More house, in the middle of our street

Michael Gove was on fizzy form yesterday morning as he sought to sell his package of housing and planning reforms over the airwaves. “Beauty! Infrastructure! Democracy! Environment! Neighbourhoods!” he proclaimed, arguing that local empowerment would lead to better homes being built and fewer new developments being opposed. Coming from a minister once described by David Cameron as “Maoist” this sounded positively Leninist – All Power To The Neighbourhoods!

“Street votes” are at the heart of Gove’s announcements, though there is almost no detail about them in the draft Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. They respond to a question often aimed at those arguing for the regeneration of social housing estates – why are you picking on social tenants? Why don’t people living in privately-owned neighbourhoods have to densify? To which the obvious retort is, why would they when they would see the pain of new development, but none of the gain?

The idea of street votes, developed by Samuel Hughes and Ben Southwood at Policy Exchange but with broad-based political support, is to put in place a framework that will encourage such densification. Local residents would be able to prepare plans and design codes for making their streets more dense – through infill, through upwards extension, through demolition and rebuilding – resulting in more homes to meet need, profits for local property owners, and tax revenues for local authorities. Even if you excluded older and listed buildings, the Policy Exchange report estimated 800,000 homes in London would be eligible.

The proposal is not a cure-all for the housing crisis in the capital or anywhere else, but it could be a part of the solution (I was one of the many endorsers of the original report). Street votes align incentives locally and could stop London’s new development being so “lumpy” – miles of untouched terraced housing interrupted by occasional eruptions of towers.

Ominously, some media reported (or were spun?) the policy as an opportunity to veto new development, and the biggest risk is that neighbours are unable to agree how or even if they want their street to change. In that case, resident and council time has been wasted, but people would still have the option to seek to extend or subdivide their own homes. Street votes won’t work everywhere, but that’s no reason to reject an idea that could work somewhere.

The other major measure that has been reported is a standardised infrastructure levy to fund affordable housing, and the roads, schools and surgeries which new homes need but are often a bone of contention for their opponents. A clear tariff for new development would create more transparency for developers, councils and communities.

Background papers to the Queen’s Speech indicate that this will be set locally, responding to concern that a national tariff would stifle development in some places while not meeting the costs of new infrastructure in others. Nonetheless, in the age of “levelling up”, there is an understandable worry that a levy would be used to siphon money away from London, hobbling its ability to build the 100,000 homes a year that government still insists are needed, even though the draft Bill underlines that the levy is designed to meet local costs.

But the bigger problem with the new draft Bill is what it doesn’t do. Stripped out since the Planning White Paper is any idea of a national system of zoning, by which councils and communities would identify the sites for new development and agree the design codes that would manage this. Like standardised tariffs, these were intended put in place up-front public consultation rather than scheme-by-scheme negotiation, which favours larger housebuilders with deep pockets and serried ranks of consultants to support them.

Gone too (or maybe not) are the targets that would hold government’s and councils’ feet to the fire. “I don’t want us to be tied to a Procrustean bed,” Gove mused cryptically on Radio 4, referring to the Greek myth about an innkeeper who would stretch his guests to fit his bed, or lop bits off until they did, although a government spokesman later confirmed that the national target of 300,000 homes in England per year still stood.

Enabling local residents to shape new developments, pushing for better design and ensuring that new building can be backed by the infrastructure that makes places work, should help reduce opposition to new development, particularly in gently pushing up densities in cities such London. But it cannot be the entire response to an ever-worsening housing crisis. Even if Londoners become uncharacteristically excited about new development, gentle densification of 800,000 homes in London would not easily deliver 100,000 homes a year. Cities need big plans, as well as thousands of small ones.

First published by OnLondon.

Missions Aspirational

You have to feel for Michael Gove. Rarely has a document been freighted with as much expectation as the levelling up white paper, which has been promised in one form or another since 2019. But even as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was being given its new remit the spending shutters came down, ruling out new money – at least on the scale needed to radically alter hundreds of years of economic development.

Without new money the white paper sets direction rather than powering engines, though it does offer a few enticing hints of change. It promises, for example, to push devolution further and to bring some clarity and consistency to England’s idiosyncratic patchwork quilt of local government, and it celebrates the role of local policy-making. It even suggests that mayoral combined authorities and the Greater London Authority might bid for “sweeping further powers”, though it stops short of any significant transfer of fiscal powers.

And it does at least tell us what the government thinks “levelling up” is. At the core of the paper are 12 targets for 2030, heroically rebranded as “missions”. Advocates of mission-thinking as a way of galvanising action often point to John F Kennedy’s commitment to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Note that JFK didn’t make 11 other commitments at the same time. But most of these targets are laudable, even if the lack of detail on delivery makes them feel rather “aspirational”.

It is notable that most of them focus broadly on national improvements in social and economic conditions – job numbers, productivity and pay, violent crime, wellbeing, pride in place, school standards, adult training and home ownership – rather than explicitly on closing the gap between “LondonAndTheSouthEast” and other regions, which can of course be achieved by levelling up or by levelling down. Essentially the missions argue that all should rise together, though several qualify this by specifying that the worst-performing places should see the sharpest improvements.

Some targets are more explicit in their focus on narrowing gaps. Public transport across the country is to be “significantly closer to the standards of London” by 2030, which is a slightly ambivalent pledge given the cutbacks being considered by Transport for London in the absence of a long-term funding deal. It also does prompt a raised eyebrow – can other cities, let alone less densely populated towns, really support services like London’s?

The focus on narrowing the gap in healthy life expectancies also stands out, though the detail remains to be filled out in a separate white paper on health disparities later this year. In the meantime, the question of what geographies you use to judge success will be vital. As previously remarked here, the difference between places within the same borough can be every bit as stark as those between different regions.

There is a little more meat in the two economic missions. One pledges to improve pay, employment and productivity in every area of the UK – which should be good news for London, where productivity growth has stalled in recent years. The other proposes rebalancing public expenditure on research and development (R&D) outside the Greater South East. This could be one of the strongest measures in the white paper. Public spending on R&D is heavily focused on the “golden triangle” of London, Oxford and Cambridge, and there is a good argument that this concentration is failing on the grounds of economic efficiency as well as fairness.

Rebalancing investment to where it can make a real difference both directly and through attracting private investment rather than insisting it is spread evenly throughout the country, could make a real difference. The promise of £100 million for three new “innovation accelerators” in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Glasgow suggests that the need for focus is understood. Any switch of resources from London to other parts of the UK is likely to feel harsh, but a rebalancing of R&D spending is worth contemplating as a way of building up the knowledge economy in other cities.

Much less helpful is the white paper’s restatement of the government’s plan to divert funding for housing away from the areas of lowest housing affordability – that is, London and the South East. Doing so seems to fly in the face of its protestations that “levelling up is not about making every part of the UK the same, or pitting one part of the country against another. Nor does it mean dampening down the success of more prosperous areas”.

Less money for affordable housing in London is not likely to be good for London or the UK. London’s housing crisis is likely to worsen, with one of two results or a mix of them. Either the capital’s economy will suffer, with consequences for the rest of the country, or living in London will become more exclusive, further detaching the capital from the rest of the country. Investing to lever growth into other cities is a worthwhile endeavour. Removing support for infrastructure in places that most need it seems short-sighted and even spiteful.

Originally published by OnLondon.

Living in The City

It is an unlikely proposition on the face of it – a new block to house 644 students nestled among the polished steel and plate glass of corporate lawyers’ and consultants’ offices on High Holborn, just opposite City Thameslink Station. But this is the planning application the City of London Corporation’s Planning Committee will consider on Tuesday, with officers recommending approval.

Student housing in the heart of the City? Is this a harbinger of changing times – even of decline – as London comes to terms with “life after Covid”?

