Tag Archives: Housing

Densifying London the wrong way

I’m a firm believer in “densification” – that we can make our towns and cities more dense. This can help us to avoid building on other species’ habitats, and to support more sustainable transport habits like public transport and cycling. I’ve written two blog posts looking at the scope for densifying outer London.

But yesterday, Eric Pickles re-announced his own densification programme, and I’m dead-set against it. The Communities Secretary wants to give Boris Johnson £150m to accelerate the demolition of council estates in London, building more dense housing on the land.

The official statement describes the estates as “London’s most deprived”; the Evening Standard helpfully spelled out what they meant by that, describing “run down” and “notorious” areas. It’s one of those easy stereotypes to trot out that actually have very little basis in fact – UKIP supporters are wealthy Tories, housing benefit claimants are unemployed scroungers, and council estates are crumbling and crime-ridden.

In a bizarre attempt to make this sound benign, the official statement mentions that 1.7 million more people lived in inner London in 1939 than are expected to live there in 2021, implying that it really isn’t all that dense at all. Compared to Tokyo, it isn’t, but compared to 1939? Back then inner London was seriously overcrowded, still blighted by slums; depopulation was a deliberate policy to improve quality of life, moving people to outer London or new towns.

You might wonder – why doesn’t Pickles want to regenerate the sprawling low density suburbs? The potential housing capacity there, as I demonstrated, is anywhere up to a trebling of our housing stock.

The answer is obvious. Council tenants in inner London are easy targets. Their councils lack the funds and imagination to protect and maintain their homes and so, reluctantly or otherwise, they go along with these redevelopments. This in spite a growing list of such schemes that have seen the net loss of social housing, the expensive new flats mostly sold to investors, the dislocation of settled communities, the worsening health of affected tenants, and the environmentally destructive loss of existing buildings.

For Pickles and these councils, the tenants have no right to stay put, certainly not equivalent to home owners. But why not? Think of this as a moral, not a legal question. These tenants have been offered a social contract, the assurance that they will be secure in their homes so long as they want to stay there and can pay their rent, equivalent to the social contract for home owners who can continue to pay off their mortgage. They thrive in lively communities, cope with poverty and social exclusion by relying on networks of neighbours, establish settled family lives and hold down jobs they can afford to commute to.

What is the difference between a compulsory purchase of a council estate, such as the Heygate with 1,200 homes on 9 hectares of land, and a compulsory purchase of some homes in Bromley or Havering, with typically 270 homes on an equivalent 9 hectares?

The difference is cost and political will. Councils own their land and can do with it as they wish; the only question is whether they will gain financially from the redevelopment. But to buy those homes in Bromley or Havering they might need to find the best part of £135m. An imaginative council might see an opportunity to fund that by building 1,200 homes and selling half of them on the open market, but councils aren’t encouraged to be imaginative and proactive in Britain. More importantly, most politicians treat the property rights of home owners as sacred while the rights of tenants are temporary and fungible, and few would countenance the idea of redeveloping swathes of suburbia in this way.

If Pickles wanted to densify areas of London to meet needs, he should look at all areas of low density housing and explore how clever use of compulsory purchase and land assembly can deliver his aims in a way that recognises homes are about people and communities, not bricks and mortar.

This so-called regeneration of council estates is densification through urban clearance, sweeping away the powerless and ignoring the impact on their lives in order to deliver numbers – new homes built, council tax revenues collected, stereotypes confirmed.

For an alternative vision for London, visit the Crumbs for London campaign.

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Densifying London (part two)

Following yesterday’s post on making London more dense, Tim Lund suggested I do a slightly more sophisticated analysis. Planners in London use a metric called the Public Transport Accessibility Level, or ‘PTAL’, which does pretty much what you’d expect.

Rules for things like car parking levels and the density of housing you should build are based on these, because obviously if you’re in central London you have no need for a car and you can justify quite tall blocks of flats, but in low rise suburbia with only sporadic bus services it’s accepted that more car parking and less dense housing is appropriate.

So if you were to follow these rules, how much more housing could you build in London?

First, I took the data for PTAL levels (the map on the left). Then I took my wards, sliced up to remove any areas that cannot be built on, cut out the Heathrow airport too because it was such an extreme outlier, and worked out the median PTAL level for each one (the map on the right). Click for a larger version.

Densifying London (part two)

Then I took all the wards where the density was below London’s median. I calculated how many homes you could have, taking the midrange for urban areas for each PTAL level from the Housing Supplementary Planning Guidance (page 32). I deducted the actual number of households from that potential to arrive at the extra homes you could build if you were to bring the areas in line with the planners’ expectations.

This would imply flattening the lowest density half of London and building anew at densities between 80 and 225 homes per hectare.

Here are the results. This map shows all the wards that fell below the median, colour-coded based on the number of extra units you re-built them at the density suggested by the London Plan, using every bit of land for housing:

The result: an extra 6,500,000 homes! That’s twice as many as exist across the whole of Greater London already.

