Block-ed

Redeveloping council estates has become a popular way for boroughs to build more houses in London, where land is at a premium, but it is a high-wire act, conducted over a shark tank, with volleys of custard pies being hurled from the sidelines.

Build at too low densities and the numbers won\’t add up; go too high and you create a lumpy enclave out of keeping with its surroundings. Spend too much buying out existing residents and you kill the business case; spend too little and you will have to resort to compulsory purchase. Build too much market housing and you\’re accused of driving poor people from their homes; build too little and you won\’t make enough to cross-subsidise more affordable housing. Offer too little to developers and they won\’t take on the risk; offer too much and you look like an easy touch.

One of London\’s largest such schemes began to wobble on Friday, when the Secretary of State turned down Southwark\’s Council\’s application for a compulsory purchase order to enable the demolition and redevelopment of the Aylesbury Estate, planned to increase total housing numbers from 2,700 to 4,000.  The scheme has been intensely controversial, with accusations of \’social cleansing\’, occupations and forcible evictions providing a stormy backdrop to the slow-grinding legalities of planning and public enquiries.

It is hard to avoid boggling at the politics of a Conservative minister seemingly siding with anti-gentrification protestors against a major development scheme promoted by a Labour council. Is this a sign of the May government\’s commitment to helping the poorest in society? Is this dismissal of the public-private partnerships that have dominated public projects for so many years another sign of the \’end of liberalism\’?

You can imagine Conservative spin doctors savouring some of these interpretations, but the politics of this decision are probably fortuitous rather than intentional. The process of confirming (or not) compulsory purchase orders is a quasi-judicial one, made on the basis of an inspector\’s report and carefully worded official advice, not for political positioning.

And, when you look a bit deeper, the decision is a very conservative one.  It was not the rights of council tenants that were the central consideration, but eight remaining leaseholders, owners of property bought under right-to-buy legislation.  The compensation offered to them was judged to be inadequate, and their human rights likely to be breached if their homes were requisitioned. It was actually the very conservative defence of private property rights, and the Conservative policy of selling off council housing, that has knocked the project off course.

The drugs don\’t work

Originally posted in Guardian Housing Network, 15 May 2015

Housing was a far bigger issue in the 2015 general election manifestos than in 2010, and generated some of the campaign’s most controversial policy proposals. This reflects a growing public sense of crisis, and the combination of rising prices and slow construction that is particularly toxic in London, where the average house cost 11 times average earnings in 2014 (compared to seven times nationwide).

It is no surprise then that polling by Ipsos Mori shows that 28% of Londoners see housing as a top issue facing Britain today, compared with 13% nationwide. Housing is also not such a big issue for Conservative voters, and London is an increasingly Labour city, so will it remain high on the to-do list – and how will policies affect London?

The Conservative manifesto pledged to build 200,000 discounted starter homes for first-time buyers, to establish help-to-buy Isa savings accounts and to give housing association tenants the right to buy their homes. But London’s house and land prices are so high these policies will have least impact on the housing crisis in the city where it is most acute.

Help-to-buy take up has been much lower in London to date, and the new help-to-buy Isa has a maximum savings limit of £12,000, which will make only a small dent in affordability when London first-time buyer deposits are as high as £50,000.

The extension of right to buy could cost London the most, while benefitting it least. The National Housing Federation estimates that only 15% of London housing association tenants would be able to afford to buy their property, compared with 35% in northern England. But these discounted sales will be cross-subsidised by sales of the most expensive council houses, which will raise most cash in London (though high replacement costs will reduce the amount raised).

Whether boosting demand will boost supply is much debated, but the manifesto made some proposals about supply too. Measures to encourage use of brownfield and public sector land will be important in London, though much brownfield land in London is already allocated. Building on the green belt seems to be prohibited, while new garden cities will only be built where these are “locally led” (which probably rules them out in much of south-east England).

The impact of these measures may be limited in London, and parliamentary time dominated by other issues, but the coming state of constitutional flux offers an opportunity. Thanks to fixed-term parliaments, we know which party will be in government in early 2020. But we are a lot foggier about what they will be governing: a United Kingdom standing apart from its European neighbours; a loose federation of resurgent nation states; or an uneasy and asymmetric patchwork of provinces?

If all this is on the table, then housing in London must be. If the national prescription doesn’t work in London, then the next mayor should make the case for something that does; not for special treatment, but for more powers, resources and flexibility – to build more, better and faster.

