Building Homes for London

London has a housing problem.  Over the last eighty years it has failed to build the one million new homes that its growing population needs.  As a result, prices have sky-rocketed to the point that a first home costs up to fifteen times a joint salary.  On average, it now takes a couple around thirty years to save a deposit to get on the housing ladder.  By the time they’ve saved that, they’ll be in their early fifties, which means they’re unlikely to get a mortgage.  The dream of owning your own home is exactly that – a dream. 

Every government and Mayor of London have promised to implement policies to change that.  Every one of them has failed.  It doesn’t appear to be down to politics – all parties think more homes are necessary.  But it’s become too big a problem, which everyone feels is easier to put off for another few years.  Or decades.

In an effort to break the logjam, Britain Remade – a lobby group aimed at improving productivity, has just launched their “Get London Building” campaign to try to persuade politicians to back a plan to build those million homes.  It aims to show that goal is possible without upsetting too many stakeholders by concentrating on four main themes.

Let’s rebuild your house 

Theme 1 is to renew London’s housing estates.  Most of the housing estates build after the war are surprisingly low density.  In terms of bedrooms per hectare, they only accommodate a third of the people that a row of terraced houses would do.  Britain Remade’s figures suggest that if these estates were knocked down and rebuilt as a mix of social and private housing at a similar density to a street of terraced houses, it would generate almost half a million additional homes.

The immediate question that comes to mind is why would people living on those estates want their homes demolished?  It sounds a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas.  But the reality can be rather different.  Most postwar estates were not well built, either for health or longevity.  The media articles and court cases on mould in homes attest to that, highlighting that many residents are living in cold, damp home, with the cost of maintaining and upgrading them beyond most council budgets.

Renewing London’s estates is not a new idea.  It’s already underway.  What is surprising is that where councils have asked residents if they want this regeneration, between 75% and 93% of residents have voted “yes”.  It suggests that this approach has legs.  The Britain Remade figures are a little naïve – it’s not going to be as easy as they imply.  Recent experiences, such as the Woodberry Down development in Hackney suggest that getting developers to provide the right mix of social housing is problematic, as is the planning process, which eats up time and money.   The build cost of each home is probably around £125,000, but current planning processes mean that significantly more than that can be spent just acquiring planning approval.  If we want to build efficiently, we need to tackle that, as most developer’s immediate approach to increasing costs is to cut back on the number of social housing units.

If all of London’s low density estates were to be regenerated, it could result in half a million new homes, which is a goal worth pursuing.  It would probably take 20 years, but it provides a predictable workload for the building industry, which should have the added benefit of improving efficiency and reduce costs. 

Don’t build for cars

Lots of new homes means even more people.  If we expect them to have cars, that’s going to be an environmental disaster, so the second theme is to concentrate building within ten minutes’ walk of a transport hub.  42% of London homes don’t have a car, so there is plenty of evidence that public transport works.  The aim here is to relax planning rules to allow taller building to be built.  Not massive tower blocks, but five or six storeys, along the lines of what is found in Edinburgh, Paris and Barcelona, which are sympathetic to the existing buildings in each area.  It’s a policy that Britain Remade promote as building homes in the right place. 

The assumption is that much of this increase will be by adding extra storeys to existing buildings, pointing out that near many transport hubs, planning rules have prevented any increase in height of existing houses.  A very similar approach has been tried in New Zealand.  Translating its success to London should allow 20,000 new homes to be built in London each year for at least the next decade.  It’s also a policy that will help plan the future development of new transport links, hopefully creating a virtuous synergy of housing and transport infrastructure. 

Ironically, just such a “Small Sites” scheme was included in the Draft London Plan in 2019, but was removed because planning inspectors thought it went “too far, too soon”.  Which provides a fair indication of where the friction is.

Building on brownfield sites

It’s a much repeated theme that we should build on brownfield sites, but in general we don’t.  Even when you want to, it may not be possible.  There are many derelict industrial sites in London where you’re not allowed to build.  Not because of contamination, or industrial heritage, but because they’ve been designated as “reserved for industrial use”.  Nobody seems quite sure why this constraint exists.  Presumably somebody in some planning office has a vision of new dark satanic server farms rising from the ashes of Blake’s mills, but that misses the fact that tomorrow’s industries are unlikely to need the same types of building on the same land as their predecessors.  Anyone who has ever worked on a 1950’s industrial estate knows how unsuitable they are for a modern industry.  But these restrictions means that we currently reserve them for storage facilities and Amazon warehouses, when they could be prime housing land.  The simple measure of removing this protection frees up land for a further 157,000 new homes.

Build on the London Borough of Golf

Theme number four is unashamedly populist – build on golf courses.  If you add up all of the land that they consume (excluding any green belt land), London’s golf courses would be the fifteenth largest borough – around the size of Brent, or twice the size of Hackney.  That could support 325,000 homes. 

Building on golf courses is not a new idea.   In 2011, the Golf Belt study calculated that London’s Golf Courses cater for around 20,000 players each day.  In contrast, building homes on them would serve almost a million residents.  It does seem a no-brainer.

Get London Building

Britain Remade see their proposal as an important document to lobby the next London Mayoral candidates in an attempt to persuade them to change planning rules.  At their launch event, this was clearly their primary aim.  It’s a well-researched document, which is based on common sense and should be relatively easy to explain to prospective politicians and planners.  It ticks a lot of boxes and steers well clear of any contentious areas like building on green belt or parks.  Some may bridle at the increased housing density, but the proposal doesn’t go beyond what’s existed in Chelsea and Maida Vale for the last hundred years, neither of which have seen density as a problem in their property values.  Planners just need to make sure that what is built delivers on streetscape and quality.  As a chair of a Conservation Area Advisory Committee, my experience suggests that will need a mindset change from a fair number of architects and developers.

There are plenty of devils in the detail, but it’s a good starting point.  It may be a bit dense for some of its intended recipients, who are probably less interested in the research and would prefer a simpler overview which they can sell up their political chain.  Britain Remade’s website could also do a better job of selling it, but I assume that will come. I’m not sure they’ve clocked the fact that their audience is wider than their immediate Westminster bubble.  Currently, their website has a petition to gather support and spread the word, but that’s about it.  However, if you’re involved in any aspect of planning, the report is well worth a read. 

London needs more homes.  It’s been waiting for them since the last major building phase ended with the advent of the second world war.  There really are no good reasons for further delay.  It’s time our Mayor and local MPs and councillors woke up to that fact and embark on a plan to get the next million homes built.  Londoners deserve that.