Obviously nobody is about to demolish such an extensive area and re-build it from scratch, and to take every inch of commercial and industrial land for housing and mixed-use development. The environmental impacts of such a huge demolition and construction program would also be ruinous. So it’s a slightly absurd number. But it gives you an idea of what’s possible. Maybe this is what would have happened if we had a sustainable planning system during the 1930s, when these sprawl suburbs were built?

An interesting ‘part three’ would be to take those areas and see what capacity there is on brownfield site. Sadly, I don’t know of any good up-to-date sources of brownfield data. There’s this data produced by the now defunct London Development Agency, not updated since 2009, which you can see on a map here. One to think about…

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Making parts of London more dense

How do we build more homes in London? The Mayor’s latest exercise assessing needs suggests we need up to 690,000 over the next ten years, but a parallel exercise looking for land only came up with sites for 420,000 homes.

The usual debate is whether or not we build in London’s greenbelt to make up the difference. But there are at least three good reasons not to go down this route to solve our problems: there are an awful lot of protected habitats that we really cannot build on; building sustainable developments around transport hubs and avoiding those habitats could only deliver (in Andrew Lainton’s estimation) 72,000 homes; and if we ignore these,  it could lead to more low density, car-dependent urban sprawl, which the greenbelt was established to prevent.

The alternative, or perhaps complementary, approach is to make London more dense, particularly around transport hubs in sprawling, low density outer London. This has actually been pushed for over a decade by Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson with the London Plan, the main planning document for the capital.

There is a lot more to be said about that debate, but it isn’t my purpose with this blog. Instead, I have indulged in one of my hobbies and done a rough-and-ready analysis of the current density across London, by local electoral ward.

My methodology was as follows. I started with the ward boundaries, and the ONS household estimates from 2011. I then chopped out all the areas covered by the land uses which I reasoned we cannot build on.

  • greenbelt
  • metropolitan open land (strongly protected in planning policy)
  • parks, commons, allotments, nature reserves and other important green spaces
  • railway lines with a 5m buffer either side

The data for these came from the London Datastore and extracts from OpenStreetMap.

I considered cutting out areas covered by roads, but then found it would take so long for my software package QGIS to process the data that I’d lose interest! So, given that roads cover pretty much every area, I decided it wouldn’t make a significant difference and left them out.

I also didn’t cut out industrial or commercial areas, for three reasons: first, often commercial buildings have flats above; second, the coverage in OpenStreetMap is too inconsistent; and third, while many should be retained for this use, there are also lots of areas that could be redeveloped for homes, or as mixed-use sites.

So given these caveats, I calculated the number dwellings per hectare of land that could potentially be built on. Here’s the result:

Making parts of London more dense

The green area is all the land that can’t be built on. The rest is coloured from deep red for very high density to light pinky grey for the lowest. I haven’t put a legend on because, well, it’s a very rough approximation. You can see obvious problems with the data, e.g. where Heathrow airport sits, and the Thames Gateway with lots of strategically important industrial land as well as lots of sites for new housing.

So what could densification achieve? Well, let’s say we increase the least dense half of London and brought it all up to the median density. That would increase the number of homes by 815,000!

I haven’t gone any further with these because it is such a rough calculation. If I can get my hands on better data to account for the flaws mentioned, I’ll give it another whirl. But it would be quite interesting to take an area I know really well and look for development sites, and see whether they could be brought up to that median.

Update see part two where I look at density and public transport accessibility.

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On migration, population and ecology

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett recently took a strong stance on migration, warning of the dangers that the other parties risk when stoking up public anger about population. She rightly suggested that we shouldn’t blame migrants for problems with the NHS, schools, housing and jobs. Instead, we should be concerned about the failure of misguided economic policies that have caused these problems.

In response, three members of the Green Party wrote a letter to the Guardian saying that they, and many other Greens, are concerned about migration as well as the nasty rhetoric. The authors of the letter wrote:

Many of her party’s supporters are as concerned as the rest of the public about a high level of net immigration, mainly because it is a major contributor to population growth. This adds to the uphill task of protecting our environment and moving the economy to an ecologically sustainable one.

A long list of Greens replied with “dismay” at this letter, and Adam Ramsay wrote his own letter accusing the three authors of the first letter of “demonstrating an outdated 70s environmentalism obsessed with population while ignoring vast inequalities in consumption levels”.

The debate continued with a reply from some members in Devon, who countered:

To be concerned with the impact that world population rising to 9 billion people has on resource availability, pollution, climate change etc is not to be locked in a 1970s time warp. It may have ceased to be the number one issue for some greens, but in terms of the long-term damage to our planet as a habitat for all species, it remains at the forefront.

I want to address this point alone, because it hits a controversial nerve in the Green community. Does population really matter? Should we restrict migration to protect our environment?

I should say that I am not an expert on migration or population, but I have worked for seven years in the connected areas of housing and environment policy. The three authors of the first letter ask us to “read the statistics” in order to pursue “open and honest debate”. I quite agree! So that is what I hope to do in this article.

Does population matter at the global level?

