A recent report commissioned by the housing charity Shelter encourages the release of green belt land to respond to the housing crisis in London, concluding that redundant brownfield sites cannot possibly deliver the expansion targets that the mayoral candidates have promised to deliver. The population in the capital is expected to grow by nearly half a million in the next decade and the mayor’s own assessment suggests that 50,000 homes per year will have to be built to meet the need, more than double the recent build rates. We support steps to up the build rate to this level as Sadiq Khan promised.
Green belts were established around the UK biggest urban developments to limit expansion. Whatever the merits of building on the green belt or maintaining a blanket ban, we can see how this has so far succeeded. The Town and Country Planning Act was a courageous piece of legislation for its time. But it is perhaps not best suited to realising a fully developed, forward thinking urban strategy that Greater London so desperately needs. Is it now time for a similarly courageous intervention to succeed the 1950’s Town and Country Planning Act?
Numbers are only half the story: we need to do much more to tackle the poor quality of existing housing and up the proportion of affordable housing available. Of course numbers, quality and affordability are all related. That’s why a solution to the housing crisis needs to consider all three at the same time.
1. It is well known that the London housing stock is some of the lowest quality and highest priced in Europe. Some buildings will be more expensive to refurbish than to demolish and rebuild. The Climate Change Act sets ambitious targets. If we are to meet them, we need to consider whether it is more cost effective to improve the energy efficiency of the existing stock or to rebuild it. This is where quality, numbers and affordability meet: a lesser-reported fact is that London has one of the lowest housing densities in Europe. Demolishing old stock in poor condition is an opportunity to replace it with high quality, higher density homes. This does not mean towers and it doesn’t mean rabbit hutches. Five and six storey blocks, the mainstay of a cities like Paris, are high density yet well designed and spacious.
2. Mix and match solutions can be identified. A survey of the housing conditions in London would be needed, to establish the condition of housing and whether retrofitting is feasible. Starting with social housing, steps can be taken to decide if it makes sense to improve the energy efficiency of the stock or if it is better to demolish and rebuild to higher density and modern energy standards. Analytical tools such as Sustainable Homes’ CROHM service can do this quickly and easily. And with a stock condition survey to first identify the baseline, the same method can be used in the private sector.
3. Of course undertaking this exercise is only half the solution. Actually working out how to do the work intelligently to minimise the disruption in people’s lives is not simple. Expanding the suburbs at the periphery may be an option, but it is also fraught with political risk. It is important to get a mix of housing in central locations so that there are options for all those seeking housing. A mass of affordable housing far from the centre may not work for some. A truly holistic approach is needed where quality and quantity complement each other. Only then will we start to solve London’s housing crisis. All power to Mayor Sadiq Khan in taking this forward. He has inspired us with his win. Let’s do the same with getting action on the ground.