How do we fix London’s housing shortage?

A recent report from London Councils, the representative body of London’s Boroughs and the City of London, stating that the capital needs 800,000 new homes in the next eight years to meet demand for more housing, and clear a backlog of over a quarter of a million already needed, raises a lot of difficult questions for a lot of people.

No-one should doubt the scale of the problem. London’s population is set to exceed nine million by 2021 and housing capacity is lagging way, way behind. In the past decade, the capital’s population grew by 850,000, but less than 200,000 homes were built. In 2012, for the first time ever, respondents to a CBI survey identified lack of housing as a bigger barrier to growth in London than transport infrastructure.

But finding a solution appears to be beyond the ability of anyone who can actually make a difference. Politicians know that new housing, for London or pretty much anywhere in the UK, is a nightmare to deliver. It might be ok in principle, but it’s really, really difficult in practice. Boris Johnson highlighted housing shortfall as a key problem to tackle during his first campaign trail, yet six years in, the Mayor of London has done little more than publish report after report into what should be done, without making any of the progress needed. Even his removal of the previous Mayor’s 50% affordable housing requirement, which had been cited as a ‘crippling’ disincentive to development, has done little to stimulate the levels of new building required to make a real difference.

London Councils may have highlighted the problem, but it falls to its 33 constituent members (the 32 London Boroughs and the City of London) to actually deliver a big part of the solution. Local authorities are tasked with granting planning permission for new development and they tend not to like being told how many new houses they should have on their patch. Land is a finite resource – yes London has some amazing brownfield sites ripe for development, but not every borough has a share in a gem like the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area, soon to be home to hundreds of new properties, shops, offices and, oddly enough the US Embassy. That means pressure to build at higher densities, or with fewer parking spaces or, deep breath, on greenfield land. And all of these options are locally hated and politically toxic. It also means a disproportionate amount of the burden would fall on the larger, less densely populated outer Boroughs, because they simply have more space to play around with.

The discussion paper published by London Councils in time for Party Conference season posits a number of measures that can be taken to help address the problem. All of them seem to make eminent sense. One of the most interesting is removing the “Housing Borrowing Cap”, which currently stops councils from investing in building new homes. Both the British Property Federation and London First have backed this option. Yet, if this measure and all the others proposed by London Councils are taken up, it will only add 134,000 homes, 650,000 short of the estimated need.

So, how do we really solve this problem? I think the answer has to be, by virtue of the scale of the challenge, a radical one. In a speech at County Hall last week the former Secretary of State for Transport, Andrew Adonis, made a powerful argument for a 21st century equivalent of the Abercrombie Plan – a bold proposal for the expansion of existing satellite towns and creation of new ones close to London to meet this massive housing need. Abercrombie’s proposals, drawn up during the Second World War and seeking to clear urban slums and provide decent housing for families, were rapidly implemented in the late 1940s and ‘50s. They weren’t a total success, but they did make a massive difference to thousands of lives. And crucially, they were acted upon. Of course, it’s interesting to note that Patrick Abercrombie was also one of the key architects of the Green Belt, which many see as a significant contributor to London’s present housing malaise, but don’t tell Simon Jenkins.

Expansion of existing satellite towns and /or the building of a new one to address London’s present housing needs will be incredibly difficult to achieve. For a start it will require political bravery the like of which we simply haven’t seen in this arena since the post-war period, because it will require action rather than talk. It will require detailed, but finite consultation with local communities, and then it will need difficult, unpopular decisions to be taken. It will incur the wrath of a swathe of powerful lobby groups – just look at the ire generated by the government’s plans to reduce planning ‘red tape’ through the National Planning Policy Framework. That was just about simplifying policy, this would be about actually doing something.

And this is where I worry that nothing will end up being done. Difficult, unpopular decisions need to be taken – if they were, I think the benefits to London, Londoners old and new, and the wider UK economy would be enormous. But they would probably spell political suicide for whoever took them. In 1946, when the last housing boom commenced, politicians were used to being brave, but that’s a trait that appears to be lacking in 2013

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