One common starting point is to view our impact on the rest of the natural world as a simple function of our affluence, our technology and our population. We can bring human society more into harmony with the rest of nature by wanting less, improving our technology to get more out of the resources we consume, and by reducing our population.

Life is never quite that simple, of course. How much each person impacts on the rest of the natural world is also a function of our political and economic systems. The “population doesn’t matter” lobby suggest that it is inequality and rampant consumerism that matters, not the total population. They seem to suggest that if we were all more equal and all reduced our impacts, without those rich bankers trashing the planet, then it would be perfectly possible to accommodate nine or ten billion people and lead healthy, happy lives.

So can we really ignore the population factor in these equations? I don’t think we can.

In my previous job at BioRegional I worked a lot with ecological and carbon footprinting, particularly drawing on the technical work of the Global Footprint Network, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change.  Their work tells us that if everyone lived as the average Briton does we would need three planets’ resources to sustain us, and ten times the capacity of the planet to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions.

But it’s not just mega rich bankers in mansions that are living unsustainable lifestyles. Yes, there are vast inequalities in consumption levels, but we are all consuming too much.

One of the projects I worked on at BioRegional was the BedZED eco village in south west London, built to high standards and designed to make it easy for residents to adopt lower impact lifestyles.  Through a monitoring project I worked on, we found that after seven years living there the working class (social tenancy) residents were still living unsustainably. If everyone in the world lived as they did, we would need 2.6 planets’ worth of resources. Their greenhouse gas emissions were also far above a sustainable level.

Blaming it all on consumerism, or assuming we can quite easily get to a sustainable level with a high standard of living, is just burying your head in the sand. If you work in this area for any amount of time, you quickly realise that reducing our environmental impacts to a truly sustainable level is really hard.

Joel Cohen, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, has compiled lots of research by other academics on the question of how many people the earth can support. Most estimates were in the range of one to sixteen billion. What would those different populations mean? The Worldwatch Institute has estimated that we could sustain a global population of 2.1 billion with a “high income” of $36,000 per capita (lower than the US average), or a population of 13.6 billion with a “low income” of $1,230 per capita. It’s worth reflecting on the changes we’d need in the British economy to enable 13.6 billion people to live on an income that is only 5% of a current UK living wage.

Our global population may well peak within this century, rising to 10 billion. If this happens we would each have an allowance of less than a tonne of carbon dioxide. This figure comes from unpublished work done while I was working at BioRegional. As with much of the detail on climate change it is subject to a huge degree of uncertainty – some would say it’s overly pessimistic, others think we should already have negative carbon footprints (i.e. we should be zero carbon and start taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere).

Let’s assume your allowance is in fact under one tonne, as per that work undertaken by colleagues at BioRegional. Let’s also assume that we make big strides towards a renewable electricity grid, and our technology improves as much as we might reasonably expect over the next fifty years. Well that one tonne isn’t even enough to cover the greenhouse gases required for your share of our country’s basic infrastructure – that is, if we divide up the resources needed to run our hospitals, schools and trains, and to build our roads, homes and council offices between everyone so we carry an equal share. It certainly doesn’t leave you with any of your allowance for heating your home and taking the occasional holiday to Cornwall by train. Read this study of London’s footprint to see what I mean. Sustainable lifestyles with a global population of 10 billion, without some incredible new technology, would be hugely challenging and materially impoverished.

If the population stabilised at 5 billion, our allowance would rise to around two tonnes, making it conceivable that with improved technology we could take that one annual British holiday – still materially far poorer than the average Briton today. In terms of other ecological impacts, the consumption of other natural resources would most likely leave almost no space for wildlife and wilderness.

It’s also relevant to know when the population stabilises. If it were to stabilise tomorrow, then fall consistently for the rest of the decade, that suggests a far smaller release of greenhouse gases and a far smaller consumption of natural resources in the 21st century than a population stabilising in 2050 and remaining high to the end of the century.

Now, it is a big step to go from recognising that population is relevant to then advocating population reduction policies. But we have to face up to two truths: first, that the larger the population, the greater the challenge our technology and politics must overcome; and second, that at some point, without radically new technology, a human population surpasses the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

Is migration relevant to this?

The problem for the authors of the first letter (showing concern about migration) is that it clearly shouldn’t concern us whether somebody lives in the UK or Romania when tackling global environmental problems.

If they have the same lifestyle, it makes no difference to the atmosphere where their carbon emissions arise (and indeed much of our impact arises from global supply chains anyway).

It’s possible that migrants move from less affluent countries to the UK, and become more affluent than they would otherwise have been. So their environmental impact rises, making the task of “protecting our environment” more difficult. But I believe it is unjust to move to an ecologically sustainable economy through nationalistic discrimination. We shouldn’t say “you can’t come and enjoy our lifestyles”. We have to find an equitable way for us all to enjoy a decent quality of life within the planet’s constraints. The Green Party’s longstanding commitment to the principle of contraction and convergence  would be undermined if we sought to protect our own affluence and suppress that of others.

