Evolving London – the future of housing

Thursday 29 November 2012

The UK’s ‘shambolic’ housing policy is in need of root-and-branch reform, including an end to ‘ownership obsession’ and ‘rhetorical nonsense about planning’, replaced by a recognition within government that housing is a lever for growth.

Those were some of the main points to emerge from the first in a special series of ‘Evolving London’ seminars organised by GVA, with Professor Duncan Maclennan from the University of St Andrews airing his views on the problems of housing policy, along with a few proposed solutions.

Speaking to an audience assembled at the Museum of London this morning, Maclennan said present housing policy in the UK is the worst, most inconsistent and most shambolic since he started looking at the whole area in 1972. There is too much emphasis put on the ‘mindless political objective’ of home ownership growth, he said, while the private rented sector, which is ‘taking the strain’, should be more the focus of policy than it is at present, and more attention should be paid to the causes of problems, rather than their symptoms. We have a system that drives up prices and makes affordability issues worse and housing should be more recognised for the effect it has on the wider economy, with London’s market benefiting the rest of the UK. Maclennan said he was also ‘confused about what the government believes about planning’, with Nick Clegg’s garden city notions, the PM defending the Green Belt and planning minister Nick Boles now making statements about the need to develop on more land.

‘We need to cut the rhetorical nonsense about planning and get a clearly aligned understanding within the coalition and between No.10 and No.11, for instance,’ said Maclennan. ‘The present confusion continues the previous indecision’.

London needs a coherent approach to infrastructure investment, Maclennan went on, with market stability replacing ownership obsession and the rental sector made a priority. Non-profit roles should be rethought and redefined, and ‘we have too many housing-led things; they should be infrastructure-led things.’ Maclennan added that many of the land development agencies concentrate on Greenfields or big brownfield sites when in fact ‘a lot of what you need to do in London is small infill. ‘I think infill development could make a huge difference in London’, he said.

Another idea hinged on notion of the ageing population, especially with, as Maclennan told the audience, 60-70 per cent of people’s medical costs incurred in the last two or three years of their lives. Maclennan proposed that if, say, two per cent of the over 65s under-occupying their homes could be persuaded to move every year we could make a huge difference to housing supply. ‘We have to give the elderly incentives to get out of under-occupied homes’. It is not just the aged, however - as many as 750,000 households in London are under-occupying their homes. And, as GVA’s Gerry Hughes pointed out, in 1991 London had four per cent more homes than households; today it is estimated that there are seven per cent fewer homes than households. ‘We have a growing housing crisis in London’, said Hughes.

Something, clearly, has to change. Maclennan again: ‘What we have now in terms of ideas, policies and resources simply means misery for more Londoners and attenuated prosperity for all of us.’     

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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