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Unlocking small spaces could be the key to solving London’s housing crisis

Politicians are finally waking up to the fact that London has a housing crisis. Everyone, from the candidates for London mayor to the prime minister, has been talking about the urgent need to address the shortfall.

Part of the problem is that London’s population is growing dramatically with some estimates suggesting that it could reach around 11m within 25 years. To meet the growing demand – as well as the current backlog – we now need to build somewhere between 49,000 and 62,000 homes a year. Last year, we built just over 24,000.

There are plenty of theories as to why London’s housing market is so dysfunctional. Many blame poor planning which takes too long and fails to allocate enough land. Others blame opportunistic developers who hoard land and speculate on its increasing value rather than developing it. Some suggest that the problem stems from international investors buying up housing in London and leaving it empty. But the reality is, we’ve simply been building too few homes for far too long.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, we no longer have a viable public-led housing programme – instead, we leave it almost entirely to the market. Within the market, we rely on a very small number of large private housebuilders, whose primary interest (understandably) is in delivering value for their shareholders – not in solving the housing crisis.

London living: St George’s Wharf development. Miradortigre/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Moreover, we don’t do enough to seek out and encourage the development of small sites across the city. Instead, we rely on the development of a small number of much larger sites. And finally, 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. It seems that banks no longer wish to take the “risk” on housebuilding – despite the huge amounts of money that those international investors seem to be making.

Thinking small

So what is the solution? My research has shown that the very ordinary local mixed streets that form the connective tissue weaving its way across London also contain, within 500m of their frontages, 75% of London’s developable brownfield land.

Although these sorts of sites are small and complex, they are also sustainable; well-connected to public transport and well-serviced by local facilities and amenities. Such sites are often in need of a new purpose as retail declines, and they are already part and parcel of London’s existing communities.

These should be the first places we look to develop – not the last. But they are not always immediately obvious and viable development propositions. Instead they are often hidden behind existing activities, partially utilised, or even in full use but at a very low level: for example, for single storey developments.

Many of these are also sites which provide a wealth of temporary and long-term employment and other opportunities. Simply clearing all such backland sites for housing would be hugely damaging. So what other choices do we have?

Greenbelt: no houses here, please., CC BY

London is surrounded by the greenbelt – an area of open land on which building activity is restricted. But the greenbelt is a popular device to constrain the capital’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) also 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.

Getting dense

So, there’s only one viable option left: the city needs to become denser. With around 14,600 people per square mile, London is a low density city by international standards: by comparison, Lima – capital of Peru – has a similar population to London, but is almost twice as dense.

This would mean bringing forward development of the sorts of small viable brownfield sites already described above. It means making use of the acres of land which run alongside, over and occasionally under the city’s roads and rail infrastructure. It means better utilising the voluminous quantities of space dedicated solely to parking, and the low grade spaces within and surrounding many of our public housing estates. It means making use of all the wasted “spaces left over after planning” that are liberally sprinkled across the city offering us maintenance headaches but no real amenity value.

Once you start looking, the opportunities are vast. In London’s town centres alone, increasing density and proactively tackling problems of complex multiple ownerships could release capacity for 220,000 new homes over the next decade.

But making the city denser will not be an easy task. Public authorities will need to work much harder on planning and design strategies which engage with existing uses and communities. They will need to optimise the local opportunities, and avoid stripping out the sorts of marginal uses that still have tremendous value to London such as some of its small scale manufacturing and production businesses.

Rising to the challenge

This will certainly not be achieved by cutting back on the role of the public sector and deregulating planning either. Instead, to stand any chance of bringing forward the legions of smaller sites across the city we will require renewed investment in these vital functions of the state. In particular, we’ll need to free up planners from the reactive development management that typically dominates their lives to make space for the creative and proactive planning that will be required to deliver the sorts of sites and development opportunities described above.

We will also need to convince communities that this strategy could work. All too often residents are highly sceptical of any attempts to increase density. They tend to associate 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, places such as Kensington and Chelsea.

If we’re going to solve a problem as big as London’s housing crisis, we will need to think small to think big. We need to unleash the city’s dynamic and entrepreneurial spirit – not only among the smaller developers, but also within local communities, housing associations and the public sector – all of whom will need to be part of this effort. The next generation will not thank us if we fail to deal with this issue. London has always risen to such challenges in the past, and will do so now. We owe it to all future Londoners – from wherever they hail.

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