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Thinking Small to Think Big

...addressing London's Housing Crisis

by Matthew Carmona, Professor of Planning & Urban Design, Bartlett School of Planning, UCL

March 2016

Politicians are finally waking up to the fact that London has a housing crisis and from the candidates for our next London Mayor to the Prime Minister himself, they have all been talking about the urgent need to address the crisis. Part of this is London's population is growing dramatically a recent report suggests and is now on a trajectory to reach around 11 million in 25 years or so.  To address this growth as well as the backlog in provision we now need to build somewhere between 49-62,000 homes a year.  Currently we are building just 23,000.

Debating the causes

Many blame poor planning decisions or housebuilders for being more interested in hording land and speculating on its increasing value for causing a dysfunctional housing market. Others suggest the problem stems from all the international money flooding into London's housing market, buying up housing and leaving it empty as investments rather than homes.

The reality is however we have been building too few homes because, first, we no longer have a viable public led housing programme (we leave it almost entirely to the market).  Second, we over-rely on very few large housebuilders, whose primary interest as private companies (quite rightly) is in their shareholder value rather than in solving the housing crisis. Third, we don't do enough to seek out and encourage the development of small sites across the city, relying instead on a small numbers of much larger sites.  And fourth, we have allowed our small builders (who once built vast swathes of post war suburban London) to wither in the face of the perverse lending practices of our banks who no longer wish to take the 'risk' on housebuilding (despite the huge amounts of money that those international investors seem to be making).

The potential of small sites and builders

So what is the solution? The very ordinary local mixed streets that form the prime connective tissue weaving its way across London also contains, within 500m of their frontages, 75% of London's developable brownfield land. Although small and complex sites they are however sustainable (well connected to public transport and well serviced by local facilities and amenities), they often need a new purpose as retail declines, and they are already part and parcel of London's existing communities. They should be the first place we look, not the last, so why don't we?

Part of the problem seems to be that they are not always immediately obvious and viable development propositions, often hidden behind existing activities, partially used, or even fully utilised but at a very low level, for example for single storey developments. There is also the issue that many of the existing uses on these sites will themselves be valuable activities providing a wealth of employment and other opportunities, either temporary or long-established. Simply clearing all such backland sites for housing would clearly be hugely damaging.

So are there any other options? Today London remains surrounded by its greenbelt which in turn remains a popular device to constrain the city's growth and there seems to be little political will to challenge that. So this leaves only one viable option, the city needs to densify. London remains a low density city by international standards (around 75 people to the hectare), and there are plenty of opportunities to densify it, starting by bringing forward the sort of sites referred to earlier, but there and many other opportunities as well. The acres and acres of land alongside, over (and occasionally under) the city's roads and rail infrastructure for example; the voluminous quantities of space given over solely to parking; the low grade space within and surrounding many of our public housing estates; and all the wasted 'spaces left over after planning' that are liberally dotted across the city offering us maintenance headaches but no real amenity value to their localities. Once you start looking, the opportunities are vast.

A generational challenge

Yet densification is not an easy option. To grasp it our public authorities will need to work much harder on planning and design strategies that engage with existing uses and communities and that work to optimise the local opportunities whilst avoiding stripping out the sorts of marginal uses that still have tremendous value to London. This will not be achieved by cutting back on the role of the public sector and by deregulating planning. Instead, to stand any chance of bringing forward the legions of smaller sites that we will need across the city, we will require a renewed investment in these vital functions of the state and in particular in freeing up planners from the sorts of reactive planning that typically dominate their in-trays to the types of creative and proactive planning that we emphasise at UCL's The Bartlett School of Planning.

We will also need to convince communities of this strategy as they can often be highly sceptical of any mention of increasing density, associating it with the discredited high rises of the past, rather than with the sorts of terraces of townhouses and mansion blocks that characterise the highest density and highest value parts of London today.

Ultimately, I contend, we need to think small to think big. We need to unleash a new dynamic and entrepreneurial spirit in the city, amongst the smaller developers, but also amongst local communities, housing associations and the public sector, who will also all need to be part of this effort. We are facing a generational challenge, but the next generation will not thank us if we fail to deal with it. London has always risen to such challenges in the past, and will do so now. We owe it to all our future Londoners, from wherever they hail.

London's local high streets: The problems, potential and complexities of mixed street corridors

Read more analysis from UCL on Re-thinking Housing.