Some speculation…

In March 2020, UK office workers embarked on an unplanned and unprecedented experiment in home working. During 2020, home working rates were three times higher than before the pandemic; and four times higher for people employed in London. The experiment went pretty well, all things considered. The tech generally worked, even if the novelty of video meetings from cramped bedrooms quickly wore off, and productivity seems to have been sustained – at least in the short term.

A bigger and more complex experiment lies ahead. What will happen to ‘office jobs’ in the future, and what implications will this have for workers, for careers, for places – particularly places such as city centres?

This rather long article is an attempt to work through my thoughts on these questions, so is necessarily speculative (and at least in part inevitably wrong).

All in or all out?

Unlike the mandatory and largely uniform experiment of lockdown, the next experiment will see a variety of models, driven by shifting and varying patterns of government regulation, the needs and cultures of different industry sectors, and employer and worker preferences. With the exception of a few banks who still seem to be playing by Wall Street rules (“Lunch is for wimps” etc), it doesn’t look like many employers are ready to demand all staff are back in the office full time.

This would have felt like a regressive step even before the pandemic; home-working rates have been creeping up over the past ten years, encouraged by employers’ focus on ‘agility’, better technology for communication (and surveillance), and strengthened rights to work flexibly. Now that working habits and norms have caught up with the technology, reverting to the ‘nine to five’ presenteeism seems self-defeating as well as unfair – particularly for people looking after children (predominantly women) who would find themselves squeezed once again by childcare timetables.

At the other end of the spectrum, fully remote working coped during the crisis, but can this be sustained? Many workers felt that they were drawing down the reserves of social capital they had built with colleagues. Increases in task productivity are offset by more difficult team productivity. Online tools may help smooth collaboration and learning, particularly for younger ‘digital native’ workers, but in my last workplace, these were the very workers who wanted to be back in the office – to escape from parents and cramped flatshares, and to meet up with colleagues and peers.

Working away from the office may also make it harder for younger employees to learn the trick of the trade – how to behave in meetings, how to give and receive criticism, how to make a pitch, how to manage a difficult client – or for new employees to get to grips with all the unspoken aspects of corporate culture. All these can no doubt be taught formally, but for most of us they have been learned informally, even osmotically – by watching, listening and modelling.

Hybridities – beginning of a great adventure?

So, while most office workers are still at home, it is ‘hybrid working’ that is expected to dominate in the future, with people spending two or three days in the office and the rest working from home (or another remote workspace).

This could be entirely unstructured, allowing considerable discretion as to where and when employees work, and already is in many workplaces. But wider adoption could pose problems. First, most workers would choose to work from home on Mondays and Fridays, and in the office mid-week. If this approach was widely adopted it could lead to a sharp drop in demand for city centre services but would make it hard for firms to cut costs by reducing floorspace. Perhaps more seriously, it would risk reinstating a divide between those who were willing and able to be in the office more (principally men without caring responsibilities), and those who worked from home more (often women with caring responsibilities). The former have tended to do better in terms of career progression, even when the latter are more productive.

If these and other advantages are sustained, you could quite easily see a tipping point, as workers find it easier to collaborate, but also to compete, by being in the office. Hybrid working could remain permitted in theory, but become increasingly rare in practice,

Alternatively, management could decide who came in on which days. But this isn’t problem free either. Do you bring whole teams in together, or do you mix them up? Do shift patterns change so everybody gets some Mondays and Fridays at home? Can online tools work as well for informal as well as formal collaboration, when some people are in the office and others are at home? Is it really fair to force workers – particularly those for whom home working is difficult – to stay away?

But – to step back for a moment – why do we go into an office at all? We office worker types risk not only thinking everyone else is an office worker, but also that everybody’s office job is like our own. In fact, ‘office jobs’ contain multitudes – from conceptualising, designing and selling products, to talking to clients and collaborators, to analysing data, writing reports and coding, to monitoring service delivery, to managing staff, to maligning management and gossiping about Love Island. In varying proportions, even highly-skilled ‘knowledge economy’ jobs involve ‘relational’ work (essentially talking to other people) and more task-focused ‘programmable’ work.

There are some jobs dominated by ‘programmable’ work that can be carried out almost entirely autonomously, they are a minority. (And as a recent report argued such ‘work anywhere’ jobs can as easily move overseas as they can move out of UK city centres.) For the rest of us, adapting our workflows so that we can concentrate more ‘programmable’ work into days away from the office may require the type of flexibility that is hard to align with a structured approach to hybrid working.

In the short-term, therefore, I think we will see a period of experimentation. Different firms will try out different models of office, hybrid and remote working, testing out their impact on staff morale, retention and productivity. In an increasingly fluid labour market, you could see some employers targeting packages at younger workers, and some offering a deal that better suits people with children. It could be quite tumultuous.

But my hunch is that office and remote working models will begin to dominate in the medium term, because they have a coherence and support a common culture with which hybrid models struggle. Firms will reach tipping points where almost everyone is in all week, or almost nobody is; one of those will become the dominant model for particular firms or whole sectors, and decisions on leases and employment terms will reflect that. Neither model will be entirely pure: office-based jobs will probably allow more flexible working than before the pandemic, and remote-working employers will still bring staff together for structured collaboration sessions. But my guess is that working patterns will be 90:10 rather than 60:40.

