The Doomsday Book: Mapping London’s housing crisis

The London Housing Commission

On 7 March, the London Housing Commission held a launch for its Final Report to Government on solutions to London’s housing crisis. The Commission, whose chair, Lord Kerslake, is also the chair of the Peabody housing association, was set up by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) a thinktank that last March published a report on the crisis titled City Villages: More homes, better communities. Josh Goodman, the Director of IPPR, chaired the launch, which was hosted by Savills, the estate agent which this January published its own report to Cabinet, Completing London’s Streets. In attendance at this launch, which was held at the Geographical Society in the plush surroundings of Burlington House, were Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan, the respective Conservative and Labour candidates for London Mayor, who were there to pitch their candidacy to the 200 ‘high-profile experts’ from the housing sector in the audience. It was quite a cosy party. One would think that the three hours of its duration would go some way to deciding London housing policy over the next ten years.

The Final Report proposes a series of recommendations to government, in the return for the granting of which the London Mayor, of whatever political party, promises to carry out the government’s building plans. Among the requests in this New Deal is that central government give the Mayor the power to force local authorities in London boroughs to change their plans if they are not identifying enough land or housing. In return for which, the Mayor promises to double the supply of new homes to London to 50,000 per year by 2020, identify sufficient land to deliver this number of new homes every year for the next decade, and earmark a significant proportion of public land for affordable housing and new privately rented housing.

Since these recommendations and promises are all in accord with the Labour Party’s own housing policies, it was not surprising to see them repeated in Sadiq Khan’s Manifesto for all Londoners, which was published two days after the launch. Promising to build 50,000 new homes a year over the next decade, the Labour candidate also promises to use the Mayor’s planning powers ‘to their full extent’ to develop what he variously identifies as ‘other public sector land’ and, more tellingly, ‘brownfield public land’, on which he additionally promises to build ‘genuinely affordable homes’. Despite this qualifier, which is repeated several times, the Manifesto never defines either what constitutes genuinely affordable and for whom, or where the public sector land on which his building plans rely is to be found. However, in its Final Report, the London Housing Commission recommends that even if the government does not grant the extra powers requested, the Mayor should speed up the release and development of public land that has been identified as not in use by the London Land Commission.

The London Land Commission

Part of the Long Term Economic Plan for London, the London Land Commission was established in February 2015 by the current Mayor, Boris Johnson, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, in order, they write, ‘to identify Brownfield Land for development in public ownership and help co-ordinate and accelerate the release of land for much needed homes’. To this end, the commission has since compiled a Register of all publicly owned land and property in London, the first release of which, published this January, takes the form of an online map. London First, whose housing task force includes both the head of housing at Savills and the chief executive of Peabody, came up with a name for this map that has since stuck. They called it ‘a 21st-century Doomsday Book’.

Brownfield land is a term used in planning to describe former industrial or commercial land that has fallen into disuse and requires cleaning up before redevelopment. However, in a research proposal published by Savills in April 2014 under the title Regeneration and intensification of housing supply on local authority housing estates in London, this term was conflated with existing council estates in a new composite term, ‘brownfield estates’. The blurring of the distinction between disused land and occupied homes was adopted a year later in the IPPR report City Villages, which was commissioned by Peabody, and which recommended that the greatest source of brownfield land in London is ‘existing council housing estates’. This redefinition of brownfield land, and the corresponding recategorisation of the housing estates to which it applies, has since become the basis of Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign promise to build ‘more homes, better communities’ on London’s council estates.

More recently, in February the Department for Communities and Local Government published the Technical consultation on implementation of planning changes, in which the Secretary of State, Greg Clark, introduces a range of measures designed to support the regeneration of brownfield land. These include: the provision of £1.2 billion to build at least 30,000 Starter Homes on brownfield land; the commitment to introduce a statutory brownfield register, and ensure that 90% of suitable brownfield sites have planning permission for housing by 2020; the proposal that such brownfield registers should constitute a qualifying document to grant ‘planning permission in principle’ according to new legislation in the Housing and Planning Bill; and, finally, encouraging local authorities to consider other sources, including ‘public sector land’, in identifying brownfield land.

The passage of this term from an estate agent’s proposal, through the legitimisation of a so-called ‘independent’ thinktank, to become government legislation enforceable by law, is only one example of how London’s housing policy is being written by the private companies that stand to benefit financially from its implementation under the Housing and Planning Bill. And it is this statutory register of brownfield land, the failure to compile which will incur punitive measures against local authorities, that will compose the next chapter in the government’s Doomsday Book, which is being written with the express intention of eradicating public land, and in practice public space itself, as a legal, economic, social and political concept in Britain, starting with the capital. All of which raises the question: what will take its place?