City of London planning policies, backed by the London Plan, have always been stalwart in defending the Square Mile’s unique mix of “world city” commercial functions. Loss of office floor space, the corporation’s policy says, should be considered only in exceptional circumstances. And the recent boom in privately-developed student housing has been controversial. As this project indicates, it has generated good returns for investors but is often seen as disruptive to neighbourhood life and implicated in gentrification – but, then again, what isn’t? – and has spawned some of London’s ugliest new buildings.

The High Holborn block, designed by Stiff + Trevillion on a site previously occupied by solicitors Hogan Lovells, looks far from ugly in the artist’s impressions (see image). Developers Dominvs Group originally proposed a hotel on the site, but switched to student accommodation as the pandemic laid waste to international tourism. Dominvs are negotiating a deal with the London School of Economics to house their students, and their proposal includes community and cultural spaces on the ground floor and a public roof terrace alongside the student rooms (35 per cent of which will be “affordable”).

Still, the idea of student living in London’s financial district is a far cry from how the Square Mile felt when I first came to the capital almost 30 years ago. Back then the City was a closed-off place – literally so, as the police erected roadblocks (“the ring of steel”) as totemic protection against IRA bombers – showing a rather sombre face to the outside world, however dramatic and lucrative the global trading carried out behind closed doors. By 8.00 pm the pubs had closed and at weekends the narrow empty streets felt post-apocalyptic: beautiful, calm, but also rather eerie.

But the City has been changing. Their Covid recovery plan, which triggered quickly-quashed rumours of widespread conversions of offices to homes, talked of boosting the Square Mile’s visitor economy, of opening up more on evenings and weekends, of being a “City of culture and commerce”.

But this diversification predates the pandemic. Its roots go all the way back to the 1990s, when the construction of Canary Wharf offered an alternative business district (“Manhattan on Thames”) and gave financial institutions a choice. Having survived for more than a millennium the City can tend towards the conservative, but this new challenge forced the ancient institution’s aldermen and common councillors to think again about allowing the skyscrapers that global businesses wanted, but also about what goes on at ground level – what the area offers outside office hours.

The transformation has been gradual but profound, even if it has been accelerated by Covid and the changing dynamics of London’s property markets. You can see it in the expansion of restaurants and bars – hospitality jobs have almost doubled in the past 20 years – in the new shopping centre at One New Change, in plans for the Culture Mile that will stretch from the new Museum of London at Smithfield to the Barbican and in the rapid growth of new sectors such as fintech.

Seen from this perspective, building student housing on High Holborn is a logical progression not a departure. It is the next chapter in a story of reinvention as the City seeks to bring in different types of people, who will bring life to its streets and use its amenities when they might otherwise be quiet.

The planning officers’ report points to the benefits of an “influx of a new demographic of young people” and the proximity to Smithfield, where they will find clubs and bars as well as the new Museum of London. Officers also argue that the loss of office space is marginal (around 8,000 square metres, while 800,000 square metres is in the pipeline) and observes that the engineering complexity of working above and around Thameslink tunnels makes building and pre-letting high quality offices on the site difficult.

London’s Central Activities Zone (CAZ), its retail and hospitality sectors in particular, has had a tough couple of years, as commuters and international tourists stayed away. Cities with more people living in or around the centre have fared better, and GLA-commissioned reports have suggested that a bigger residential population could be part of central London’s future too.

My former colleagues at Centre for London are working on a project to explore where and how this might be realised. This will be a complex process, which will play out differently in different parts of the CAZ. But bringing a few hundred students in to add life, and maybe a bit of mess, to the capital’s ancient heart seems like a good place to start.

First published by OnLondon.

Richard Rogers

“Did you really just tell Richard Rogers to buy you a pint of Guinness? Do you even know who you’re talking to?” my partner Alex said down the phone.

It was 2001, and I was following Richard into the Marquess of Granby, round the corner from the Mayor of London’s temporary offices in Marsham Street. I had just started working with Richard and knew he was an eminent architect, but don’t think I got quite how important he was to a whole generation of architects and designers (of whom Alex is one).