Cities and centres – inertia counts

So, what does this all mean for our cities, and for London in particular? I suspect there are three scenarios: decline, dispersal and doubling down. Cities could see their centres decline in absolute and relative terms, losing jobs and population – particularly wealthier people, who can afford choice and are less tied to lower-paid service sector jobs. This would be disastrous in economic and environmental terms, as car-dependent sprawl spread through the countryside, and the problems of poverty and dereliction increased in cities. However, while there are some signs of ‘de-urbanisation’ in recent UK population figures, this feels the least likely option, not only because of the continuing appetite for some office working discussed above, but also because of the polutical risks involved in allowing this to happen.

A less dramatic variant would be dispersed patterns of working in and around core cities – perhaps realising the ‘fifteen-minute city’ vision that has caught the imagination of many city planners. I can see this taking hold, particularly for some sectors and some job types. More ‘relational’ jobs (consulting and advisory services, advertising, publishing) may stay in the city, benefitting from all the visible and invisible spillovers of agglomeration, while more ‘programmable’ jobs (coders, technicians, web designers) move out (or, as mentioned earlier, maybe even go offshore).

A recent OECD report suggested corporations would seek to relocate offices out of city centres. But how much would an employer gain by moving out of a city such as London (or Birmingham, or Manchester) with highly developed radial public transport systems and ecosystems of business services. Moving from London to Colchester, Crawley or Cranfield would inconvenience many more workers than it would help, at a time when businesses follow talent rather than vice versa. Inertia has an impact. So I suspect that most firms that retain office-based working will remain in city centres, and that the savings to be made from reducing footprints will be limited – though you can expect tenants to negotiate hard when leases come up.

There is still a longer-term question: will new start-ups see the value in city centre offices, or will they naturally adopt a more dispersed business model? Designing in dispersed working from the outset makes a lot more sense than trying to retrofit corporate structures, processes and cultures. But there’s a paradox here. The young people who work in such businesses are also the young people who are drawn to cities for the richness of professional and personal opportunity, for culture and recreation, and often to be with their peer group after university. If dispersed working is adopted by a new generation of firms, it may be dispersal within rather than dispersal from big cities.

The ‘doubling down’ scenario, where city centre working intensifies, seems the least likely at first glance. The co-incidence of a pandemic and technological change has created both a driver and an enabler for more dispersed working. But in the long-term, policy will make a difference and policy should be favouring urban growth (despite the electoral politics of ‘levelling up’).

We know that cities are more efficient than sprawl in terms of their carbon impact, and we know that government policy is refocusing new housing into cities, after a flirtation with more dispersed settlement. We can also expect business travel by air to decline, as carbon targets bite. All of these factors suggest that economic growth may concentrate in a few densely-mixed urban centres, well connected by lower carbon transport, rather than being spread through a network of offices within a country or a global region. The role of these cities and of offices within them will change – with extended commuting patterns, less generic retail, and offices that are platforms for collaboration and meeting rather than for routine administration – but they have successfully changed before.

The UK’s cities have borne the brunt of the health and economic harms arising from a pandemic. They will face the steepest road to recovery, and some may struggle to get back on their feet. But over time, I think our sociable natures will combine with the continuing strength of agglomeration, the inertia of infrastructure and the growing urgency of climate action, to enable cities to bounce back. It will be a choppy few years. Businesses need to be ready to experiment and adapt, without betting the house prematurely on any particular model. Governments need to respond with the policies and investments to make this recovery economically dynamic, socially just and environmentally sustainable.

Inner city life, inner city pressure

As the weather improves and lockdown restrictions are relaxed, life is ebbing back onto the streets of central London. People who were commuting in daily just over a year ago are beginning to revisit a city centre that is both familiar and utterly transformed. And to think about its future.

There are still more questions than answers about that future. How much remote working will persist, and how will much-discussed models of ‘hybrid working’ play out? Will employers reduce their demands for workspace, and will any surplus space be picked up by new arrivals attracted by lower rents? How quickly can tourist and international student numbers recover, and how will shops, pubs and restaurants cope if both commuting and tourism remain suppressed?

These uncertainties are likely to persist for some months, but some slackening in demand for office and retail space is widely expected, as working and consumption patterns change, and employers rethink their needs. Some premises might be adapted by cultural and community organisations, for experimental pop-ups and meanwhile uses, but it is likely that new residential development will play a part too.

This could actually help build the city’s resilience. As Centre for London set out just before the pandemic bit, central London’s population has been growing fast over the past decade, but the city centre is still less densely populated than Paris or New York. So when coronavirus brought commuting and tourism to a standstill, central London and its businesses were particularly hard hit by the loss of trade, and have continued to struggle as restrictions have been successively relaxed, re-imposed and relaxed again.

So more people living in the city centre is not only likely but desirable, as was underlined in Arup’s recent report for the Greater London Authority on the future of the Central Activities Zone (CAZ):

“A higher CAZ residential population, to offer more sustainable lifestyles, resilience, increased vibrancy and ‘stewardship’ of the CAZ’s resources for others, and bringing London more into line with its global rivals.”

