A clutch of leading built environment thinkers and practitioners gathered at NLA on Monday night to try and answer a burning question for London: where on earth are we going to build 100,000 homes a year? The answer, it seemed, was that it is a tough ask, requiring revolution rather than evolution.
Argent Related partner and NLA Sounding Board chair Robert Evans, who moderated proceedings, kicked off by asking if this figure was possible, did we have the land or skills, and is it an every-borough problem?
Head of the London Plan at the GLA Jennifer Peters said the draft London Plan aims to deliver 650,000 homes over 10 years – an average of 65,000 a year compared to the current plan’s target of 42,000-49,000 per year. The overall approach was to meet London’s needs within Greater London without impinging on the Green Belt. But following the publication of the NPPF new figures had been ‘bouncing all over the place’, and housing minister James Brokenshire is not convinced we are planning for our forward need, as he wrote in a key letter to the mayor. ‘We’re focusing on this plan, which is what the letter is asking us to do. We think it’s a good plan and gives us the framework to deliver the homes we need.’ Peters said 65,000 was a ‘challenging but deliverable number; 100,000 would be extremely difficult to find the capacity or the enabling fund or developers to actually deliver’, she said.
Pollard Thomas Edwards senior partner Andrew Beharrell talked about infill development in London’s suburbs, where 5 million people live – around 60% of London’s population. There are many assumptions and challenges to achieving the 65,000, with all the ‘stars needing to align’ to get there, he said. These include planning, labour and materials supply, funding, willing landowners, not to mention the wider economy and Brexit. Some 245,000 of the 650,000 homes are on small sites of a quarter of a hectare or less, and including 188,000 on ‘potential’ infill sites of 10 homes or less. Most are in the suburbs, so many are ‘theoretical’. ‘I do think there’s lots of potential in the suburbs, but it’s much harder to deliver large numbers of homes across thousands of small sites than across a few large sites’, said Beharrell. Superbia was one idea for the suburbs; PTE’s proposition is called ‘semi-permissive’ to use an extension of permitted development rights to provide a fast-track through the planning system – ‘an unashamed appeal to the pockets of householders’. The conventional planning processes, said Beharrell, are ill-equipped to meet the targets, and Green Belt release was ‘surely, surely’ one of the other ways to get there.
Croydon director of planning and strategic transport Heather Cheesbrough said her borough was ‘right in the thick of it in terms of intensification’, with a new local plan with 1600 homes target per year, a target that would be effectively doubled with the new London Plan’s goals. The local plan encourages small sites to come forward, with intensification happening, albeit with the process becoming harder against a backdrop of increased objections and time taken for schemes to get through. ‘It’s not an easy gig to do and that needs to be factored in to the sheer quantity of time it takes to get these sorts of relatively small consents through’, she said. The borough is reaching out to community groups to talk about the benefits of good quality intensification, with Brick by Brick producing good examples through working with good architects. The new target will mean 40% of Croydon’s suburbs will have to be developed, said Cheesbrough. ‘That’s not evolution, that’s revolution’, she said, requiring new schools, and perhaps in the Green Belt. ‘I really do not see how we are going to do the extra 100,000 if we have difficulty doing the existing target’.
The chair of Bartlett Real Estate Institute, Professor Yolande Barnes said not all Green Belt is green fields, and there may well be land that most people might consider capable of being reused. ‘There is no doubt about it; the main opportunities appear to be in what I call the blue-collar suburbs, rather than the Green Belt outside of those suburbs’. These have been ‘de-gentrified’ while the centre of London has been repopulated, losing skilled workers. The problem with talking about numbers, though, is that ‘housing units’ does not speak to quality. ‘People don’t live in housing units; they live in homes’. And most especially they live in neighbourhoods, which must be fully considered, or what is affordable will be undesirable. The biggest shortfall is in the ‘squeezed’ middle market of housing, Barnes added, and many of the affordable housing solutions will prove to be very costly indeed in the long-term. The only way to manufacture land is in ‘massively incentivising’ individual homeowners. ‘We need new types of land procurement and land supply if we’re going to have a hope in hell of delivering new types of housing’.
Finally, LSE London deputy director Kath Scanlon said that extensive research on 14 high density environments including Strata in SE1 and Woodberry Down in Hackney showed that, from 517 responses, ownership was about 50 per cent. Across these developments, 78 per cent of the households had only one or two people living in them; just 14 per cent had children and most had just one child. So where does high density housing well? Berlin and Copenhagen are obvious examples, while Vancouver is following a more Asian model of tower blocks.
During discussion, issues raised included that of public perception and resistance to density, and the difficulty of getting schemes through planning. On the last point, Cheesbrough suggested that applicants should show attention to detail and do their ‘homework to get people on board. But for all its faults we have a democratic planning system, said Beharrell, and it takes a long time to steer applications through the process because it is a series of negotiations. ‘It is frankly incompatible with these enormous targets that have almost been plucked from the air’, he said. So it was a choice between a directive or a democratic planning process. People generally understand that we have a housing crisis and need to build more homes in London, just not near them, said Peters. As to the elusive middle market, this is where the real revolution has to start, said Barnes, with the challenge being to get individuals who are trading a commute for space to give that up for something else. ‘This is not a game for the usual suspects’, she said. ‘We have to really think of new methods of delivery and I think that is people planning for themselves rather than having things done unto them.’ What we need to be doing is building ‘more London’, she added, ‘the sort of London that is in huge demand and grossly undersupplied in suburban areas.’
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly