56. Thinking small to think big, addressing London’s housing crisis

We constantly read and hear that London has a housing crisis manifest in too few homes, that are too expensive, with too little being done for too long to address the problem. A report – Growing London – from the Mayor’s Design Advisory Group provided some facts and figures just before the last Mayoral election. It stated that London’s population is growing dramatically and recently surpassed its previous peak of 8.61 million people, 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 have been building too few homes for many years) we now need to be building somewhere between 49-62,000 homes a year. In recent years we have been building less than half that!

Debating the causes

Why this is happening is hotly debated. Many blame planning (it takes too long, fails to allocate enough land, and generally acts as a break on development), but this is a criticism that is woefully misplaced. Indeed, currently an average of 59,000 new homes are being approved each year in London and we have a backlog of nearly quarter of a million un-built homes with planning permission.

Others say that we have a disfunctional housing market with housebuilders that are more interested in hording land and speculating on its increasing value than on actually building homes. In fact there are all sorts of perfectly rational reasons why housebuilders need to hold a land bank and the limited evidence that there is on this issue suggests that the criticism is also often far from the mark.

Still others say that the problem stems from all the international money flooding into London’s housing market and buying up homes and leaving them empty as investments rather than homes. In reality, most of the property brought by non-native Londoners is either rented out or lived in by those people (London being an international city) and many of the developments would not have happened in the first place without the investment from overseas. So this is not the root of the problem either.

The reality is 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 a very few large housebuilders, whose primary interest as private companies (unsurprisingly) 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 the 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

These are all complex problems and to address them, in my view, we need to find solutions from within London rather than attempting to export our problems to green (or brown) fields beyond London’s boundaries. I don’t have space to deal with them all, but if we convincingly tackle the third, then this may also unlock the potential of the fourth as small sites will be of greatest interest to small builders.

My own research on London’s local high streets revealed that 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 (the images in this article are all from this zone of one south-east London high street). This startling figure reflects a simple fact that mixed streets are not simply a space lined with single story retail, but instead have depth, height and hinterland which has been remarkably adaptable and resilient in the face of change (over centuries). It is also complex: physically, in terms of its ownership structure, and as a development proposition. Yet, if we are to solve our housing crisis in London, then it is to these sorts of often small and complex sites that we will need to turn.

To the right, six new apartments over a fitness centre (and more to the rear) by North London developer, Linea Homes on the site of a former two story motorbike showroom. The building to the left has recently had a new third story added to the original building, creating new apartments (over the shop).

They are 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?

Proactive densification

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 in a single storey. 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 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. To export the city’s growth (as we did in the post war era) no longer seems viable given that almost everywhere else in the South-east of England has its own challenges of housing undersupply and population growth to deal with and can do without ours as well. Within London, developable greenfield land is in very short supply and the supply of big ex-industrial brownfield sites that we have been relying upon, whilst vitally important, will not last for ever. This leaves only one viable option, the city needs to densify.

An abandoned church hall now converted into 2 bedroomed maisonettes and apartments by small developer Grandera Homes

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 above, but there are 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 endless (almost).

Three new social houses commissioned by the Royal Borough of Greenwich on the site of former local authority owned garages

A generational challenge

Yet densification is not an easy option, and just suggesting it as an option will raise the hackles of some (those evil town crammers…). The reality, however, is that simply to accommodate its own current rate of internal growth, let along any in-migration, London seems to have very few other options. The challenge – not insubstantial – is to achieve greater density whist maintaining the qualities that makes London, London!

Planning authorities will certainly need to work much harder on proactive planning and design strategies and these will need to engage with existing uses and communities. They will need to work to optimise the range of local opportunities whilst avoiding stripping out the sorts of marginal uses that still have tremendous economic and social value to the city. 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 (whilst still preserving its fine grain and diversity), we need to see a renewed investment in the vital place-making functions of the state. In particular we need planners with the capacity and capabilities to move beyond the sorts of reactive roles that so often dominate their in-trays to the types of creative and proactive planning that we so badly need. In London we need this at both the GLA and Borough scales.

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 mixed streets and terraces of townhouses and mansion blocks that characterise the highest density and highest value parts of London today.

A new terrace of town houses as part of the larger Peltons development by Peabody, on a site formally part occupied by a single storey ‘Portacabin’ council office

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.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


June 2017