But allowing more residential development or conversion in central London is not straightforward. The current London Plan and borough planning documents give the CAZ and Canary Wharf special status, to protect the clustering and density of ‘strategic functions’ (for example global commerce, education, culture, government and tourism) and give these uses priority over housing. This protection, the argument goes, preserves the essential character of central London as a truly global city centre and the economic powerhouse of the UK.

How could more housing be brought into the mix without diluting these qualities and this global draw? Should new build and conversions be pepper-potted through the CAZ, or focused in a few neighbourhoods? And can office and retail conversions retain flexibility, or is any switch to housing a permanent change?

Some parts of central London and some building types look a lot more inhabitable than others. Big open-plan offices, as found in the heart of the City and Canary Wharf, are unlikely to be adapted as easily as older buildings in the West End, Clerkenwell, Bloomsbury and the South Bank, which have switched from houses to flats to offices and now perhaps back to housing over the years.

There are also issues of management and services. How would potential disputes between residents and businesses be resolved over night-time deliveries, late-night crowds leaving bars and nightclubs, parking and vehicle access? And where will health services and schools be located, as well as everyday shops?

All of these factors suggest that a remixing of London’s city centre will need to be carefully managed, not left to the free-for-all of ‘permitted development’ from office to residential uses that government is proposing – and which has led to some truly atrocious conversions of commercial buildings. Central London currently has exemptions from permitted development, but these expire in summer 2022, and London’s boroughs will soon need to start making the case for renewing them.

Central London is a dynamic and creative place. As we emerge from the pandemic into a world that is still being reshaped, Centre for London hopes to explore how we can apply that dynamism and creativity to refresh its mix of uses, as well as to support the national recovery.

[Published by Centre for London, 26 May 2021]

Zones of interest – the Planning White Paper and London

[Published by Centre for London, 29 October 2020]

The government’s ‘Planning for the future White Paper, on which public consultation closes this week, is a bold statement of intent at a time when many of us are confused about planning for the Christmas holidays. It sets out a radical agenda for reforming town planning — to speed the process up, to get more and better homes built, to make community involvement more meaningful. But how will it work in London?

Read our response to the consultation

The proposals amount to a rather British hybrid (aka ‘fudge’) between zoning-based systems where rules are set up front for what can be built where, and the more discretionary system we have now, where decisions are taken on a case-by case basis, albeit in the light of local and national policy. It proposes that the whole country will be divided into areas for growth, areas for renewal and areas for protection, with automatic planning permission for new developments that fall within the rules for growth areas, and a greater role for discretion in the other categories.

The government will set housing targets for each council, will issue a national ‘design code’ allowing for local variation, and will introduce a standardised levy on the value of new development, to pay for affordable housing and other local infrastructure. Councils will allocate land to the different categories, develop local design codes and zoning rules (eg, on mix of uses), consult local people on these, collect and spend the new infrastructure levy, and take any decisions still required.

There’s a lot of potential in these proposals. They won’t solve London’s housing problem on their own, but they could help. Greater planning certainty could diversify the market and speed up building, and there’s a huge problem of public trust that earlier engagement could help with.

But the White Paper is deafeningly silent on how all this applies to London, and implies too many powers being drawn into the centre and not enough being left to local democracy. Given the government’s challenge to the Mayor’s draft London Plan, and the strings attached to bailouts of Transport for London, you could be forgiven for seeing this as another area where devolution is being rolled back by ministers that see city mayors as an irritant at best. Government officials insist this is not the case. In fact, they say, London’s two tier planning system, housing targets and network of opportunity areas are the type of approach being pushed more widely.

But the detail does need fleshing out, as Centre for London’s response to the consultation argues. If London is really to accommodate the number of new homes that the government’s new calculations suggest (more than 90,000 each year), this will need more radical approaches to working across South-East England and/or a long-overdue review of the green belt.

And the roles of the London Plan, borough plans and associated design codes will need to be very clear if ‘upstream’ community engagement is to have strong enough teeth for local people to feel that they can shape growth and urban change where they live, without debating every building. This will also have to mean strengthening controls on ‘permitted development’ conversions of commercial buildings, which are creating some horrid and pokey flats around the capital (though the government has made the positive commitment that national space standards will now be applied to such developments).

The new proposed ‘infrastructure levy’ for affordable housing and other costs will not generate enough funding on its own to build all the affordable homes London needs. But, along with zoning, it should help to bring more builders into the market by creating more clarity up front, and reducing the haggling and costs involved in securing permission.

If the changes are implemented, it will redefine the role of borough planning officers. More zoning-based systems will require more up-front work on masterplans and public consultations and maybe less management of individual planning applications. Given the cuts that planning departments have seen in recent years and the shortage of skills in these areas they are already facing, this will have to mean more money, at least for a transitional period.

But the big question is whether the reforms will be followed through. The proposed centralised approach to setting housing targets and the higher targets that this would generate for the South East has scandalised many home counties MPs (though many seem to miss the fact that the numbers generated by the ‘mutant algorithm’ will be modified to reflect constraints on capacity). And picking apart and restitching the complexities of planning, without generating uncertainty for developers and councils as the UK enters recession, will be a big challenge. But 1947, when the Town and Country Planning Act became law and put in place the planning system we have today, was a testing time too.

