The RGS-IBG 21st Century Challenges Policy Forum event on housing in London brought together stakeholders from housing, academia and government to build consensus around addressing London's housing challenges.
There is a need for affordable, timely and sustainable housing – for rent and for purchase – for London’s workforce. The London Plan predicts that around 50,000 new homes a year will be needed over 20 years to 2036, and the London Infrastructure 2050 planning assumes the population will rise from 8.6 to 10 million people by 2030.
The RGS-IBG convened a Policy Forum event as part of the 21st Century Challenges series, attended by almost 100 senior representatives from a range of sectors, including government, academia, and housing companies.
The panel considered what potential existed to meet London’s housing demand, seeking to identify common ground for progress by discussing:
The capacity to build at the required volume
Locational opportunities, constraints, and possible priorities
Environmental requirements – can affordable growth be accommodated sustainably and with good quality design?
The panel was chaired by geographer Prof Chris Hamnett, and included
Rt Hon Nick Raynsford, Vice-President TCPA and former housing minister
Barney Stringer, Director of Quod
Robin Nicholson CBE, Senior Practice Partner, Cullinan Studio
Prof Paul Cheshire, LSE
David Ireland OBE, Director of the Building and Social Housing Foundation, also provided a guest blog on the findings of the event.
The 21CC Policy Forum event in progress
The event produced policy recommendations for the Mayor of London on how to address the housing crisis. The recommendations covered five areas:
The majority of delegates agreed that radical shift in the political and financial commitment of the UK Government was required if the Mayor of London was to address the housing crisis, with one delegate stating that it was likely to be impossible to achieve in light of the recent assent of the Housing and Planning Act 2016.
Concerns included that extending the ‘Right to Buy’ initiative to housing associations, without providing extra funding for councils to build new affordable homes, would force the poorest residents out of their homes, particularly in expensive areas of London.There was also a call from delegates for a greater understanding of the barriers to building houses, which in their opinion should be debated at a general public level, as well as policy and practitioner level.
However, it was acknowledged that this was difficult given the highly politicised context within which such debate takes place. One current barrier identified by a delegate was the short-term planning that results from the current five-year Mayoral and government period of office, and thus results in inadequate future planning. The need to plan for housing in the long term was emphasised and it was recommended that cross-party cooperation on designing a housing plan, spanning at least three to ten years, if not twenty years, was prioritised. This point was also made by former Housing Minister and MP, Nick Raynsford, who sat on the panel during the Housing Policy Forum. The long-time scale it takes developers to gain planning permission to build both private and not-for-profit houses was also acknowledged as a key barrier to delivering the desired numbers of homes.
To make real progress in the housing sector, it was suggested that the essential first step should be a campaign for very significant devolution of powers to the Mayor of London, in both housing, and tax and spending. Without this, it was suggested that the Government’s decision-taking on house building in London would always be paramount, and therefore the city would never be in a position to meet its housing needs. It was argued that a Mayor with requisite powers, however, could put Londoners in charge of which decisions on housing they accept or reject, including agreeing on the best means to pay for development.
One delegate felt that whilst it is frequently said that London cannot build sufficient housing, it is in fact true to say that London is building new very high-density houses. However, these are generally treated as investment properties, not homes, and thus are not affordable for the great majority of those working and wishing to live in London. The delegate proposed that fiscal measures be implemented to prevent this from happening.
A fiscal measure suggested by one delegate was a concerted drive to make investment-focussed property purchases much less attractive. This could be achieved either through taxes or restrictions on ownership, resale, and profits. A similar point was made about implementing strict laws on the ownership of second homes and empty homes, to provide an incentive for keeping the price of the current building stock affordable. From a strategic planning point of view, it was suggested by one respondent that the current London Plan should look at all options for housing whilst supporting London boroughs to prepare up-to-date housing plans and identify how land in their area should be allocated.
This would also allow for the building up of a secure and accurate evidence base on the availability of land and its owners, including public land. However, another delegate suggested that before any revision in the current Plan should take place, the implementation of the existing plan should be tightened. A suggestion for how this could happen was to ensure that the Greater London Authority appointed more Planning Officers to assist with ‘strategic’applications.
Other proposals on how the housing crisis could be addressed included empowering local authorities to set high requirements for the proportion of affordable housing through Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) agreements. One delegate suggested rolling out the London Living Rentinitiative7, as soon as possible, whilst another argued that the Mayor should prioritise negotiating grants for low-rent homes. A case was also made for rent flexibility within housing associations, as a tool for building investor confidence in the housing association sector.
Another significant barrier to addressing the housing crisis, as identified by delegates, was the amount of public land available for building homes. Increasing the availability of this land was seen as a necessary first step to meeting the Mayor’s goal, especially if it was sold with the caveat of being available for affordable housing only. Six delegates also explicitly advocated for development on the greenbelt in order to reach the housing target: one specific example being the strategic use of low-quality green belt areas around railway stations. However, one delegate argued strongly in favour of reinforcing the greenbelt policy in order to encourage the compact city and prevent urban sprawl. Another option proposed was the provision of derelict land grants, so that brownfield land could be developed at no extra cost for developers.
The densification of housing around stations was also suggested, but not be at the expense of building many miles out of London, as this would encourage even longer commutes and very expensive travel for workers. The key priority for one delegate was for local authorities, Transport for London (TfL), utility suppliers and other public bodies to make land available for the construction of social housing, housing for local workers and truly affordable housing to rent.
A suggestion for how this could be achieved was to consider the land as a contribution from the public body. In return the public body would receive a stake in the ownership of the property created on the land, potentially with an allocation of units for their own low paid employees. A further suggestion of how the stake in ownership could be created was by the public body in question granting a long lease (e.g. 99 years) and being paid a percentage of the passing rental income (e.g. 5%). The site with the property on it could then revert back to the public body at the end of the long lease.
As well as an increase in the supply of land, a number of delegates also called for greater flexibility in the diversity of supply. For example, it was suggested that the demolition of council estates should be stopped immediately and that the Mayor of London should prioritise subsidised housing (over commercial development) and provide opportunities for housing associations to deliver this. One delegate felt that a 50,000 per year target would possibly be feasible, if the Mayor were to co-ordinate bringing forward public land for housing associations to build mixed-tenure schemes.
Another suggestion was that whilst in the short term, it could appear easier to rely on big housebuilders and housing associations to provide homes, in the long term, there could be greater merit in promoting other suppliers, such as community-led housing, small builders and self-builders. There was also a call for multiple funding streams to be provided to fund this kind of house building.
Further recommendations on how to diversify the supply of housing were put forward by David Ireland OBE, Director of the Building and Social Housing Foundation in a guest blog post.His recommendations included moving beyond home ownership to property guardianship10, temporarily using empty open space for assembling prefabricated homes, and supporting housing cooperatives and formal co-housing options.
The Mayor of London adopted the London Housing Strategy in 2018, and provided £4.82bn for affordable housing by 2022. The strategy included an implementation plan and undertakings to provide affordable and sustainable housing in London and improve renting for renters.
Event chair Prof Chris Hamnet provided a roundup of the event
A full recording of the event is available here
This event took place on 16 March 2017 and was part of the Society’s 21st Century Challenges Policy Forum series, which brought together members of the geographical community, practitioners, policy-makers and other interested parties to discuss and debate, build professional networks, and encourage critical thinking and informed debate on some of the biggest issues and challenges facing the UK.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 4.0), which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is cited.
Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (2016) Seeking common ground?. Available at www.rgs.org/21CC/housing. Last accessed on: <date>
Featured image: Dimitry Anikin/Unsplash
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