This map shows quite how little land London has left to build housing on

Land use restrictions, as far as the eye can see. Image: Neal Hudson/Savills.

Average UK house prices are up again – by £3,000 in just one month! Yay, huzzah, let joy be unconfined, woo.

Or, to put it another way, we're screwed.

Much of the problem is that (spoilers) we don't have enough houses; and much of the reason for that can be traced to the fact that we don't really have anywhere to put them. A research note published last week by Savill's researcher Neal Hudson makes the point.

In all, Hudson says, drawing on government figures, just 11 per cent of England is developed. Which isn't very much, and implies that the whole “this country is full” narrative is nonsense.

But that figure understates quite how much land is free to build on: much of England, for one reason or another, is untouchable. In all 13 per cent of the country is classified as “green belt”. National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), and Sites of Special Scientific Interest between them take out 29 per cent.

In all – the numbers don't quite add up, because the two categories overlap – around 40 per cent of England is out of bounds to housebuilders and pretty much anyone else with a JCB.

Things get worse when you look at the area where housing pressure is greatest. Hudson's note also includes a map of the south east of England. Blue is green belt (obviously), and red is land covered by other restrictions – AONBs, National Parks, flood plains, et al. Dark grey is land that’s already built up.

Image: Neal Hudson/Savills.

Which leaves white. So that’s where we can actually build, right?

Well, er, maybe not actually. To explain why, it's worth zooming in on London. We've labelled a few of the larger white areas.

Image: Neal Hudson/Savills.

Now some of these areas – the Wandle Valley, the various ex-industrial wastelands that make up “London Riverside” – are already seen as development areas.

But others have got to be off limits. “Building housing in Heathrow Airport” is surely a non-starter to anyone except Boris Johnson. Meanwhile Hampstead Heath, Hackney Marsh, and the “green chain” of parks in south east London may not technically be green belt; but in any sane world, surely they should be treated as sacrosanct anyway, right?

On closer inspection*, in fact, many of these places are – they come under the London-specific designation of "metropolitan open land". For some reason this seems to have been missed from the map.

(Full disclosure: I'm not actually sure what's going on with the gap in the landscape around the A40 just north of RAF Northolt, and after googling for 10 minutes, gave up trying to work it out. Get it touch if you fancy plugging this gap in my knowledge.)

So – there's hardly any land in London that's free for development, and large chunks of that which there is isn't really free for development at all.

Two lessons present themselves from all this.

1. A land use policy that makes huge swathes of golf courses clinging to the M25 untouchable, but fails to protect Hackney Marshes, is just possibly not fit for purpose.

Seriously, look at the state of this.

Annotated extract from Google's map of the Ilford-Romford area of east London. 

2. If you can't build outwards, the only way is up.

That's because, with almost no spare land that is both a) empty and b) untouched by land-use restrictions, the only option left to house the 100,000 or so people who arrive in London each year is to redevelop land that's already built up. "Brownfield" will help but, according to estimates we've covered before, will get you less than halfway to meeting London's need.

So, to plug the gap, we either have to knock things down and rebuild them at higher density (this tends to focus on council estates, and go down brilliantly with the people who live on them); or take smaller patches of land, but build them up much, much higher than they were before.

If you ever wondered why London's skyline is becoming more and more crowded with skyscrapers, this is why.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He tweets, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

*NOTE: This paragraph wasn't in the original article. It was added, in response to comments on social media, on the morning of 19 August. Never let it be said we are unresponsive to reader comments, except when we don't want to be.


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.