Having doubts about density

 [Published by Centre for London, 29 June 2020]

I must admit, I have been having doubts about density in recent weeks. Such is the strength of belief in the high-density compact city model of urban living, that its denial feels like a crisis of faith. But coronavirus – and more importantly the changes to our lives that coronavirus has accelerated – are making me think again.

The argument for density is powerfully made, from a social, environmental and economic perspective. The sprawling suburbs that rising car use enabled in the mid 20th century were hugely damaging in terms of air quality, carbon emissions and habitat destruction, their gridlocked freeways a reminder that the lure of the open road quickly evaporates when millions of people want to travel to the same destination at the same time, in the least efficient way possible.

Suburban sprawl also disrupted social bonds, as documented by scholars like Michael Young in East London. People retreated from a sense of community to lifestyles that prioritised the individual or the nuclear family, with ever weaker social ties (the ’bowling alone’ phenomenon). Sprawl became a self-fulfilling prophecy: without density of population, there was not the critical mass to sustain neighbourhood shops, cafes, public services and transport systems. These things all became the object of car journeys, and parking assumed priority over proximity in a thousand out-of-town retail and leisure centres.

These ruinous impacts of sprawl were well documented in the paradigm-shifting work of the Urban Task Force in the UK, and in the rise of New Urbanism across the world. Gradually residents started returning to city centres (big businesses had never really moved out, following their own logic of agglomeration), drawn by the lure of easier commutes, improving public services, and the resurgent hum of metropolitan life. In central London, the population grew by more than 25 per cent in the seven years to 2018. And across central and inner London, towering residential blocks have sprung up, often lumpily incongruous with their more modestly sized neighbours.

But you have to ask, who is going to want to live in these towers now? As London recovers, some of the benefits of centrality will be reinforced; the ability to walk or cycle to work, for example, will enable urbanites to bypass constrained public transport. But trading space for proximity will seem less of a good deal than it was. Restaurants and bars will struggle, and some may never reopen; online shopping could boom at the expense of already struggling city centre shops; and workplaces may become places that are used intermittently, rather than for the standard nine-to-five (or five-to-nine, depending on your business) daily grind.

At the same time, connectivity is being transformed. As the electricity supply becomes less and less dependent on carbon fuels, electric vehicles and more environmentally-friendly hybrids such as electric bikes will allow movement without wrecking the planet, and online technologies from Zoom to Spotify will shift the focus from moving people and products through physical space to moving bits of data through networks. We have not yet experienced the death of distance that was much vaunted at the dawn of the internet age, but we may now be seeing the decarbonisation of distance.

So coming out the crisis, citizens may see a weaker case for high-density urban living, and fewer downsides to the alternatives. This is not to advocate a return to sprawl, or even to argue that it is an inevitable outcome, but for more dispersed urban density. People value the buzz of urban life, but perhaps they would rather enjoy it from a house with a small garden, rather than from a meanly proportioned flat with a Lilliputian balcony. Perhaps suburbs could provide the “best of the city and the best of the countryside” once promised by the garden city movement.

And London looks well placed to prosper in this new age of sustainable suburban living, as a city in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of urban density. The city is sometimes described as ‘low density’, and it is when compared to Barcelona or Manhattan. But London is actually just as dense as Paris, and significantly denser than New York (wider urban area), even though its peak density is lower than both (see Table 1). That is to say, it may not be as dense in the centre as those cities, but it doesn’t sprawl so much on the edge either.

Table 1: Density of major cities compared to London (Source: 2015 figures)

New York London Paris Barcelona
Overall density (000s pop/sq km) 3.4 5.2 5.2 6.4
Peak (000s pop/sq km) 56.3 25.5 45.2 26.8

London’s miles of terraced Victorian houses actually offer pretty high densities, as well as private outdoor space for residents and the potential to support schools and other services within a fifteen-minute walk (particularly if the daytime population grows with more home working).

So London and other big cities may face a choice, and sooner than they think. Some affluent residents may start to turn their back on hyper dense city centre locations (maybe enabling a wider variety of residents to move in, including more young people). The density doubters will then have a choice; whether to move right out of the city, or whether to put down their roots within a few miles.

Many of London’s suburbs have seen a gradual decline in recent years, as employment, services and richer residents have been drawn to the city centre, but this could be an opportunity for reinvention. With investment and the right planning policies, they could return to favour, offering enough density to thrive, but enough space to breathe.

Time for some conscious uncoupling of London\’s Green Belt

[First published in Estates Gazette, 1 November 2019)]

Tackling the housing crisis was top of Sadiq Khan’s policy agenda in 2016. So, with the next mayoral election six months away, the publication of the planning inspectors’ report into the mayor’s draft London Plan – the blueprint for London’s growth – is a big moment.

There is some good news for City Hall in the report, published last week. The inspectors back the mayor’s plan as a whole, his assessment of housing need and also his affordable housing policies – including the threshold approach to fast-track permission, which they say is “appearing to bear fruit”.

But the report does challenge the mayor’s assessment of housing capacity, and in particular his expectation that small sites could supply 25,000 of the 65,000 homes planned each year. As the inspectors acknowledge, this would require a 250% increase in building on small sites in outer London boroughs – the very locations where dense development can provoke the most furious rows among neighbours, politicians and community groups. “Whilst the policy approach is aspirational,” the inspectors conclude, “its delivery is not realistic.”

