London at ‘tipping point’ over housing crisis

Tuesday 13 February 2018

London risks becoming a ‘hollowed out’ city just for the wealthy, with the creative ‘buzz’ supplied by young people going with them as they seek more affordable housing elsewhere.

That was one of the key contentions at ‘A crisis for the next generation – is London just for the wealthy?, an NLA and RIBA debate held at the Surface Design Show last week.

Andy von Bradsky, design and delivery advisor for housing led regeneration at DCLG said that London was a young city with 25% of its population below the age of 25 in what sociologists term a ‘youth bulge’ that is similar to the baby boom after World War II. That led to a youthful surge of energy, he said, similar to that experienced in the Arab Spring or in Korea, which saw unprecedented growth. ‘Success in capturing the youthful energy for positive benefit has to be underpinned by good jobs and good housing’, said von Bradsky, and the challenge of affordability was disproportionately affecting the young. London is taking steps with items like the London Living Rent and councils building homes. But without radical solutions at scale the potential of that vibrant youth bulge could be lost, and tensions could find expression, with young people forced to move outwards to more affordable and economically accessible cities here and internationally, ‘leaving London hollowed out and catering only for the wealthy.’

Levitt Bernstein project architect Zohra Chiheb said London was in ‘real danger’ of becoming just for the wealthy, and that even the draft London Plan’s definition of affordable housing where combined incomes of up to £90,000 a year would qualify for help meant 95% of Londoners would be in this particular category. ‘Perhaps we need a rebrand’, she said. ‘Perhaps we should call affordable housing, “housing for the 95%”’. The industry could be doing more, perhaps through making a proportion of developments reserved for local sale, but the real need was for ‘political will and serious funding’ to get better housing options for young people.

Homes England head of strategy Louise Wyman said diversity and having young people in London was ‘critically important’, not least for the cultural creativity and buzz they bring to the city. And if London loses out at this Brexit moment, it may be to cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol. ‘I’d hate for London to become this wealthy centre and the provincial second tier cities to take all that creativity out.’ Happily, Homes England has powers in planning and the ability to CPO sites, and is beginning to be ‘demonstrative’ as an agency – with its 600 staff set to double in numbers over the next couple of years. 

But it was worth remembering in all of this what king of city London once was, said David Lunts, executive director, housing and land, GLA. A book – the Heartless City – written in 1977 and based on a Thames Television series showed how half of Londoners wanted to leave the city, and you could pick up a house in east London then for the equivalent of £40,000 in today’s money. ‘This was a place that was losing its mojo’, said Lunts. Since then the city had been transformed, with an explosion of success economically, and a consequent rise in population, attracting the wealthy but also the young and aspirational. It was increasingly tough to live here because of the squeeze on house prices, tipping it into becoming the ‘biggest controversy in the city’, said Lunts. ‘We are at the tipping point, yes, not in London’s fortunes being on the edge of a cliff because of young people leaving but in terms of the fact that London has to get to grips with its housing crisis in a way it has not done in recent years.’  In 1990, around 25% of 16-24-year olds in London owned their own home, which has dropped to 3% today, while for 25-34 year olds the figures had fallen from 57% to 27%. But compared to other world cities such as Sydney, London is making advances in affordable housing requirements, and the GLA is encouraging longer-term, responsible purpose built rental housing, not least by means of a soon to be launched database naming and shaming criminal landlords. And while the city does not want to turn away ‘global wealth’ it wants to also address the housing crisis with a ‘fair deal for ordinary Londoners’. ‘I don’t deny there’s a lot more to do’, said Lunts, ‘but I don’t think we should get too pessimistic about the fortunes of this great city.’

Finally, RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said he felt that if we’re to solve the problems of London we need ‘political boundaries that are co-terminus with the economic footprint of London, which includes quite large swathes of the Home Counties’. It also needed a ‘redefinition’ of the Green Belt, local authorities needed more resources and London needed a city-wide exposition of 1000s of examples of small, ingenious infill projects, all over London (‘what you might call a “big small” project’). ‘We think there is an immense energetic capacity in London for delivering on that opportunity.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 

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