How to get back to a city for all Londoners

We are a group representing renters and others in London who would like London to catch up on its forty year failure to build enough homes. Since soft launch in April 2016 we have gathered over 900 email subscribers and followers on Twitter and Facebook. We have been astonished how much support there is in London for getting millions more homes built.

The cost of housing in London has risen horrifically far above the cost of building it, because of the scarcity of places where new homes are allowed to be built. A few improvements to the current system would fix that over time, generating a boom in economic growth from the construction of many beautiful well-designed homes.

We welcome the Mayor’s desire to tackle the housing crisis expressed in A City for All Londoners. Here are our suggestions.

1. We urge more homes in each growth location

The only way to have any hope of catching up with the forty year backlog is to prioritize building in town centres, in suburbs, and with a review to see which green belt designations are still appropriate, 60 years after they were made.

The edicts against growth in Elizabethan and later times had to be amended (thankfully, or London would not exist as we know it today). History moves on. Protecting fields of rapeseed next to tube stations is not environmentally friendly; similarly some beautiful non-greenbelt countryside should be much better protected, partly because bans on housing in sensible places are causing development to ‘leap over’ the greenbelt.

2. Keeping up isn’t enough

We have a forty year backlog of failing to build enough homes in London. Nobody is happy with the system, except a few very large developers and the worst NIMBYs. Our new homes are among the smallest and most expensive in the world. Many of them are not as well-designed as they could be, and don’t match what locals want.

London as whole is only half as dense as Kensington and Chelsea, which few would consider an ugly place to live. We need to make it easy to densify existing suburban housing, turning semi-detached houses into terraces and making sure that almost anyone is allowed to add one or two additional floors to their home.

If we only try to keep up with new demand, we will fail. Rents will continue to rise and thousands of people will continue to be forced out of London.

We need to aim to fix the forty-year backlog. That will take millions of new homes. If the Mayor does not wish to touch greenbelt, that means energetic action to change rules to allow easy densification of small suburban plots with the support of local voters. There are many different ways to achieve that.

3. Fixing the system can be popular

There are many ways to fix the system with the support of local voters.

Many of them can be promoted to boroughs via the London Plan under existing powers of the Mayor, although the Mayor should also press for more powers.

The London Plan should provide a presumption that permission for one or two additional floors should be granted on existing buildings as of the date of the new plan, unless there are truly exceptional reasons for refusal of consent. It could similarly provide a presumption in favour of permission for joining the space between two semi-detached houses at full height if both owners consent, for extensions into a limited portion of a back garden subject to consent of affected neighbours, and perhaps even more importantly a presumption for roof gardens and terraces. Sunlight is important; it should not be left for pigeons.

Individual streets could be given a consultative vote on whether the local plan should provide for those houses to be extended upwards, backwards or joined together into terraces. In that way, all the homeowners on a street could benefit from the increased value of their home from the expected planning consent for increased space. The London Plan could encourage local authorities to organize or pay close heed to such polls. If such a step is an important part of getting local consensus for more homes, it is a valid part of a strategic plan and well within the Mayor’s powers.

Neighbourhood planning areas (or wards) could be offered the chance to vote directly on new developments instead of the traditional planning-by-litigation process that neglects the wishes of local people. (We believe that would require national legislation either creating the vote option or delegating to the Mayor the power to do so.)

4. What gets measured, gets improved

The only credible study that measures pricing per square foot (rather than uselessly comparing, say, the price of a 1200 square foot apartment in San Francisco with one of half that size in London) shows that London is the most expensive major city for rent in the world. (See Christian Hilber, LSE, UK Housing and Planning Policies: the evidence from economic research, Table 1, available at http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/61745/.)

We know many tech workers and entrepreneurs who have moved to other major cities for cheaper housing. The problem keeps getting worse. Even New York and San Francisco are far cheaper per square foot, and Berlin still more so.

The GLA economics team has cited other studies that are unfortunately deeply misleading because they do not control for apartment size. A typical 2-bedroom flat in SF or New York is much larger than in London, because average compensation is higher and because each square foot is cheaper. Studies that simply compare the average price or rent for a 2-bedroom flat are worse than useless in comparing costs across cities, because of those differences in average size.

If we really want to fix the housing crisis, we need to measure how badly we are doing compared to other places.

If there are concerns about area definitions, for example both Zoopla and Zillow offer APIs that would allow sampling for specified areas. Please let us know if we can help.

There is no serious chance of fixing our housing crisis if we aren’t even bothering to benchmark how badly we are doing against global competition like New York and San Francisco. If we fail to realize that London is doing much worse on housing costs, we are deluding ourselves about the scale of the problem. We estimate that UK GDP and productivity per capita are 30 percent lower because of the shortage of housing in London and other high-productivity cities. If central government estimated that number itself, we think housing would get a much higher priority. The ONS does tell us that approximately three-fifths of total housing costs are due to the price of land with planning permission. There is an obvious way to reduce that.

4. Housing history

Figure 4 on page 35 is slightly out of date. The excellent Outer London Commission included a more up-to-date graph at figure 3.1 of its Sixth Report.

5. Let’s work together

We would be happy to provide comments or help in person. You can reach us at contact@londonyimby.org.