They recommend halving the small sites target to 12,000 homes a year, giving an overall housing target of 52,000 a year. Given that London is projected to need 66,000 homes a year, of which 55,000 are simply to keep up with population growth (the rest being to deal with the backlog of need), this would leave London with a worsening housing shortage. The gap looks even wider if you use the government’s new calculations of need, which come up with an annual figure of 72,000 homes.

This may all seem a bit moot when London is only building around 30,000 homes a year, but balancing need and capacity is a foundation stone of town planning. The inspectors reject the Sisyphean suggestion – made by former secretary of state James Brokenshire what seems like a political aeon ago – that the plan should be immediately reviewed. Instead, they recommend that the mayor should lead a strategic review of London’s green belt, in the light of the projected shortfall of land for housing (and industrial uses).

This presents the mayor with a dilemma. His commitment to tackling London’s housing crisis is matched only by his commitment to preserving London’s green belt. And you can see why. Green belt reviews are popular among planners and policy wonks, but toxic for the general public; recent polling shows that opposition to building on or reviewing the green belt is as strong as ever.

All of which may suggest that it would be a “bold” politician (in the Yes Minister sense of the word) who agreed to lead a green belt review in what may be a multiple election year. Positions are entrenched, and debates about the green belt can be as fervent – and as futile – as debates about Brexit. But there is an opportunity here too: the mayor could bring light where there is currently just heat, and show that elected mayors can take the lead where governments freeze like marginal-seated rabbits in the headlights.

A review, in partnership with councils and communities, would be an opportunity to discuss the green belt’s role as a constraint on sprawl, for public recreation and as habitat, and to consider how different land uses meet these aims – rather than defending the green belt as sacrosanct in principle while allowing it to be nibbled away and leap-frogged in practice.

It could explore different options for change, from allowing building in railway station catchment areas to planning and building urban extensions, as exemplars of “good growth” rather than incoherent and exclusive car-based suburbs. It could consider how to substitute for any green space lost, and how to enhance the quality and accessibility of what remains.

The inspectors’ report suggests that, having grown by 30% in three decades, London is starting to strain against its boundaries. It feels like the moment for an open and rational debate about how the next 30 years’ growth can be environmentally responsible and socially inclusive. The next mayor of London – whoever that is – should lead this debate.

Belts, lumps and extensions (June 2019)

[Published OnLondon, 7 June 2019]

Nothing ignites a policy debate like the subject of London’s Green Belt. You might think Brexit had eclipsed it, but the discussion at a recent roundtable on the issue showed that the flame still burns bright.

On one side, the Green Belt was held up as an anachronism, restricting land supply, thereby pushing up house prices in the capital, pulling the lower rungs of the property ladder further and further out of reach and deepening London’s affordability crisis. The Green Belt isn’t even that green, the argument went, accommodating as it does golf courses, haulage yards, and other economically or aesthetically dubious uses.

On the other side, the Green Belt’s defenders argue that all of this is premature, or even beside the point. London still has plentiful and oft-replenished stocks of “brownfield’’ (previously developed) land. Allowing London to spread into the Green Belt rather than making the most of these inner city sites would be socially and environmentally disastrous; it would hollow out the capital and lead to the pattern of urban dereliction and car-dependent sprawl that has blighted many US cities. We should focus – first and last and always – on building out the brownfield sites within the M25.

These positions are entrenched and passionately defended, though it is worth noting that some of the arguments seem to be at cross-purposes. Defenders of the Green Belt do not actually hold it to be an arcadian idyll. For them, its primary purpose is containment, not beauty. Neither do (most) advocates for change argue for wholesale abandonment of any constraints on development, and for the frenzy of speculation and sprawl that would likely ensue.

But the real problem with both strongly-held position is that they do not allow for nuance, or the complexity inherent in a system where planning, consumer choice, housing finance, urban design, international investment and local politics intertwine. So here are six see-saw statements – each balanced on a “but” – exploring whether London really has a land shortage and whether the Green Belt might help address this.

The Green Belt is not all green, but that’s not really the point

When a “green belt” was first proposed by the Greater London Regional Planning Committee in 1935, it was described both as a recreational amenity and as a constraint on growth, and was envisaged as being a few miles wide. When the first green belts were introduced in the mid-1950s, the focus shifted to the latter function – to checking metropolitan growth, stopping towns merging with each other and preserving their character. Leisure and nature conservation were secondary. And as the population of south east England has grown, London’s Green Belt has been defensively extended in stages to cover more than 500,000 hectares, three times the area of Greater London. The “belt” is at least as important as the “green”.

London has accommodated huge population growth, but at a price

In the post-war period, as Inner London lost population, the Green Belt prevented the city from sprawling out as many US cities did, although many Londoners settled – by choice or dispersal – in the new and old towns that surrounded the capital. Since the tide turned in the late 1980s, London has housed a population that has grown by a third, from 6.7 to 8.8 million, within its boundaries. And it has done this while persistently failing to build the number of new homes that planners say are needed.

How so? Overcrowding has increased and the number of vacant homes has fallen but, most dramatically, house prices have shot up – accelerated by speculative frenzy and in recent years cheap credit – both in London itself and in the surrounding towns and cities that have seen commuting increase. If London is to continue to grow, this approach is not sustainable: building more homes, and in particular more low-priced homes, has to be part of the solution to what is becoming a crisis for young Londoners and a threat to London’s economy.