London boroughs are starting to build again, and should be less restricted in borrowing against future revenue streams (including rent). The mayor should be able to establish more housing zones and development corporations to build homes using public land.

There is also a case to be made for pooling developers’ affordable housing payments across London to support a London-wide programme for affordable housing. The next mayor may also want to encourage higher densities in outer London, or push to look again at London’s green belt, and ask where releasing land (perhaps under public sector control) might provide more housing and more enjoyable green space.

Many of these solutions are highly interventionist and some would be controversial but it is hard to build the housing needed in a city like London without putting some noses out of joint. Mayors can do that. The political complexion of the incumbent should not make a difference; whatever the capital’s voting patterns, its housing crisis cannot be allowed to strangle growth.

Candidates for mayor in 2016 will vie to demonstrate that they understand the urgency of the crisis, and are committed to action. Housing could be the big issue in the next mayoral campaign; it is in everyone’s interest for the winner to be given the powers and resources to deliver on their promises.

No direction home

Originally posted on Centre for London\’s blog 27 April 2015

Londoners worry differently. We are less concerned about immigration and the NHS than other Brits, but much more anxious about housing – in 2014, 28 per cent of Londoners cited housing as one of the most important issues facing the country, versus 13 per cent across Great Britain (Ipsos MORI Issues Index, 2014 aggregated data).

The symptoms of the housing crisis are more pronounced in London, too. The average house price is seven times the average salary across England, but 11 times the average salary in London. Prices rose by 28 per cent across England between late 2008 and late 2014, but by 53 per cent in London (60 per cent in inner London).

This divergence is hurting the rest of the country as well as London: at a recent Centre for London event, former mayoral candidate Steve Norris described high housing prices as “both a fortress and a cage” preventing mobility between London and the rest of the UK, and undermining productivity.

So it looks like good news that the main party manifestos are making commitments on housing. But the specific symptoms and scale of London’s housing crisis call for specific solutions; many of the policies being touted are likely to have least impact in the Capital, where the housing crisis is most acute. The manifestos are missing the mark.

For example, whatever its much-debated merits as policy, the Conservatives’ proposal to extend right-to-buy to housing association tenants will have least impact in London, where the National Housing Federation estimates that only 15 per cent of tenants would be able to afford to buy their property (even with a discount), as opposed to 35 per cent in Northern England. Similarly, Help-to-Buy ISAs’ maximum savings of £12,000 will only make a small dent in affordability in a city where first time buyer deposits are as high as £50,000. And high land prices may make London the least economic location for 200,000 discounted starter homes.

Labour’s plans for new garden cities could relieve pressure on London, if implemented, though a commitment to working through consensus will make it hard to find sites in South East England. A preference for local first time buyers seems parochially mismatched to London’s churning population; born-and-bred Londoners do struggle to afford somewhere to live, but so do the thousands of young people who come to London every year and fuel the Capital’s economy. Meanwhile, the Mansion Tax would affect more than 100,000 householders in London, many of whom are not particularly high earners, or ‘mansion-dwellers’ by any normal definition.

To be fair, other policies will have more of an impact: the Conservatives commitment to fund brownfield land development, as prefigured by the London Land Commission announced in the budget, could favour the capital. Labour’s commitment to rent controls will be controversial with landlords, but could make a real difference to private sector renters (who comprise 24 per cent of London households, against 15 per cent in England and Wales), and powers to intervene against land-banking speculators could ginger up housing supply (London has 216,000 homes with planning permission in the ‘pipeline’).

Party manifestos are national documents, so maybe we should not expect them to be tailored to the specifics of an asymmetric housing crisis. And they are defensive as well as aspirational, seeking to offer pledges and commitments that will appeal to the majority, without opening up a flank that the other side can attack. But if London’s growth continues to outstrip expectations, how will the city find space for the ten million people forecast to live here by 2030? This is a highly-charged debate, on which the manifestos are silent: should we pursue more housing estate redevelopment, more council-led building to supplement housebuilders’ limited capacity, higher densities in suburban locations, remodeling the Green Belt, allowing more commercial-to-residential conversion?

Each of these ideas has its advocates, but each also has bitter opponents; losers as well as winners. The discussion may be as controversial in London as it is nationwide, but it will be harder for mayoral candidates to duck an issue that is so important to Londoners. Whether government lets them make a difference is a different matter, and the omens are not promising. Amidst all the talk of city deals and devolution, the modest proposal made last year in the Inspector’s report on the London Plan, that London should begin to think more radically about where it could accommodate new housing, was firmly slapped down by planning minister Brandon Lewis: Green Belt was sacrosanct, and there would be no going back to regional planning.

