‘Housing, housing, and housing’ - LREF day two

Thursday 13 June 2019

Housing was a big, recurring theme across a good deal of LREF’s day two this year, particularly London’s need to create more of it across all tenure types and especially affordable.

But this need, a by-product of population growth, is by no means restricted to the UK capital, according to key contributors to ‘international morning: how cities lead the world and people make the city’. 

In Toronto, said Jan de Silva, president of its board of trade, ‘people not property is very much our story’. But a 47% population growth in the last two decades, much of it fuelled by welcome immigration has meant that it is ‘creaking’ under the strain, with a ‘huge shortage in construction trade talent’ despite a proliferation of 97 construction cranes across the city.

In Sydney, said Dr Sarah Hill, the population is growing rapidly too, with a projection of reaching 6 million people from 4.7 million inside two decades. In part this has been because of the baby boom, in part because of its economic success but it is struggling to keep up with infrastructure requirements, said Hill. And Hill’s own house earns more than she and her husband do each year, she added.

Over in Tokyo, said head of its OECD Yumiko Murakami, one of the key issues is a ‘super ageing society’ which she branded a global issue that just happens to be hitting Japan first. And in New York, said Ana Arino, a quickly growing economy has led to a GDP bigger than Switzerland but housing concerns too. ‘What we’re focusing on today is people’, she said, ‘because what you see today is an unprecedented period of growth that hasn’t benefited everyone’.

London is resilient, based on its fundamental advantages despite Brexit, said NLA chairman Peter Murray. ‘What you hear outside is the sound of long-term confidence’, he said of construction noise beyond the LREF marquee in the City. Nimbyism is an interesting issue to watch, particularly with the need to balance development with the need for communities to have more of a say. ‘The key issue in London is housing, housing, and housing’, he added.

That was also the main topic arising in ‘Planning: Good Growth’, in which Savills’ Nick de Lotbiniere suggested that London needs perhaps 90,000 new homes per year rather than the oft-cited 66,000. But densification presents key problems such as the requirement for developments relating to local context representing a ‘massive constraint’, along with ‘antiquated’ residential amenity standards on daylight and sunlight issues. Perhaps, de Lotbiniere, we should review Green Belt rules and release it selectively ‘by one notch, without the trousers falling down’.

Deputy mayor Jules Pipe attacked the permitted development rights system creating so much ‘bad growth’ and housing from ‘flipped’ offices, and admitted that the GLA’s concentration on the development of small sites will be a ‘real challenge’, partially because there is ‘still so much old-fashioned thinking in London’. London is consuming vast amounts of money to support Help to Buy too, said Argent’s Robert Evans. But it was important to stop sprawl by retaining the Green Belt, he added.

 It was the level of trust people have in the development industry that worried Grosvenor’s Amelia Staveley. ‘It’s never been worse, public trust in developers and local authorities’, she said. Partially this is because of the perceived complexity of the planning system, partly the ‘hidden benefits’ not going to the community, and finally developers not really consulting, instead presenting faits accompli. Evans believes that trust has been ‘corroded’ in part by planning moving to an ‘aspirational policy agenda’, Fiaz that rebuilding that trust will be a ‘tough ask’. But one thing is for sure, said Pipe. ‘The mayor’s absolute priority for London is building more homes’

Bad housing has an enormous impact on people, with consequent repercussions felt throughout their lives and affecting their life chances, said LFA’s Tamsie Thomson, chairing a session on ‘Delivering homes for Londoners’. GLA’s Rickardo Hyatt was clear in his view: ‘We don’t want to just deliver lots of affordable housing at the expense of placemaking and making sure residents have a voice’, he said. But there were too many examples of schemes going nowhere because agreement cannot be reached over levels of affordable housing, said Aecom’s John Lewis. ‘We need more genuine partnerships’, he said. The key was perhaps to be radical and push boundaries, said Newham Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz, in order to get more housing built.  But Right to Buy is skewing the market – perhaps councils should be allowed to intervene on stalled sites.

L&Q’s Fayann Simpson asked whether homes are being designed for the way designers and developers want them to live, rather than the way they actually live. And Mount Anvil’s Killian Hurley said it was important to change the very language on housing, as he revealed his firm works hard to say ‘homes’ not ‘units. ‘Our mantra is outstanding places where people can thrive’, he said.

The future of retail offered a break from the housing focus, Churchill Husband’s Bev Churchill saying that the reports of the death of retail real estate having been greatly exaggerated. The message from Microsoft, said Chris Heap, indicates a move toward faith in bricks as well as clicks. ‘We think the physical high street retail is a really important part of what we want to do’, he said, with its new store – with immersive video walls – opening at Oxford Circus on 11 July. But, said Adam Brinkworth, retailers need to wise up. ‘Any company looking at physical retail and online retail separately has blown it’, he said. ‘If you’re talking about experience you’re probably talking about one night stands; it’s really about relationships’. Business costs, though, are ‘out of control’, said Jace Tyrell of NWEC, ‘an unfair system not catching up with digital’, but with no sign of any ‘traction’ any time soon on business rates. And another issue facing retail relates to the environment and the unintended consequences of returns policies and vehicles clogging up streets. There may be incentives to change that. 

West London was the focus of one of many area-based seminars.

Deloitte’s Clive Pane said this was an industrious area that benefits from a diverse population and good transport networks; a good place to invest, and with Crossrail having a ‘massively positive impact on Slough’, where house prices have nearly doubled in seven years.  In fact, property values rose by some 39% in the two years following the announcement that Crossrail would be extended. Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation’s Liz Peace said that when we talk of regeneration we tend to focus on east London. ‘I think we have tended to forget the amazing opportunities in the west’, she said. And beyond a big push into residential development at Wembley, said Quintain’s James Saunders, the key was to have ‘everyday economic activity’

Finally, and again beyond housing, there was a chance to hear a different kind of delivery – from cricket legends John Emburey and Gladstone Small. With rain having sadly put paid to the inaugural LREF cricket cup, sponsored by Winckworth Sherwood and supporting Land Aid and Centre 404, the two ex-England players were quizzed about their careers, ‘Beefy’ Botham, and gambling on rainy days, by London Communications Agency’s Robert Gordon Clarke. Both provided rich entertainment for the gathered LREF audience – and fittingly in line with the London Festival of Architecture’s theme; ‘boundaries’.

Roll on next year. 

Those were just some of the highlights of a packed programme of events at LREF on day two. Visit lref.co.uk to see the full LREF programme. 

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly - @davidntaylor

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