All posts from: April 2012
The true scale of London’s housing crisis was revealed by last week’s “social cleansing” story. Inside Housing’s Jules Birch and Steve Hilditch’s Red Brick covered the topic admirably, and I don’t intend to rehearse the issues here, but it’s important to note that the story was not just about Newham. Most London boroughs are looking to export people from the capital because of the shortage of affordable homes and the expense or non-availabilty of private lettings.
Paul Bayliss, leader of the Labour group at Derby City Council hit the nail on the head when he said: “The solution for London is simple. The city needs more affordable homes.” He’s right of course, yet the deeper problem for London is not just a shortage of affordable housing but a shortage of housing per se, across all tenures and types. But even if London experienced a housing boom over the next decade it could still not build the homes it needs for the simple reason that it has run out of space.
Let me explain. According to the Office for National Statistics the capital’s population is set to grow from eight million now to over ten million by 2032. That means London will need to build at least 800,000 homes over the next two decades to cope with population growth – even more if it is to make good past under- supply. That means up to 40,000 new homes will be required every year for twenty years. Yet London is only building around 18,000 a year at present, and the HCA’s affordable rent programme will only provide 5,000 a year between now and 2015. What’s more, London has fewer than 4,000 hectares of brownfied land - barely enough for 120,000 homes. At the same time, 350,000 households are on London’s waiting lists and the vast majority of young Londoners simply cannot afford to buy a decent place to live. This all adds up to a housing crisis that can only get worse.
So the maths simply do not stack up. The truth is that London will never build the number of homes it needs unless it can expand upwards or outwards. Given that the days of high-rise residential blocks are in the past, and the fact that London has seen a startling increase in densification over the past twenty years it seems the only solution is outward growth. Yet our capital, in many senses the capital of the world, is confined within an outdated and artificial boundary - the green belt - which was put in place over 50 years ago and has no relevance to its current global status.
Again, let’s look at the facts. The 33 London boroughs cover 158,000 hectares but they are surrounded by an inviolate green belt of 479,500 hectares. But a further 35,000 hectares of green belt lie within the boroughs – 22 percent of London’s total area. Beyond the London boroughs, but within the M25, there is a further 75,000 hectares of land, of which about two thirds is green belt. So within the M25 there are at least 85,000 hectares of developable green belt land - that’s enough for over 2 million homes! Of course I am not suggesting that all of this should be built upon, but much of it is either low-grade agricultural land, or occupied by low priority uses such as golf courses and pony paddocks, with little or no aesthetic value and no access for the general public. You only have to drive around the M25 to understand that this land has no other purpose than to hem London within its post-war boundaries and you have to ask yourself, what is the point of preserving this land when London’s needs are so acute? Even if 50 percent of it was built upon it would provide over a million new homes, easily enough to accommodate London’s needs over the next twenty years. Across the UK, most towns and cities expand to the edge of their surrounding bypasses and ring roads. Why should London be any different?
Not only would this growth help to re-balance London’s dysfunctional housing market but it could provide hundreds of thousands of affordable homes. It would also allow London to think more creatively about its present shape and the quality of its environment. No longer would development be crammed into the capital at ever increasing densities. Green lungs could be pushed right into the heart of the city (imagine being able to walk or cycle from the centre of London to Epping Forest or the North Downs), brownfield sites could be turned into open spaces, allotments or city farms. The artificial and out-of-date distinction between town and country could be subsumed into a new garden city vision, where the country could be brought into the city. It would also give London the elbow room it needs to put in place a range of measures that would help to “green” the capital. For example, to create a proper network of cycle lanes so that the number of journeys made by bike could be increased from the present abysmal figure of 5 percent of all journeys towards Copenhagen’s 50 percent. Air pollution could be eased. A policy of outward growth could literally allow Londoners a breath of fresh air.
None of the candidates for Mayor has raised the issue of London’s boundaries and outward growth in their manifestos. They all appear to accept that London is a fixed entity, forever frozen within its decades-old boundaries. Boris Johnson even makes a specific pledge to protect the green belt. Yet cities grow and any credible candidate for Mayor should have a vision of how London will look twenty or fifty years from now. In my view, the only solution to London’s growing housing crisis is for the capital to push out towards the M25. If London wants to house, rather than export, its population there needs to be a public debate about growth and a recognition that the green belt is literally strangling our capital.
This blog is always keen to explore the quirky back alleyways and recesses of the housing world so, as I was down there at the weekend, I thought I would write about King’s Cross and its famous Lighthouse.