Does population matter at the local level?

I’m going to take Greater London as my “local” scale, only because it’s a region I’m knowledgeable about, I live here, have been involved in politics in the city and have suffered the effects of our dysfunctional housing market. It’s also an interesting case study because the population is in the midst of an unprecedented boom.

If we were to assume high net international migration – lots of people moving from abroad into London – this does present dilemmas. I will explore one  local environmental dilemma – the impact of housing on other species’ habitats – though there are many others such as waste, water and air pollution. I’m not going to explore the impact of population on social policy, such as the provision of health care and housing.

I wrote in a previous blog post about the role of migration in London’s housing market in order to debunk the idea that London is sucking people from the rest of the UK. It isn’t. But international migration has been a major contributor to the city’s rapid growth in the past decade. This chart shows that two factors are pushing up our population: more people move from overseas into London than the other way around; and many more “new households” are formed (births, divorces, etc.) than are dissolved (deaths, moving in together, etc.). It also shows that many more people move out from London to the rest of the UK than the other way around – Londoners are fleeing the capital!

household_changes

One stark conclusion I drew in my previous blog post is that, if the population keeps rising like this, we simply have to build more homes. Read the post if you don’t believe me.

Now, the last assessment of land to build homes on carried out in 2009, looking in all of Greater London’s nooks and crannies for brownfield land, allowing a tiny bit of development on greenfield land and assuming optimal urban densities, only found space for around 37,000 homes per year at a stretch. But the Green Party on the Assembly has already found that these assessments don’t take proper account of the habitats on brownfield land, which can be among the most biodiverse sites in the city. Green roofs and walls are nice, but they cannot compensate for the loss of all habitats for all species. So building 37,000 homes a year will already have a negative impact on our local environment.

The Mayor of London now estimates that we need an extra 40,000 homes to be built every year to keep up with the growing population. Our failure to get anywhere near this in the past decade has led to rising overcrowding. Darren Johnson has dug out estimates that we would need to build 44,500 a year if supply was our only way to stabilise prices. So if we want to build another 7,500 a year on top of the 37,000 we might have space for where will they all go? We can either build at higher densities, or we can encroach further on other species’ habitats, including greenfield sites.

So it may be uncomfortable, but the fact is that migration matters when it comes to protecting our local environment. If we had zero net migration, or if we had a lower birth rate, it would be much easier to accommodate ourselves with the rest of the natural world in Greater London.

However, as with global migration, we have to consider justice when deciding what we do with this fact. Do we restrict entry to the UK to protect our local environment? Or do we open our borders completely and accommodate whoever chooses to live here?

We also need to think beyond our local boundaries. To take Romania as an example, being topical because the rules restricting migration to the UK are about to be relaxed, what habitat impacts in Romania are avoided when people move from Pitești to London? Might it be easier to develop an ecologically sustainable economy with a growing population in Pitești than in London? Or is the reverse true? Perhaps it would be better if people move to London, a compact city with falling car usage, or perhaps it would be better if migrants from all corners of the world settled in parts of the UK with large quantities of empty housing? These questions go far beyond my expertise of Romania or any other country, but they shouldn’t be forgotten!

Population matters, but migration doesn’t (much)

My own take on this, going by the facts and the Green Party’s guiding principles, is as follows: population definitely matters, at both a global and local level. Some may want to dismiss this as “outdated 70s environmentalism”, but I have arrived at this conclusion after working with the latest understanding of ecological and carbon footprinting.  There is nothing racist or xenophobic about it. Higher global populations make an ecologically sustainable global society much more difficult, and past a certain point impossible.

But migration shouldn’t really be a major environmental concern at a global level because it probably makes a negligible difference. Insofar as migration increases affluence, this is not a just reason to oppose migration.

At a local level, environmental pressures shouldn’t be so great a concern that, taken alone, they wholly validate the public’s concerns about migration. Pressures on habitats, and perhaps on water, waste management and pollution, are major considerations that we cannot simply dismiss. But if I am honest, at this point I have exhausted my expertise. I instinctively feel that we should be able to accommodate the free movement of labour within a more equal Europe, and to reconcile mass migration with any resulting local environmental pressures. But I am not certain that this is possible, nor am I confident about how to balance these competing demands on public policy.

Finally, this is just my view on one aspect of wide and complicated debates. I’d encourage you to read and think about this subject more, and discuss it. For example, here is an interesting article suggesting that liberal migration policies help people affected by climate change to adapt. Here’s another by Violeta Vajda reminding us that immigration is about human experiences as well as bare facts. I think it’s a shame that the tone of debates such as this can quickly turn nasty, with people seeking to shut down debate and insult each other rather than to seek understanding and consensus.

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Who built all that housing in England?