Completing London’s Streets

The previous month, in January 2016, Savills submitted its research report to the Cabinet Office, Completing London’s streets: How the regeneration and intensification of housing estates could increase London’s supply of homes and benefit residents. In it they estimate that London has around 8,500 hectares of land currently occupied by local authority estates, and containing around 660,000 households. Of these, it recommends that 1,750 hectares be regenerated according to what it calls its ‘Complete Streets’ model. It is indicative that Savills refers to these homes in terms of the land they occupy rather than the people they house, as the regeneration model they propose is exclusively for the total demolition and redevelopment of existing council estates at higher densities. By its own estimate, however, each hectare of land in local authority housing estates holds 78 homes, making a total of around 136,500 households. It doesn’t say how many people these figures equate to, but at a rough estimate of three residents per household, Savills’ report recommends the demolition of the homes of over 400,000 Londoners.

The basis of Savills’ report is the assertion that London’s council estates can and should be ‘densified’. On the 136,500 homes it proposes demolishing, it claims it can build between 54,000 and 360,000 additional homes. This maximum estimate was quoted by Zac Goldsmith to justify his claim that he had an ‘ethical obligation’ to demolish London’s council estates. What he didn’t mention, but which is the selling point for Savills’ recommendation, is its argument that the regeneration of housing estates using the Complete Streets model not only delivers more housing, but also creates what it calls ‘value uplift’. Through the implementation of this model, ‘underperforming, undesirable and low value’ locations will be transformed into ‘actively sought-after, high-performing and higher value’ real estate. Estate regeneration, under this radical restructuring, will become an active means of gentrification, raising house prices across the wider area according to what Savills calls a ‘multiplier effect’. To this end, the new homes built on the demolished council estates must necessarily be high value if they are to serve their main function, which is the social cleansing not only of the estate demolished to make way for them, but also of the local community and neighbourhoods around the new development. It even proposes an investigation into whether this multiplier effect might be quantified in what they call a ‘value capture mechanism’, which it considers conducive to implementing estate regeneration on a ‘pan-London’ basis. ‘We say nothing specific’, it adds, ‘as to whom the additional value of the Complete Streets regeneration would accrue.’

Like the London Housing Commission, Savills argues that such long-term projects, which will provide the 50,000 new homes per year they agree London needs, must transcend both local and national policy cycles. This doesn’t mean it does not propose a critical role for the government in identifying and remedying the ‘policy, legal, fiscal and institutional barriers’ to the emergence of this market; but it places no less a role on its own shoulders. Local authorities, it writes, whose housing and planning departments lack the leadership capacity and technical skills necessary to manage these large scale regeneration projects, will require the help of ‘clear, strong, visionary leadership’ from long-term investors, who will propose options to the local communities, draw up proposals and implement them. In case we haven’t guessed whom they have in mind for this role – to take just three examples: Savills was commissioned by Southwark Labour Council to produce a financial and sustainability analysis to decide the future of the borough’s council housing; Savills is currently auditing the financial model for Hackney Labour Council’s regeneration programme, which threatens 18 council estates; and Savills has recently been appointed to manage Homes for Lambeth, the Special Purpose Vehicle being set up by Lambeth Labour Council in order to demolish and redevelop six council estates.

However, the figures in Savills’ report are, by its own admission, only estimates. Its final proposal to Cabinet, therefore, is to identify the ‘actual number, size and characteristics’ of all local authority and ex-local authority housing estates. It is this register of London’s council estates that will compose the third and final chapter in the Doomsday Book, which, when written, will complete the financial equation in London’s housing policy between disused brownfield land and the homes of the people and communities that live on it.

Questions for the Mayor of London

In advance of the London Housing Commission’s Final Report, Architects for Social Housing wrote to their events officer, requesting that we be allowed to attend the launch and report on its findings, as well as the responses of the London Mayoral candidates and of Savills, whose head of housing, Robert Grundy, closed the meeting. We received no reply. On the morning of the launch, therefore, a group of us held a demonstration before the doors of the Geographical Society. Although none of the mayoral candidates would speak with us, even when we followed them into the marbled foyer, we addressed several questions to their closed doors:

  • Why is London’s housing policy being written by an estate agent?
  • Why are London’s mayoral candidates taking housing advice from a company that recommends demolishing the homes of over 400,000 Londoners in the middle of a housing crisis?
  • When the average price of a home in Greater London is £600,000, and over £970,000 in Inner London, how is a promise to build affordable homes at 80% of market rate going to solve the housing shortage for Londoners?
  • If the London Housing Commission is genuinely concerned with finding solutions to London’s housing crisis, why does its Report contain nothing about either introducing a rent cap or building council homes for social rent, the two most pressing and obvious solutions to that crisis?

We received no answer to these questions.

Simon Elmer

Architects for Social Housing

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 250 April/May 2016

 

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