There are ‘sites’ for London’s population growth, but their deliverability is debatable.

The draft London Plan, published in late 2017, maintains that London can accommodate the vast majority of the 66,000 homes per year that it needs to built. The Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment that underpins the Plan estimates that sites for 65,000 of these can be found on a mixture of identified and “windfall” sites, many of them in Outer London.

The Plan has just completed its “examination in public” (a form of public enquiry) and the planning inspectors will report on their findings in September. It is fair to say that the examination saw debate about the realism of housing targets. How could London double the rate of building, given the current track record, the controversial nature of building more in Outer London, and the Plan’s clampdown on release of industrial land (which has supplied 100 hectares a year for development in recent years, three times the level anticipated)?

Getting planning permission for small sites around Outer London town centres is likely to be tough, but planning permission is only the start. London already has a backlog of permissions, with 300,000 homes – ten years’ supply at current build rates – in the pipeline. Some of these permissions may be scuppered by planning obligations, or by the need for investment in infrastructure or remediation. Others may be being held back by developers nervous about London’s shaky-looking market. And some may have been secured solely to establish value for a site, by landowners who have no intention of building.

Finally, high land prices mean that even when new housing is built, the viability of affordable housing becomes a matter for intense negotiation, often stalling schemes. Capital programmes for affordable housing have been cut to the bone, so without more funding in the system, it is hard for affordable housing to be built at scale without market housing to cross-subsidise it.

Density is good for cities, but maximising density isn’t always best

But if London’s remaining sites are scarce and/or difficult, the city can surely build at higher densities. Within its boundaries, London is much less densely built than New York, Paris or Barcelona, and the importance of urban density – to create vitality, make efficient use of land, and support public transport and other services – has come to the fore recently. Density is good for cities and citizens.

Yet density cannot be increased across the city simply by turning a dial. Barcelona has incredibly high density because of its characteristic block formation. Creating this type of density in London would require wholesale demolition and reconstruction of a city that remains dominated by two to three storey terraces and semi-detached houses. New developments are being built much more densely than in the past, surging past planning guidelines and taking advantage of lower levels of car ownership. But this uneven pattern of “lumpy” development is not only creating community controversy, it is not even making much difference to the speed of housebuilding. Developers are simply releasing land more slowly.

Unbuckling the Green Belt would likely be a disaster, but that’s not the only way

Watching the glacial pace of development within London, you can’t help but wonder whether to be radically disruptive. Ditching the Green Belt designation would likely lead to a frenzy of activity but maybe not to so much building.

Many local authorities would still seek to protect former Green Belt land from development, while the planning system would see a flurry of applications and appeals, agricultural land prices would spiral upwards and urban land prices would fall. Some landowners – maybe those with the deepest pockets and the sharpest lawyers – would secure planning permission for new development, and some of that development might even be built, pockmarking the hills and plains around the M25 with new settlements. So how many new houses would actually be built is pretty moot, and whether they would be decently designed or planned even more so.

But there are other ways to open up more housing land. One, which has been promoted by the Centre for Cities and Barney Stringer from planning consultancy Quod, looks to areas around railways stations to provide capacity. Taking a two kilometre catchment area around stations, they estimate that such sites could provide room for 1.4 million homes within Greater London’s boundary, or 3.4 million if the whole Green Belt was included. This would be a more rational form of development, with public transport access reducing car dependency and enabling “compact city” development. But there’s still no guarantee that any of these homes would be built, particularly around Outer London centres where the Green Belt has been enthusiastically embraced as a brake on new build.

An alternative approach would be that advocated by David Rudlin, Nicholas Falk and colleagues from urban designers Urbed, in their winning submission to the 2014 Wolfson Prize. Looking at an imaginary city (loosely modelled on Oxford), they proposed that “rather than nibbling into the fields that surround the city and all its satellite villages, we should take a good confident bite out of the green belt to create sustainable urban extensions”. National government and the Mayor of London could agree to identify and designate a location for an urban extension, take control of the land, develop a master plan, and use value capture to invest in roads, rails and social infrastructure. They could also drive the pace of development, sharing risks and proceeds with developers willing to commit to the quality, mix and speed of development required.

Urban extensions might look like a soft option, but they could boost the inner city too

But would an urban extension also drive dereliction, diverting investment and resources from urban sites? This argument is powerful, uniting green belt defenders and urban renaissance advocates, but it is not the inevitable outcome. Firstly, construction and investment capacity is not fixed; London continues to be a favoured destination for investment, and workforce capacity can be addressed over time. Secondly, city centre and urban extension could be made to work together – some of the value generated within the extension could be earmarked for reinvestment in city centre sites where infrastructure needs and market conditions undermine viability. And while an urban extension was being planned, developers would have every incentive to complete their work within the city.

Timing is critical, given the years that debating, planning and building a new piece of city would require. Our first priority should still be delivering the major planning applications that are within London’s pipeline. Together with the new sites identified in the London Plan, these may meet London’s needs for ten years or more, depending on whether and when “windfall” sites, such as car parks, become available. But we should be starting work on a Green Belt review now if we are to have any chance of seeing new homes built by 2030.