A couple of years ago I included a chart of house building in a blog post arguing that young people shouldn’t necessarily support the removal of planning controls. The chart covered the period from 1955 to 2010, and showed that:

The only time  that the UK has seen house building match demand, and kept housing affordable, was when councils built in huge volumes from the 1950s to 1970s. If you think price bubbles are all about supply, explain the continued volatility of house prices through the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

People who want to see a massive expansion in house building can have their spirits dampened in other ways. Christopher Buckle from Savills wrote an interesting blog post suggesting that, on that house building data from the 1950s to the present day, a major boom looks very unlikely. He wrote:

If private sector housing delivery grew by 7.5% every year until 2017, a period of 7 years unbroken expansion from 2010, output would reach 133,000 new homes per year.  This would still be 10,000 new homes per year short of the average level of delivery seen over the 50 years prior to the credit crunch.  Such a sustained period of expansion has not been seen since the 1950s.

But the charts used by me and Buckle didn’t cover the 1930s, a time when private builders erected more than two million homes, almost twice as many as they managed in the 2000s and when the population was much larger.

Back to the 1930s

Those who think we need to tear up the planning system to solve our housing crisis often refer to the 1930s as a golden age. So I’ve produced a chart that goes all the way back to 1923 for homes built in England:

Who built all that housing?

I have had to combine two slightly different data sources for this. The period from 1923-1945 comes from  BR Mitchell’s Abstract of British Historical Statistics (which start in 1923), and the period from 1946-2011 from official government statistics (table 244) which also includes figures for housing associations. This is a bit naughty, but it’s the best I can do.

This shows that there was indeed an explosion of private sector house building in the 1930s, jumping from 144,505 homes in 1932 to 210,782 in the following year.

The role that councils played

But it also shows that councils were still a big force, a point made more clearly by this chart showing the proportion of the total homes built by housing associations, councils and private builders:

housing-supply-1923-2011-proportions

During the 1930s, councils still built a quarter of the homes. That rose to a whopping 73% in the 1940s (not surprising given there was a war on), 64% in the 1950s, and around 40% in the 1960s-70s. In 1997, the year Labour came back into office councils only built 0.2% of homes. Housing associations to some extent stepped into their shoes, but in the 1990s and 2000s they only built 14% of the homes.

Based on this data, and a lot of other reasons, I think there are three arguments for councils building more homes if we are to contain housing costs:

  1. These homes will be affordable to the tenants from day one, and in perpetuity, whatever happens in the market.
  2. In the twentieth century, the only periods during which we built enough homes saw a very significant role for council homes.
  3. Councils building more will expand the construction industry so introducing greater economies of scale and potentially improving skills.

A final note of caution

However, I wouldn’t want to say this is an open and shut case, nor deny I have other reasons for supporting council housing.

It is too easy to draw very simplistic conclusions, and to then make a tenuous connection in order to propose quite radical policies. This is what I think is happening with the romanticism about the 1930s suburbs.

There is a similarity between this debate and that of rent controls, in which we often make comparisons between the UK rented sector and Germany’s. It’s interesting that Germany has a very successful and highly regulated rental sector, and relevant given that Conservative, Labour and coalition governments since the 1980s have opposed those sorts of regulations. But there are many other differences between the countries. Similarly, there are many differences between the UK today and in the 1930s.

Can we have a major private housebuilding boom, as we had in the 1930s, regardless of Buckle from Savill’s gloom about the period from the 1950s to the present day? Brian Green wrote a good blog post in 2011 arguing that a 1930s housing boom seems unlikely. He wrote:

I sense a new romantic surge of interest in the notion of a private-sector-led house-building boom driving economic recovery. But… there were huge differences…

I’d recommend reading his post for his full list of reasons, I won’t quote them at length here. The gist is that in the 1930s you had a large number of new potential home buyers, plentiful cheap credit, low land costs, little demand from landlords and investors and a housing market that was very affordable. His conclusion:

It would seem that if we want a new house-building boom we will need a far more ingenious and powerful set of market prompts than promoting a greater availability of higher loan-to-value mortgages, freeing up planning and continuing to supply mortgages at low interest rates.

You can draw your own conclusions from the data I have presented, and the links to the articles by Buckle and Green.

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Two false hopes that won’t solve London’s housing crisis

Darren Johnson has issued a report arguing that building new homes can’t solve London’s housing crisis alone. He suggests the Mayor should consider other solutions including smart regulations for the private rented sector, taxing land values and setting up land auctions.

But there are two policies you won’t see in his list. Two policies that Greens often bring up in discussions about housing. I wanted to take some time this evening to explain why I think we should talk about them a little less, and in a very different light.

Before I launch in, I would heartily recommend this blog entry by Liz Emerson as an overview of the sources of our housing crisis, to give an idea of why we need to act. The Green Party’s policy platform is chock-full of good ideas to rectify this, but when it comes to building new homes I think Greens sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the argument, and sometimes put forward two ideas that frankly aren’t good enough.

I have to make clear – while I worked with Darren on his report I am writing this blog entry in a personal capacity, and this should in no way be taken as reflecting Darren’s views, those of my employer the GLA or of the Green Party.

I also have to make clear that this blog is about London. The national picture is bound to be quite different, but I think many of the basic points still hold.

