21CC Policy Forum considers how to tackle London’s housing crisis

Professor Chris Hamnett, chair of Monday 20th June’s 21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum event on London’s housing crisis, provides his views on the main points he considers arose from the discussion, and the implications of these for policy.

The new Mayor of London has committed to an ambition to provide 50,000 new homes a year in the capital, with the hope that 50% will be genuinely affordable. But when only 25,000 new homes are produced each year, how feasible and realistic is this objective, and what is needed to help bring it about? This was the subject of a ‘21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum’ on housing at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in London on Monday evening, 20 June, which was attended by about 120 housing professionals from a variety of backgrounds.

Nick Raynsford, former Labour housing minister, the first panellist to speak at the event, argued that if we are serious about increasing housing output we have to devote much more resource to social housing . House building data going back to the 1950’s clearly show that during the era of peak housing production in Britain in the 1960’s and early 1970’s over half of all new housing units were council housing. Raynsford argued that the private sector has never managed to build much more than 150,000 units a year for sale and that this is the optimum output level for private house builders to ensure that all units are sold and that profits are maintained. Why build more if prices have to be lowered and profits are reduced? This strongly suggests that if we are serious about increasing housing output it will be necessary to build much more social housing for rent.  Building for sale won’t do the trick.

Barney Stringer, director of planning and regeneration at Quod, a housing consultancy, produced a series of maps showing, variously, the distribution of open space in London, town centres, brown field land, social housing estates and suburban gardens and other potential sources of housing. He demonstrated that, in order to fill the 25,000 unit gap between current production and targets, it would be necessary to massively step up the level of output.  None of the current major sources of building land can fill the gap alone and increases would be required across the board.

Architect Robin Nicholson, Senior Practice Partner at Cullinan Studio, stepping in at short notice for Lynne Sullivan, argued that it is pointless just building more homes if they are environmentally unsustainable. We need to build good quality carbon neutral housing for the long term which is not going to be subject to rising sea levels, flooding, overheating and other problems.

Finally, Paul Cheshire, an economic geographer from LSE, produced a powerful analysis of the nature of the green belt and open space in and around London and convincingly showed that in order to really increase housing output it will be necessary to build on parts of the green belt. Not, he stressed, the environmentally important parts, but some of the less environmentally valuable parts. He made the argument that London and the South East has far too many golf courses which are used by a small number of people and that Crossrail, and Crossrail 2, logically requires more high density housing construction in proximity to some of the new stations. Having stations with lots of open fields around is a wasted opportunity.

There was a lively discussion of the issues and most speakers were agreed that to seriously address London’s housing crisis and increase the number of units being built we need to use more of the green belt (much of which is not really green), use more brownfield land, densify existing suburbs and housing estates and build far more subsidised social housing for rent. The major problem is that current government policy is not supporting more new affordable construction. Instead £25bn per annum is directed to rent subsidies via housing benefit. And ‘affordable housing’ does not mean housing at 80% of current market rents; truly affordable housing should not take more than 30% of household income. But government changes to the rent regime in the 2015 budget have placed an impossible constraint on social landlords and kicked the legs away from new building. They now have to build more market housing in order to cross subsidise a small amount of so-called ‘affordable’ housing.  This is not sensible housing policy.

Professor Chris Hamnett, Department of Geography, King’s College London (Chair of the 21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum on ‘Seeking common ground?‘)

Find out more: 

View the presentations from this event or listen to the audio recording. 

Image credit: BarneyZ, Flickr

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