For nearly ten years in the 1980s I worked for Camden Council in King’s Cross. Back then it was an area notorious for prostitution, drugs and a general air of dereliction. It was a place to pass through rather than linger in. Hang around too long and you would inevitably be offered drugs or “business”. Every afternoon, from my office on the civic floor of the Town Hall, I watched the same street-drinking man having a pee in the portico of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s glorious but semi-derelict St Pancras hotel. It seemed somehow symbolic of the area’s decline. For a while I “managed” the notorious Hillview estate – 230 flats in a series of tenement blocks with internal courtyards built by the East End Dwelling Company in 1897. There were stone-clad coppers on the stairwells and baths in the kitchens. You could have filmed a Victorian melodrama there without changing a thing. Kenneth Williams grew up in one of the blocks and made this film about his childhood. By the time I got there it was occupied by squatters and short-lifers and had been dubbed “Punk City” by the tabloid press on account of the drugs and prostitution that blighted the neighbourhhod. I once attended the eviction of a one-bed flat where we found five men and three women in residence, every inch of the floors covered in dirty mattresses. Interesting times.
Looking down over this scene of dereliction and decay, at the junction of Pentonville Road and Gray’s Inn Road, was the King’s Cross Lighthouse. It is a London landmark but no one seems to know its history or purpose. It has the appearance of a small helter skelter, but this seems improbable. One theory has it that it was an oyster establishment, as they used lighthouses as a symbol of their trade. For several years the building was squatted. One day some of the occupants got down into the basement and found themselves in a series of tunnels that suddenly opened out onto a tube platform.
But now King’s Cross is being transformed. For anyone who is a keen student of housing history and urban regeneration I recommend a thirty-minute stroll around the area. The St Pancras Hotel, saved from demolition in the early seventies by John Betjeman and other campaigners, has been re-born as a mix of million pound lofts and a five star hotel. Behind it is the Eurostar terminal with a lovely statue of Betjeman on the concourse gazing up at the iron roof. Kings’ Cross station also has a magnificent new concourse. Hillview estate has been wonderfully restored by Community Housing Association and the surrounding estates are clean, safe and well managed. The area behind the station is now a huge building site where the gaps between the network of nineteenth century railways and canals are being filled in. The Guardian and St Martin’s School of Art are based there already and the quirky German gymnasium (once the head office of Circle 33) has been restored. But history seeps from the ground here. Queen Boadicea is supposedly buried under platform 9. Thomas Hardy was employed to disinter human remains from Old St Pancras churchyard, where The Beatles were also photographed by Don McCullin. Mary Shelley and Sir John Soane are buried here, the latter’s tomb being the inspiration for Gilbert Scott’s iconic red telephone boxes. The ash heap that dominates Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend was located nearby. Many scenes from The Ladykillers were filmed in the cobbled streets behind King’s Cross. Sadly, most of these and the historic tenement buildings, like Culross Buildings and Stanley Buildings (where The Pogues lived) have been largely swept away. But local people, led by the indefatigable King’s Cross Railway Lands Group (formed twenty-five years ago and still going strong) have been fighting for years to retain some community benefits for the area, including affordable housing, and to prevent the area being swamped with offices.
Five years from now King’s Cross could become one of the most vibrant and diverse quarters of London, and the Lighthouse, which very nearly fell down, will continue to dominate the view eastwards, for it is finally being restored to its former glory, along with an Armadillo roof behind it. Perhaps one day someone will reveal its original purpose, although I prefer to let the mystery be.
The UK is getting older. By 2035 the number of people aged 85 and over will hit 3.6 million, two and a half times the number in 2010. By that date 23 percent of us will be over 65. This has massive implications for pensions and the amount of resources that will be available to support elderly people in their homes. Basically, we will need to provide more and better housing and health care with fewer resources.
One tool that can be used in the battle to reduce health and care costs and keep the elderly young at heart is …comedy. Yes, comedy. There is plenty of evidence to show that laughter reduces pain because it releases chemicals that act as a natural painkiller. Laughter also produces psychological and physiological effects on the body that are comparable to the health benefits of aerobic exercise. A good belly laugh can also help to reduce stress and anxiety. In short, a laugh a day keeps the doctor away.
Groups like Silver Comedy have responded to these findings by offering bespoke comedy packages to housing providers. In this project, reported in The Guardian, they arranged for “The Queen” to visit a dementia day care centre in Brent. Her visit went down a storm. I should declare an interest, because I have known one of Silver Comedy’s Directors George Baddeley for years, but I think they may be on to something. As our population ages, giving elderly residents a good laugh may be a cost effective way of increasing the sum of human happiness in sheltered and extra care schemes, and may help to save on care and medical bills in the longer run. Comedy sessions also bring people together in a really positive way. Sharing laughter and mutual enjoyment can help to counteract loneliness - and loneliness is a big problem for older people. We all know that old age has the potential to be a dispiriting and painful experience. But the ability to face ageing and our eventual death with a laugh and a chuckle (“Always Look on the Bright side of Life”) is something we should all aim for.