We should use empty homes before building new ones

The claim runs as follows: there are lots of empty homes in London, we should be making better use of them before building new homes.

Thr problem: It’s true that there are lots of empty homes in London, and that it would be good if we could make use of them. But there aren’t nearly enough to make new housebuilding unnecessary. Not even close.

The latest figures from Empty Homes show that there were 74,811 empty homes in November 2011. But of those, only 29,540 were empty for more than six months. A home empty for a shorter period of time could well be in the middle of renovation or waiting for tenants. So fewer than 1% of homes in London are empty for long periods of time – not very many, is it?

Empty homes are also often quite hard to bring into use. They can be in a bad way, on housing estates awaiting demolition, or owned by some grumpy absentee landlord. Councils, the Mayor and the Government all try to solve these problems, and they could definitely try harder. Our 2012 manifesto pledged to:

Set up a clearing house to offer all publicly owned derelict land to Community Land Trusts and to make all suitable publicly-owned empty homes available to self-help co-operatives to bring them back into short-life or permanent use.

But it would be a tall order to bring every last empty home into use, and to stop any more becoming empty for more than six months.

What’s more, the experts who advised the Government and the Mayor on housing need recommended that we need between 33,100 and 44,700 homes every year for twenty years just to deal with overcrowding and stabilise house prices. So those 29,540 long-term empty homes would deliver at most one year’s supply, leaving at least another 630,000 homes to build over the following nineteen years.

We should re-balance the UK away from London

The policy claim: there are another 250,000 long-term empty homes elsewhere in the UK, and if prices in London are so overcooked because it’s where all the jobs are, then we should give other regions a big economic boost to re-balance the nation.  This way lots of people would move away to Plymouth, Preston and Perth, the market would settle down in London and the south east and we could make better use of the housing stock elsewhere.

The first problem with this argument is that there is already quite a large net flow of people out of London. This diagram from the GLA’s strategic housing market assessment neatly illustrates the point:

The need for housing isn’t coming from job-hungry Yorkshiremen, but from Londoners having lots of babies at a faster rate than people are dying, and from a large net migration from outside the UK. This has changed slightly during the recession for various interesting reasons, but the basic direction of movement remains. A lot of those people leaving are retired, or moving out to commuter towns to raise families. So in fact we would need to persuade even more people to leave London to seek work elsewhere, persuade Londoners not to have so many children, and persuade far more international migrants to settle elsewhere.

The second problem is that these very big changes are far beyond the wit of the Mayor of London and local councils. We can certainly talk about these big trends and our ideas for the national Government. But when the Conservative or Labour government continues to fail to grapple with these trends, we have to be ready to say what we would do if elected in Camden, Lewisham and Bromley. It’s not good enough to throw up our hands and complain about the Government’s economic strategy.

Sticking to the facts

We can definitely say we should do more to bring empty homes back into use, and to re-balance the UK’s economy to boost the north, west, Wales and Scotland. I don’t agree with those who tend to write these ideas off because they are so fixed on new housing supply being the silver bullet. There is no silver bullet, Darren’s work shows that in no uncertain terms. We need every good idea we can get.

But we cannot pretend that they would be sufficient to meet London’s chronic housing need and that they are therefore a reason not to build new homes. Doing so makes us as guilty as those who pretend we can solve climate change and carry on flying more and more if we just build some nuclear power stations and insulate our lofts. We know that the facts don’t support the waffly half-hearted policies of other parties on climate change, so we should be sure that the facts support our policies on housing.

There are often issues with new housing developments. They can be on unsuitable land that should be protected for farming (or they can be on useless pony fields for little princesses); they can be low density car-dependent suburbs (or smart extensions with good transport links); they can feature too little affordable housing (or at least get some built in areas that desperately need it). But we must build housing in parts of the country where the need for housing is greater than the stock available. The social and economic costs are so severe that it should be one of our highest priorities to ensure this happens.

We needn’t be slaves to the market – we can advocate building council and co-operative housing for example – but we also cannot be the party of wealthy elderly councillors blocking housing needed by younger constituents as the Integenerational Foundation has warned.

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Green doesn’t need to mean gentrification

Jim Gleeson has an interesting blog entry about the consequences of making a city more liveable. In short, there is a danger that making an area more liveable can price out lower income people. By reducing air pollution and generally improving the local environment in more deprived areas,  richer people will start to move in displacing the people who should have benefitted.

His prescription is more housing supply to accompany environmental improvements. But we need to think a bit more carefully about this to get the medicine right for places like London.

As he points out, the economic benefits of making an area more desirable will largely go to existing home owners and landlords as the value of the land, and therefore the rent they can charge, increases. Lower income people will be forced to move, presumably (according to Jim’s argument) to less liveable areas. Council and housing association tenants who are secure in their homes gain a nicer environment, but they have no direct stake in the increased value of the land their homes sit on.

