve into a forum where decisions can be made, and common asks are taken to government. It needs to become more strategic, and draft a vision for the whole region – an industrial strategy for the Southern Superhub.

Government could do much to support, by rewarding collaboration with additional financial and political freedoms, and long-term infrastructure investment. Reshaping the Minister for London into a senior minister for the Wider South East would be a good start.

Sceptics note that having 156 local authorities speak with a single voice is close to impossible. But the urgency of challenges facing the region, and the progress made in the last few years, suggests that much could be achieved with the right government incentives.

Nicolas Bosetti is a senior researcher at the Centre for London. He tweets as @nicolasbosetti.

Next-door Neighbours has been jointly published by Centre for London, the capital’s dedicated think tank, and the Southern Policy Centre, the think tank for central southern England.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.