That’s probably a good indication of why I’m not the right person to write an appreciation of his buildings, even though I had rushed to see Centre Pompidou in Paris on a teen holiday with two schoolfriends, a sole moment of cultural enrichment in a week that passed in a haze of gauloises and gut-rot red.  His best buildings are effervescent with ideas, imagination and delight, engaged in playful if sometimes spikey dialogue with their surroundings, and opening their arms wide to users and passers-by. I find them entrancing to this day.

But I’m not going to write about them here. I want to write instead about working with and becoming friends with a truly incredible man.

Nicky Gavron, London Assembly member and tireless advocate for better urban planning, had brought Richard into see the newly-elected Ken Livingstone. Ken waved a copy of Richard’s Urban Task Force report, which had been published the previous year, saying “I want you to do this in London.” I had been working in the Mayor’s Office, and Ken asked me to work with his new Chief Advisor on Architecture and Urbanism (“Big Richard and Little Richard!” he grinned) to make that happen.

Together with Ricky Burdett, Director of LSE Cities, and Gale Valentine, we set up shop as the Architecture + Urbanism Unit (A+UU), recruiting Mark Brearley, John Fannon, Emily Greeves, Jamie Dean, Tobi Goevert and Eleanor Fawcett.  Richard had been an advisor to the Mayor of Barcelona, whose City Architect was a powerful figure overseeing large departments, and saw this as his model. We didn’t have the battalions for that, so had to persuade him to adopt a more subtle approach. We tried to intervene selectively in projects being promoted by the boroughs, Transport for London and the London Development Agency to push them to a better place, “catch and steer” in Mark’s phrase.

Architecture + Urbanism Unit at City Hall in 2002 or 2003. 
Top: Ricky Burdett, Richard Rogers, Gale Valentine, Jamie Dean, Eleanor Fawcett. 
Bottom: me, Mark Brearley, John Fannon.
Architecture + Urbanism Unit at City Hall in 2002 or 2003.
Top: Ricky Burdett, Richard Rogers, Gale Valentine, Jamie Dean, Eleanor Fawcett.
Bottom: me, Mark Brearley, John Fannon.
Photo: Tobias Goevert

Faced with the trundling beasts of public sector procurement, Richard often became frustrated (“Where are my million trees? Where are our 100 Public Spaces?”), exploding that he was wasting his time, or more amiably deciding he had had enough, and we all needed to go out for lunch or to the pub. He took no salary, but came in two days a week, chasing progress but also deploying all his skill and persistence at meetings with the Mayor and other bigwigs – to do deals on how architects would be selected and briefed, on what role design would play in the planning process, on how east London could fulfil its promise.

He stuck with it too, continuing to harry projects long after the rest of us had sounded the retreat, and showing patience and persistence with a bureaucracy that could be unfathomable even to insiders, where other architects would have packed up and retreated to the studio. Quite often, he would ask me to draft him a ‘tough’ (favourite term) note to the Mayor, demanding a project be stopped or an official sacked. As is the way of bureaucracies, these notes would then find their way back down to me from the Mayor’s Office, with a request for me to draft a response for the Mayor to sign off. I could keep these correspondence volleys going for weeks.

From 2004, I became increasingly involved in the London 2012 project, so saw less of Richard for a few years. A characteristic encounter was at the Venice Architecture Biennale, where he was awarded a Golden Lion in 2006. We greeted him in the street, and were scooped up and led to a lunch in a wood-panelled restaurant, down a side street I have never found since.

Flying back that evening, we were on the same plane as Richard and Ruthie, though they were in Business Class. I said hello as we got on, and expected they’d be long gone by the time we got out – that’s why you pay for Business Class after all. Instead, I found them waiting as we came through baggage reclaim, to see if we needed a lift anywhere. When we got into the Addison Lee, Richard told the driver “Chelsea, via Brixton.”  The driver muttered that Brixton wasn’t really on the way to Chelsea. “It is now,” replied Richard with a familiar mix of charm and steel which precluded much argument.