Nonetheless, perhaps the candidates standing for election as London’s next Mayor in a year’s time will feel the urgency of the crisis, claim the mandate, and demand the powers and resources to do something about it. And maybe, just maybe, the next government will listen.

Ecraser les bourgeois?

It is commonplace to contrast the social mix of London with the segregation of Paris. This analysis characterises (caricatures?) Paris as a doughnut city: the centre is homogenously bourgeois, while the immigrants and the poor are relegated to the concrete banlieues on the other side of the Peripherique.

London by contrast is held to be a city which switches from elegant townhouse to high-rise council housing in a matter of yards, as a result of the combined efforts of the Luftwaffe and post-war planning. There are richer and poorer areas, but few districts are devoid of either social housing or a middle class enclave.

But perhaps that\’s all starting to change. Central St Giles is a garish Renzo Piano development on one of London\’s most historically ominous sites. The super dense development may tip its hat to the crowded tenements that once dominated, but there the resemblance ends. While 53 flats have been allocated to Circle Anglia for social rental and intermediate buy-rent, the others are apparently being marketed in the Far East, with prices starting at £500,000 for a studio, and £1 million for a two-bed flat.

What\’s missing is the middle – the flats that might be within the financial grasp of people on an average, or even above-average but not astronomical, salary. Central London\’s property market appears to have reached a condition where only the super-rich and key workers (the 21st Century\’s \’deserving poor\’?) can afford to get their foot on the ladder. This is a \’mixed community\’, true, but a very odd one: just how will this blend of jetsetters, jobseekers and low-paid workers actually rub along?

Perhaps the developers (Legal and General, and Mitsubishi) are agitators, working under deep cover to foment revolution, by laying bare the inequities in society. Or perhaps it\’s just another of the bizarre outcomes of London\’s soaring land values, persistent high-end demand, and reliance on developers to provide public goods.

Paddling while England sinks

The Government’s consultation on boosting housing supply could hardly have started at a worse time. With residents of west country towns looking down at filthy waters from their first floor windows, this was not the best moment to publish policy documents that emphasise the need to create more homes, even if these are to be on flood plains.

To be fair, the Green Paper on housing does acknowledge the likelihood of increased flooding in the future, and the need to ensure adequate flood defences and to avoid “inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding”. But these cautious statements sit uneasily with the desperate need for new housing reflected in the document. Can we have it both ways, or are we paddling while England sinks?

Seeing your home flood must be vile for the victims. Viler still must be the knowledge that, as the brown water inexorably rises, your next months will be spent squabbling with insurers, throwing out ruined carpets and furniture, chipping off sodden and contaminated plaster, just to make your home habitable again. Maybe the Environment Agency can be blamed for delayed warnings and late arrival of flood defence barriers, but these would only have bought time as rivers swelled to 36 feet above their normal level.

What is to be done? We could continue to build flood defences higher and higher, until the rivers that give many of our towns and cities their beauty are hidden from view by huge levees. Or we could turn the problem around, creating open space that can act as flood storage, and building homes that can quickly recover from flooding. The Dutch, whose country is one big flood plain, have already started to build amphibious houses on hollow concrete bases, which can rise four metres when rivers flood.

But we don’t need to go that far. Government and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) have both published guidance on flood resilience, for new build and existing houses respectively. Gypsum-based plaster can be replaced with more water-resistant materials, ground floor rooms can be used as service space, electrical sockets can be put halfway up walls and non-return valves can be fitted to drains.

Flood resilience measures might not be pretty – plastic kitchen units and concrete floors, anyone? – and leaving the ground floor to services and car parking conflicts with everything that urban designers learn about ‘animated street fronts’. But the ABI calculates that spending an extra £34,000 on making repairs to a three-bedroom house more resilient could save £37,000 on repair costs next time that the waters rise (let alone several times that in anguish).

One in ten UK homes is already at risk from flooding, and we can only expect that proportion – and the frequency and severity of floods – to increase. Instead of demanding ever higher, more intrusive and more expensive defences, like some latter-day Cnuts, we could accept flooding as a fact of life, which careful planning and design can turn from a cataclysm to an inconvenience.