Building more homes as Jim suggests could help to keep prices down, meaning less of a windfall gain for land owners and possibly more stable rents. But in practice, due to London’s policy of “mixed and balanced communities”, deprived areas tend to see council housing demolished and replaced overwhelmingly with housing for sale in order to “balance out” the social “mix” of people in the area. There’s no way anyone with an average income and average wealth would be able to buy a new flat in most areas of London on the open market.

The flats will be bought by wealthier-than-average people, and probably many then let on the private market, with a good number of those subsidised by housing benefit. So while more supply might dampen the economic consequences of making an area more liveable, and while it might spread the wealth a little more widely, the economic benefits will still mostly go to wealthier people.

You would need to increase house building across London to 50% higher than Boris Johnson’s aspirational target just to stabilise prices. It would be interesting to know whether there is enough spare land and available development finance to raise supply levels high enough in order to gradually reduce prices so that the benefits of new homes would be principally accrued by ordinary Londoners.

But there are other ways in which we can reduce unequal access to nice local environments while maintaining or reducing levels of economic inequality. Housing supply is undoubtedly part of the picture, but policies need to be a bit more sophisticated to achieve this aim.

One simple policy would be to try to build lots more council housing in wealthier areas that already enjoy high environmental quality. That would require a government to reinstate an adequate housing capital budget; the new budget for London in 2011-15 is two-thirds lower than than the budget for 2008-11!

Another would be to ensure all the new housing is put into the control of a Community Land Trust, which owns the land and so can keep homes permanently affordable. Members of the Trust, usually a co-operative, use any rise in land values to benefit the local community and not private individuals. To date, there is only one example of this in London – Coin Street. Despite valiant efforts and credible plans from various other communities, the HCA, GLA and government have done little to make this concept happen.

A third more radical solution – radical as in dealing with the root of the problem (from radix, Latin for ‘root’) – would be to bring back taxation on land. Winston Churchill and Lloyd George both tried, and failed, to do this at the turn of the 20th century. They were blocked by wealthy landowners in the Lords, whose ancestors got rid of them as the power of the Crown diminished.

We have a tax system that raises income off hard work and consumer goods, and that leaves people to rake in huge gains from increases in land values and capital gains with comparatively little or no tax. If we brought back “schedule A” taxes, land values wouldn’t rise so much, the benefits could be clawed back for investment in affordable housing, all local residents could therefore benefit including council tenants, and people might be encouraged to invest their savings in productive stocks and shares rather than dead bricks and mortar.

These solutions have all been applied in the not-too-distant past. But as with the debate over the National Planning Policy Framework, they seem to get overlooked in simplistic debates over false choices like “housing supply vs. conservation”.

Jim’s post is much more sophisticated, looking at the relationship between environmental improvements and the housing market. But his prescription – more supply – needs to be equally sophisticated to ensure that we deliver environmental and social justice side by side.

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Young people should be wary of the Government’s planning bonfire

I have noticed a lot of young people enthusiastically supporting the Government’s proposals to radically cut down planning regulations.

They join in attacks on groups like the National Trust and Friends of the Earth, calling them wealthy NIMBYs who are protecting their own over-inflated house prices. They buy into the suggestion that the planning system has held back house building, harming a growing proportion of the current generation of young people who are now “jilted”, priced out of home ownership.

Is this right?

I don’t think so. In fact, I believe the Government’s proposals are bad for young people, and bad for intergenerational justice.

Is planning the problem?

There can be no doubt that planning regulations are a drag on housing development, adding both the cost of the buildings themselves and the process of putting them up. But that’s like saying that the minimum wage and gender equality laws are a drag on business. They may be, but they’re regulations we value.

The evidence that the planning system is a bottleneck is weak. According to London Councils there are approximately 170,000 homes in London’s planning system with permission that aren’t currently being built – the constraint being scarce mortgage finance caused by the credit crunch and high land values.

In London Ken Livingstone used the planning system to force reluctant councils to build more houses, and increased output by almost 50% in a decade, though it was still about half the level required to stabilise prices through supply. Boris Johnson has continued with this approach, albeit with more of an emphasis on negotiation than force.

Would the private sector build more homes without the planning system? The only time in the past century that the UK has seen house building match demand, and kept housing affordable, was when councils built in huge volumes from the 1950s to 1970s.If you think price bubbles are all about supply, explain the continued volatility of house prices through the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The big home builders have little incentive to build large volumes and deflate the value of land, and never filled the gap when we stopped councils building in the 1980s. Have we given up hope of persuading the public to back large scale public house building?

Figures from the Department of Communities and Local Government.

The Government’s main reform is to radically simplify planning regulations. Are the regulations and guidance the problem, or are we overlooking the understaffed local planning authorities and unduly complex or slow processes?

Actually the biggest obstacle to building more housing is the cost of land. Unless we threw away any protections for the green belt and farm land that take up most of our country, or accept much higher density levels across the board, it will always be too scarce a resource for supply to match demand. There can be no doubt that we need policies that reduce the value of land, or at least contain the rises in land values (which are in fact the underlying reason for rises in the prices of existing houses).

