Getting real about London’s housing need

“photography of brown concrete building” by João Barbosa on Unsplash

The minister in Whitehall sets a target and expects it to be met, but no one ever built a house because of a target. The target-driven way in which we seem to run public services is an echo from the Blair past. The reality is that we set targets that are unattainable and when we miss them throw money at that service as if we have somehow accepted, without evidence, that the target wasn’t flawed in the first place.

The figures for housebuilding in London are well rehearsed. Broadly, the city has needed to build 50,000 homes a year but actually been achieving around 25,000. The Mayor, Sadiq Khan, is proposing a new target of 66,000 in his draft new London Plan and the government says it should be closer to 100,000. All the while, we still build 25,000. Is it any wonder that the public has lost faith in politicians when we carry on like this?

Let me propose some solutions.

The first thing that needs to be resolved concerns the mantra that “London can build all the houses it needs”. Can it? It has singularly failed to do this throughout the period of the current housing crisis, which stretches back probably two decades. If it cannot solve it alone then it needs to solve it with the help of the wider South East, and that means London using its financial might and infrastructure to reach across the Green Belt.

This could mean London boroughs developing property outside London itself, for investment reasons. I say investment reasons because what it must not do is use cheaper land and housing outside of London to solve its own social housing issues. Boroughs would be investing for income, which they would then reinvest. To make that happen, Homes England, the government body that brings together land, finance and planning powers to increase housing delivery, should facilitate a joint venture delivery model that brings the boroughs and the Mayor together.

We also need a new deal for the existing relationship between the boroughs and the Mayor. The present one is going downhill fast. Mayor Khan seems to have decided that the best approach is to force the boroughs, through rhetoric and bullying, to do what he want. Labour leaders say this, as well as Conservative ones. I learnt a long time ago that setting out to upset the people who have the power to deliver what you want rarely helps you achieve your objective.

The Mayor has very little actual power, but his draft new London Plan is riddled with attempts to micro-manage the local planning process. Conservatives know that deregulation is what gets markets moving. I would cut back the London Plan to be simply a spatial strategy, identifying where London needs to place its infrastructure to make development happen and then directing the billions government has given the Mayor for housing to those areas.

Importantly, we will never build quickly enough until politicians start being braver about housing. Yes, there is a lot of local controversy about individual schemes, but this comes from highly vocal minorities. And people are naturally upset when new homes are to built at the bottom of their gardens. But polling conducted nationally and locally demonstrates that, overwhelmingly, people want more housing built.

Politicians need to be seen to be leading our citizens, not managing them until the next election. This doesn’t only go for housing. We need to be brave on all fronts, because people want to hear what you actually think instead of parroted lines designed to avoid the question being answered, even when the question is innocuous. Good politicians challenge orthodoxy and change opinion with argument. We seem to have lost that skill, or become afraid of deploying it.

Finally, we also need to think about what a house should look like. A house is a home, and for some this may mean different things to others. In Northern Europe, the prevalence of natural wood led to a legacy of timber framed buildings that are inexpensive to build and easily replaceable when required. In the UK we have used clay soil to produce brick buildings. Today, those buildings are difficult to replace and expensive to build, requiring a highly skilled workforce.

We will never tackle the housing crisis if we stick to current building forms, not least because we simply will not have a big enough skilled workforce to build the homes we need for the next ten years. I do not want a return to the modular housing of the past and the post-war generation of prefabs, but modern technology offer endless possibilities for individual, architect-designed homes constructed using precision manufacturing techniques.

One of the biggest success stories of recent years has been the upmarket Huf Haus, but they produce nowhere near the volume required to transform housing in the UK. I have recently looked at manufacturing techniques that render 40% cost savings on construction without compromising design quality — something that could really give local councils the tools to start building genuinely affordable homes.

Targets are not helping to solve the housing crisis and London cannot meet its needs on its own. It must help and fund development outside of London, led by borough leaders, not the Mayor. Those leaders need to be brave and not only challenge those who oppose growth but also redefine what a modern London house is, in terms of design and construction. Without such change, we will continue failing to build the homes London needs and by failing let all Londoners down.

This article was first published on the OnLondon website on 2 September 2018. http://www.onlondon.co.uk/kevin-davis-forget-targets-and-be-brave-and-innovative-instead-to-meet-londons-housing-need/


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