Richard continued to advise Ken, and then Boris Johnson for a couple of years, though took less of an active role as the A+UU morphed into the larger Design for London, headed by Peter Bishop. I think Richard saw his time at the GLA as something of a missed opportunity. We did not build his 100 public spaces or plant his million trees, and City East did not transform Docklands.

This is all true. But, as I said to him, those concepts had a long afterlife, and the cultural changes in how design and planning are done in London government were subtle but profound. The legacy of A+UU is still there in the current Mayor’s Good Growth by Design programme, in his panel of ‘Design Advocates’, in boroughs’ design review panels, in the Public Practice scheme that places newly qualified architects in public sector jobs, and in the inspiration he gave to a generation of planners.

After Richard left the GLA, I started working with him again, intermittently helping him to write articles or letters to the papers protesting against suburban sprawl, against toy town designs, and against the impact of austerity on the public realm – the ‘Continuity Urban Task Force’ as I used to call it. And it was very hard to pay for a meal at the River Café if he spotted us eating there. Richard enjoyed the good life – the River Café, the holidays in Mexico and Italy, opera and art – but he sought to share it as widely as possible, and was genuinely upset and angry when people were denied access to decent housing, food and healthcare.

In 2013, the Royal Academy hosted Richard Rogers: Inside Out, an exhibition that was as much about Richard’s political and civic beliefs as it was about his buildings. This caught the interest of Katy Follain, an editor at Canongate, and she asked Richard to write a book with the same blend of the personal, professional and political. I was trying to find something new to do after ten years on the Olympic treadmill, so was flattered when Richard and Ruthie asked me to help (especially given Canongate’s offer of some real writers).

The experience was hard going to begin with, when some early draft chapters came back covered in red scrawl. Richard’s dyslexia may have meant that he struggled to write long-form prose, but he knew what he wanted and knew what was good. We played around with structure, between timelines and topics, and ended up with a book that started narrow – focusing on a boy’s birth in Florence and his arrival in cold grey England in the 1930s – then widened its scope, using projects as jumping off points for discussions of urban development, public space, politics, inequality.

At first, Richard was reticent about the autobiographical elements; he wanted to look forward not back. But over time, he relaxed into the process, with long interviews where he reflected on his life, influences and ideas, recorded in his house in Chelsea, in his Hammersmith offices, on the terrace of the Tuscan farmhouse he and Ruthie rented every summer. The conversations were inspiring, a comfort to me as my own parents slid into ill-health, and often great fun. One taped interview, on the train back from Manchester after a party conference, starts structured and gradually dissolves into giggles as the free Virgin Rail Rosé takes effect.

As the chapters of A Place for All People were edited and finalised, Richard turned his attention to the design. I think Canongate were used to authors who would turn over a manuscript, fret a bit about the cover photo, then shut up until the proofs arrived. Richard had other ideas. He called up Andy Stevens, the graphic designer who had worked with him and his son Ab on the Inside Out exhibition design, and negotiations with Canongate began (Tracing paper? No. Different coloured papers for different sections? No. Spiral binding? No.) Once a format was agreed, pages would be laid out and reviewed again and again, by Richard, Ruthie and Ab, until Richard was happy with the flow and interplay of the textual and photographic narratives.

And this, I think, was at the heart of Richard’s genius. He was notoriously bad at drawing and struggled with writing, but he had brilliant ideas, acute judgement, and – an overused word but right in his case – a vision for what places and societies could be. He searched out the right partners and collaborators, and used all his powers of charm, persuasion, encouragement and menace to bring out the best in them and make the results of their work together as good as it could be.

Richard was so full of life, so endlessly curious, so excited about the possibility of a better world, and so tireless in trying to bring it about, that the world seems to have lost a little of its colour with his death. I’ll miss him enormously.

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.