Planning consent for housing transforms the value of farm land and brownfield land, so the argument goes that presumed consent would somehow help. I’m not convinced it would, and anyway we could call for proposals such as councils auctioning off land and using the planning gain to fund affordable housing.

Do we need to reduce planning costs as well as tackle land values, pushing for every tool in the box to be used? Is it simply that the current Government is serious about reducing planning costs, but that no minister since Lloyd George has shown a serious interest in reintroducing land value taxation?

Isn’t planning a solution?

My greater worry is that young people are forgetting the benefits of a detailed planning system.

If they are concerned with intergenerational equity, what greater disaster for the current youngest and future generations can there be than climate change? Successive governments may have failed to keep housing costs in check, but that failure pales into insignificance when we consider that decades of hot air on climate change policy have failed to even slow the global rise in greenhouse gase emissions.

The planning system is central to mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Without tough and highly prescriptive planning rules on car parking, road layouts, renewable energy and a long list of other policy areas, councils will continue to allow development that is incompatible with reducing emissions to a sustainable level. Labour failed to go far enough with the planning system, and just as excellent new rules on renewables were ready to be introduced, this Government has decided to scrap the lot and introduce some vague aspirations through which anti-green councils (being the majority in England) will drive a polluting coach and horses.

Can you see every council in England and Wales deciding that “sustainable development” requires a reduction in car traffic, fewer car parking spaces and proper provision of cycle routes?

Allowing people to convert offices into homes without planning permission could damage jobs and lead to the worst type of housing being built, without any regard to considerations of size or quality.

Protecting the green belt and farm land is important for climate change adaptation, not only in terms of protecting habitats (if only all farms were managed well) but more importantly for food security. It’s a long time since the UK was self-sufficient in food, but there are a number of pressures on food prices that will only get worse in the years to come: global population growth and an increase in per-capita demand for meat from grain-intensive cattle; oil prices that will only go in one direction long term, which not only fuels machinery but is also the basis for fertilisers and pesticides; and longer term the potential loss of many of the world’s bread baskets due to climate change taking hold.

We need to keep all the land we can for food production, so that future generations have a chance of keeping a high level of domestic food production using systems such as permaculture and aquaponics. This isn’t science fiction, the new London Plan even begins to discuss this concern.

The planning system can also help redress longstanding integenerational iniquities, such as requiring councils to plan for extra social housing (council and housing association housing) in wealthier areas, and ensuring that homes are always built with decent sized rooms (something this Government has reversed to simplify regulations).

These and other provisions could still be enshrined by more enlightened councils in the new slimmed down system, but they could be challenged if they stood in the way of building lots of houses and promoting economic growth. The benefits of will largely go to property developers and income rich people who can buy houses.

My suggestion to fellow jilted youth

By all means call for planning regulations to be streamlined where they are excessive, and to force NIMBY councils to permit more house building. Challenge conservation groups where they block the development of decent housing in areas that desperately need it, and where the justification is weak or self-serving.

But please don’t support this regressive Government in its efforts to tear up the planning system in the name of misdirected growth. The critics aren’t hysterical, hypocritical or self-serving; the concern is genuine and justified.

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Maps, open data and activism on the Heygate estate

Andy Allan’s excellent post on cycle campaigning reminded me to blog about some mapping help I’ve given a campaign group called the Elephant Amenity Network. One of their long-running issues has been the clearance and demolition of the unfairly maligned Heygate Estate, over 1000 council homes that should have been refurbished for council tenants instead of being knocked down for aspiring home owners to move into the area.

A photo of the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle, London

One of the best features of the Heygate Estate is the urban forest that has grown there in the past thirty or forty years. But the few remaining residents and local campaigners fear the “regeneration” will see many or even most of them cut down.

Through a friend who is involved with the campaign, I came along to help them map the trees that are there now. Knowing what you have seems like a good first step to saving it.

So I helped them enter the trees into OpenStreetMap using the OpenEcoMaps install of the Potlatch 2 editor, set-up a simple map that shows them as clickable objects on a map, and provided them with a spreadsheet of all the data at the end of the process.

Some other clever bods in the campaign then used a system called CAVAT (Capital Asset Value for Amenity Trees) that puts a financial value on the trees. They estimate the value to be well in excess of £7.6m! Here is the CAVAT valuation laid on top of OpenStreetMap:

I’m glad to say this has become a case study in a recent London Assembly report into the state of street trees in London, which makes recommendations about the need for open street tree data and uses this Heygate mapping to show both the demand for this data and how useful it can be.

Since mapping the trees ourselves, I’ve received a file with all the trees in Southwark from the council with permission to use and share it, which is brilliant. I did a test import in East Dulwich/Peckham Rye, but stopped short because of rendering issues. It would be great to be able to import the lot and see if citizens can keep the data more up to date than the council, or perhaps even collaborate with the council and Trees for Cities?

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How are we going to insulate London?

As another flurry of snow hits the office windows here at City Hall, we’ve put the finishing touches to a video by Darren Johnson investigating the future of insulation in London (and the reasons why over a million homes are still bleedin’ cold!)

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