Will the new National Planning Policy Framework be a developers’ charter or a NIMBY wet dream? I think the answer to that question depends very much upon how we as a sector respond to it. Back in February former housing Minister John Healey described us as the most introverted sector he had ever come across. I think he is absolutely right. But the new planning framework gives us a fantastic opportunity to put our heads above the parapet and make the case for housing. It could represent the best chance in a generation to build significant numbers of new homes, but this will only happen if the housing and development industry engages fully with the planning process.
There are three key aspects of the NPPF which give me grounds for optimism.
Firstly, the plan’s the thing. The new framework is plan-led and local plans must make an objective assessment of future development needs, including housing. Where plans are silent, absent or out of date then the presumption in favour of sustainable development takes effect. Local authorities will have twelve months to get their plans in order. If we fail to engage with the local planning process then we deserve to fail.
Secondly, the NPPF calls for a significant boost to housing supply. Local authorities must plan to meet “the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area” and to provide an annually updated list of developable sites that provide the required housing for the first five years, with an additional buffer of 5 percent (20 percent for poor performers). They must also identity a supply of sites for years six to fifteen. Local authorities will be required to draw up a housing delivery plan and they must take account of migration and demographic change. The plan must include details of the size, type and tenure of homes to be provided in each location. Affordable housing must be provided on site “unless off-site provision or a financial contribution of broadly equivalent value.” This provides plenty of ammunition to ensure that housing needs are properly accounted for in Local Plans. Every housing provider should be keeping a close watch on their key local authority partners and they should prepared to challenge backward-looking authorities who fail to make proper provision. The “duty to co-operate” in the Localism Act also makes it essential that local authorities consider needs over a wider area, so decisions like those in the Stevenage/North Hertfordshire dispute should be robustly challenged. The fact that England is set to grow by 232,000 households every year for the next twenty years means that every local authority has a part to play in new provision. Local opposition cannot compete against the objective fact of population growth and rising demand, but as a sector we need to ensure this message is being heard.
The third significant element of the NPPF is the economic message about market signals, first raised by Kate Barker. The NPPF states that: “Plans should take account of market signals, such as land prices and housing affordability, and set out a clear strategy for allocating sufficient land which is suitable for development in their area, taking account of the needs of the residential and business communities.” I see this as a great opportunity for national bodies like the NHF and the CIH, as well as local authorities, to set out a proper definition of affordability. Imagine a world where planning policy dictated that an affordable average home should aim to be no more than three times the average salary in an area. This would push local authorities to release more land for housebuilding in order to restore balance to local housing markets.
Paragraphs 47 to 55 and 159 of the NPPF set out the key requirements for housing provision. I would urge everyone involved in housing strategy and supply to learn these by heart. Now is the time to make the case for housing.
Last week’s publication of the National Planning Policy Framework left both sides in the debate claiming victory, which means either that the document was brilliantly drafted, or one side was either putting on an act or had misread the document - or both. I certainly think the final NPPF is a triumph of drafting – it seems to have pleased both sides and may end up pleasing neither - yet it seems to me that the bodies who opposed the draft NPPF, including the National Trust, the CPRE and the Daily Telegraph could hardly afford to lose face in public, given the amount of time and effort they had spent in attacking the government.
On the day that the NPPF was published I could not see a great deal of difference between the draft and the final versions. Of course there were changes of emphasis and the default yes to development had been removed but it seems to me that the final NPPF is overwhelmingly about growth, albeit sustainable growth, and that the repeated references to economic growth trump almost every other element of the policy framework, as Andy Boddington from the CPRE has manfully pointed out. I also predicted that the countryside lobby would seek to save face by claiming victory and I was right. Articles like this and this appeared over the next few days. The Daily Telegraph, (whose laughable “Hands off our Land” campaign failed to garner the support of their sceptical readers) even had the chutzpah to claim that six changes to the final NPPF had been their doing, (it was their “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” moment). It was therefore rather strange to see Simon Heffer in The Mail simultaneously taking the polar opposite view. Is the countryisde about to be concreted over or have the evil developers been sent packing? You can buy your paper and take your choice it seems.
This deliberate or unintended misreading of the new framework may come back to haunt some of these commentators. I hope it does. The NPPF’s emphasis upon economic growth is borne out by a brilliant word count of the 50-page document carried out by Mike Galloway, a Lib Dem councillor for Wolverton in Milton Keynes, who has looked at both the draft and the final document. His analysis reveals that the most frequently used words in the final NPPF are as follows:
- Plan/Plans/Planned/Planning - 689
- Development - 385
- Local - 349
- Site/Sites - 146
- Home/Homes/House/Housing - 110
- Sustainable/ Sustainability - 113
- Environment/Environmental - 96
The word ‘countryside’ appears only seven times. Overwhelmingly, these most frequently used words relate to growth, development, planning and localism. Encouragingly, the word “housing” appears almost three times more in the final document over the draft. These words speak for themselves and I truly hope that they will count for something in the future.