London responds to housing ‘emergency’

Thursday 12 November 2015

Disco (c) Ben Adams Architects

London’s housing crisis has turned into an ‘emergency’, with an even more pressing need for new tools to be found to speed up delivery.

That was one of the findings of a half-day conference held at NLA yesterday kicked off by deputy mayor Richard Blakeway, who revealed a worrying element of the familiar population growth figures – 8.6m-10m by the end of the next decade. There is a net outflow of every age group apart from those in their 20s, he said, and London is experiencing tenure change, with a reduction in owner occupation. Furthermore, the capital offers a stark contrast to the US where those who spend a third of their income on rent are defined as ‘rent-burdened:’ Londoners spend half of their net income on rent. It was striking, too, said Blakeway, that there are some 260,000 units with planning permission, but London is only building 27,000 per annum. Closing that gap will require ‘radical thinking’, and more boroughs emulating Tower Hamlets, which is building more than any other – a third of its stock having been built in the last decade. The GLA is responding with more of a spatial approach on its funding programme exemplified by Housing Zones. ‘But we need to focus again on how we get land to the market’, said Blakeway.

GLA executive director of housing and land David Lunts, said we need to get up to 49,000 homes per year to play catch-up and that the only time that was achieved was in the inter-war years; since then constraints have emerged in the planning system. And with 22 per cent of London given over to Green Belt land and 15% to Conservation Areas there is ‘37% of London we really cannot build on anymore’. Another shift is that building on smaller sites less than 0.25ha is responsible for 17% of London’s homebuilding, when at the beginning of the Millennium it was 40%, while some boroughs such as Kensington and Chelsea are seriously lagging at 1% growth. The pipeline will be broadly east, and the GLA expects more high-rise, with more homes coming through the London Land Commission and intensification.

The ‘pivotal shift’ from rent to home ownership is a problem in putting all eggs in one basket, said L&Q chief executive David Montague, but government moves in the sector are creating ‘massive challenges’ to housing associations, and many are simply fleeing the capital. ‘I think this crisis is becoming an emergency and we desperately need to do something about it’, he said. Barriers include materials and skills shortages, said LSE emeritus professor of housing economics Christine Whitehead, as well as a longer term problem of ‘a really, really bad building industry’ with ‘God awful productivity.’ Potential answers include more powers for the mayor and a close look at the Green Belt, Whitehead suggested, as well as the Greater South East looking ‘a little healthier.’

The conference also heard from Igloo chief executive Chris Brown, who suggested more custom build – seen as ‘normal’ elsewhere might be a worthy antidote to the ‘evilness’ of the underperforming volume housebuilders. New approaches of the kind shown by Ivan Harbour of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners in Y:Cube, the practice’s 36 unit modular housing project for the YMCA in Merton could also aid speed to site, while the land-hungry suburbs could take greater incremental intensification and transformation, said HTA partner Riëtte Oosthuizen and Pollard Thomas Edwards senior partner Andrew Beharrell. A greater use of innovative materials such as Cross Laminated Timber could also help the housing push in offering a sustainable, speedy and stylish approach, said dRMM Architects’ Sadie Morgan, as has been adopted by Lend Lease at Elephant and Castle.

All of which, allied to the NLA exhibition, offer timely ideas to chew over by the new London mayoral candidates, said Lunts. ‘This is the first election where unambiguously, housing is the big political issue’, he said. 

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