This approach may look heavy-handed and statist – and it is – but the government has assumed powers to build new towns in the past when it has taken the need for new homes seriously. Legislation to set up new town development corporations and urban and mayoral development corporations remains in place. These public bodies can buy up land (including through compulsory purchase), grant planning permission, and build homes and infrastructure. Land would need to be bought at existing (mainly agricultural) prices – rather than “hope values” based on its end use – in order for value uplifts to fund infrastructure, but this is a policy change that is already being advocated by Civitas among others. The main losers would be players in the shadowy land options market, for whom few tears would be shed.

An abrupt switch in policy on the Green Belt would probably be as disastrous as it is unlikely, but that shouldn’t rule out a sensible, long-term review or at least a more nuanced debate. The housing crisis in London and the wider south east is too deeply entrenched and complex for a single magical solution. A Green Belt review, backed by a clear commitment to take powers over planning and land ownership, should form a part of the toolkit for building more homes for the next million Londoners.

Found in the suburbs

[Originally published online by the Guardian, 6 December 2017]

The London plan, the latest draft of which was published at the end of November, is the great ocean-going liner of London mayoral politics. It carries as its cargo all the mayor’s most important policies, as it sails from draft to adoption, navigating the choppy waters of public consultation and examination-in-public on its way.

As soon as the plan’s two to three-year journey is completed, it turns round to begin afresh the process of review and redrafting. It is the keystone of mayoral strategies, and one of the most powerful tools the mayor of London has to define the shape of London. It regulates the use of land – a scarce asset in a growing but constrained city – and over time all 33 London boroughs should ensure that their plans and planning decisions fall in line with its policies on what should be built where.

This concentration of mayoral powers in planning means many policies take on a spatial complexion: while the mayor cannot tax or ban unhealthy fast food shops, he can propose that they are located away from schools. He cannot license nightclubs, but he can require developers to meet the cost of soundproofing if they build alongside nightclubs. He does not manage financial services, but he can preserve land for offices in the Square Mile and Canary Wharf.

If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail; and if you are a planning document, everything looks like a land use issue.

At the heart of the latest London plan is its focus on annual new housing supply, raised from its previous target of 42,000 to 66,000, with half being affordable. It’s an ambitious target, considering that the present supply of new homes, 29,000, is less than half the new target – but the mayor argues that the capital’s crisis over a lack of affordable homes requires a big step up. Few would disagree with that.

Some of the proposed homes may be built outside London – the plan commits to working more closely with neighbouring councils, a scheme that will be considered in a forthcoming report by Centre for London and the Southern Policy Centre – but the priority will be building homes within the capital.

Alongside investment in affordable homes, which Khan says needs to be increased to £2.7bn, and land at the Olympic Park and Old Oak Common, the mayor must rely on his planning powers to achieve his target. In some cases, he will be able to intervene himself in planning decisions, but can only do so where certain conditions are met, such as schemes with more than 150 housing units or buildings over 30 metres tall.

In most cases, he will have to rely on the policies and planning decisions made by individual London boroughs and some outer London boroughs, who are being asked to double or even treble their speed of housebuilding – and who may be reluctant to do so, given the concerns of local voters.

So the plan seeks to make it easier for boroughs to grant planning permission and harder to refuse it. High density in itself, for example, can no longer be a reason to turn a scheme down – although there is sensible provision for careful scrutiny of the design of the highest density schemes.

There is also a sharper focus on smaller sites, which are expected to account for 25,000 of the 66,000 new homes a year. The plan says smaller sites should be prioritised by boroughs, with design codes drawn up to identify opportunities for new development, particularly around transport hubs, and a presumption in favour of giving planning permission.

But all this relies on developers wanting to build. For 20 years, London’s housing market has boomed, so the challenge has been how much the mayor and boroughs can secure from developers in terms of social housing and other community benefits; where permission has been refused, developers have often come back with a better offer.

At the launch of the draft plan, London’s deputy mayor, Jules Pipe, was adamant that it would not stifle development or undermine viability of schemes. But planning as a tool works better at directing development than initiating it. There is already a growing backlog of planning consents that have been given, but where houses have not been built, and without a dramatic increase in funding, the mayor has only limited powers to get homes built.

The draft plan does want to find incentives for homes to be built faster, and a switch to more rental developments and smaller sites should help, but at a time when London’s housing market is cooling, planning permission will only be half the battle.

  • This article was corrected on 12 December to clarify the mayor’s target of £2.7bn to invest in affordable homes.

He\’s Only Making Plans for London

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[Written a few weeks ago, and published on MJ website 10.11.16]

Almost drowned out by the noise over airport expansion, Sadiq Khan issued A City for All Londoners this week, the vision document that will underpin the Mayors strategies, and in particular the London Plan, the citys spatial blueprint.

What then does this tell us about what we can expect from Sadiqs mayorality? The changes are subtle many paragraphs would not look out of place in Boris Johnson’s 2008 Planning for a Better London but they do signal shifts in emphasis and focus.

There is no change in the Mayors commitment to protecting the Green Belt, but theres a strong focus on the intensification of existing development, for example, in town centre locations and around transport hubs, with a particular focus on TfL and other public sector landholdings. Big sites and opportunity areas like Barking Riverside, which has been promising to deliver 10,000 homes for the past 15 years, are still part of the story, but as Centre for Londons report Going Large emphasises, these can be challenging to deliver. Looking at existing town centres and transport hubs for new growth opportunities acknowledges the limits of a big siteapproach in a city that is growing as fast as London.

Theres also a welcome emphasis not just on housing numbers, but on the creation of neighbourhoods. This includes reference to mixed-use development, and a good growthstrategy that encompasses affordability, quality of place, social infrastructure and zero-carbon initiatives. The document largely steers clear of the more controversial aspects of housing policy, with no mention of estate redevelopment (as discussed in Centre for Londons recent Another Storey), 50 per cent affordable housing presented as a long-term target rather than a day one stipulation, and only a cursory reference to lack of transparencyin foreign ownership (although an investigation into the latter is planned). 

A further subtle shift can be seen in Sadiqs proposals for economic development, as the self-styled most pro-business Mayor yet”.  While maintaining the strength of the central Londons business districts, including through opposing office to residential conversions, A City for All Londoners emphasises the potential for more development, including offices and hotels, in well-connected outer London centres.

Transport and environmental issues are discussed together, confirming pledges on air quality, and setting out a vision for healthy streets(using a pedestrianized Oxford Street as an example), which enable walking and cycling. Major infrastructure schemes like Crossrail 2, East London river crossings and the Bakerloo Line extension are plugged, with an emphasis on their integration with new development, as is the takeover of suburban rail that Centre for London proposed earlier this year in Turning South London Orange. But there is also a strong focus on behaviour change to reduce car use, and deliver a feet firstplan for central London.

The document also touches on some of the less tangible aspects of urban infrastructure, social cohesion, mental health, community safety, active citizenship, and volunteering. Theres a reference to economic inequality also, including the establishment of an Economic Fairness Team to push for better workplace standards. Cultural infrastructure from theatres and galleries to skate parks and gay pubs is presented as central to Londons success, and the Mayor argues for agent of changemeasures to ensure that long-standing clubs and music venues are protected from noise complaints from new residents.

Though it has dominated public life for five months, references to Brexit are few and far between. The EU referendum result is delicately described as not what I and many London businesses had hoped for, but the Mayor is cautious in pushing for special provisions for London. Fiscal devolution the focus of the reconvened London Finance Commissionis only mentioned in passing, and immigration is set aside as a matter for government despite recent publicity for the idea of regional visas. Understandably perhaps, the Mayor is avoiding self-fulfilling prophecies of doom, or grand claims for what he can deliver – particularly where this will need government agreement, or depend on the murky ebb and flow of Brexit policy and negotiation.

Stuck inside of planning, with the new town blues again

I can see the arguments in principle for and against a new generation of new towns or garden cities, as one way to tackle our chronic housing shortage.  But in current circumstances, the discussion seems purely theoretical; I can\’t see how new towns can ever be built.

For example, just to the north of Brighton, a proposal for a new \’market town\’ of around 10,000 dwellings has been mooted.  I can see the constraints on land in the South East and the need for bold moves, but I also have some affection for the area proposed, sandwiched between areas of outstanding natural beauty and a national park, and including one of my favourite pubs.  And we need to add the potential impact of a new town on existing communities, to these more sentimental considerations.

In any case, the Mayfield Market Towns proposal appears to have stalled for the moment.  The Planning Inspector has just paused his consideration of Horsham\’s local plan, arguing that they need to be more ambitious in finding housing sites, but also rejecting the Mayfield proposal.  His arguments against it are twofold: firstly, he does not believe that such a scale of new development is needed at this stage (though he acknowledges that expansion at Gatwick Airport would force a more fundamental rethink), and he doesn\’t think a scaled down version would be viable.  Secondly, as the Inspector puts it (in a late entry for Understatement of the Year), \”the deliverability of the preferred 10,000 dwelling option…within two local authority areas without their support, and in the face of strong opposition from two local MPs, parish councils and local people, including land owners, is also an issue of concern.\”

This is why I can\’t see how any new town will become a reality.  Proposing a new 10,000 home development requires top-down planning.  It is not just a matter of responding to known and projected local demand for new homes (which will rarely if ever demand that scale of development on its own), but of considering and redefining what role a particular site might play in the economic future of its region, of the whole country.  This is a matter of creating and redirecting demand, not just responding to it.

And that would probably require pushing a scheme forward in the teeth of local opposition, especially in the areas of South East England where land supply is most constrained.  Local councils have no incentive to do that, and Government\’s \’localist\’ planning policy gives little scope for forcing their hand.  Labour\’s greater enthusiasm for \’a new Generation of Garden Cities and Garden suburbs\’, as detailed in the Lyons Review, is also tempered by insistence that their designation must be \’locally-led\’. Even where local authorities are more supportive, planning processes take years; if there is a row, we are talking generations.

So perhaps all this jostling is a matter of gesture politics (town vs country, preservation vs \’hard-working families\’ etc).  But it does risk distracting attention from more pressing issues.  If we are not going to be a little more directive and ride a little more rough-shod over local opposition, we are not going to build new towns.  And if we are not going to build new towns, or at least not in the foreseeable future, we need to stop the make-believe, and focus more sharply on how to build more houses in our existing towns and cities.

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.