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Too few units, even fewer homes!

Though the UK as a whole is experiencing a crisis, London’s housing problem is unique from the rest of the country. We invited four speakers to give their take on it and debated new ways in which it could be addressed.

Last Thursday we hosted a debate on the housing crisis here at Cullinan Studio, with CS’ Roddy Langmuir as chair, and four speakers representing different providers within the housing sector - the Greater London Authority, a developer (Golding Homes), a housing association (Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust) and custom/self build.  Roddy introduced the event, emphasising our aspiration to come out of the debate with positive solutions to an overwhelmingly large problem.  How do we provide accommodation across the spectrum of society, build new communities and strengthen existing ones, increase density and speed up supply whilst building enough new homes with enduring quality?

Film of the 'Too few units, even fewer homes!' debate

James Gleeson of the Greater London Authority (GLA) kicked things off, discussing why the housing problem exists and is worse in London than elsewhere in Britain, stating that it is not so much the foreign investors that are causing the housing crisis, but the 700,000 new jobs that have been created in the last five years, bringing 600,000 extra people while only 120,000 extra homes have been provided. Gleeson stated the need to address the fact that London is a relatively low-rise city in comparison to its equivalents – New York, Paris, Tokyo.  We need to look at high rise.  Second, and big on the GLA’s agenda, is the use of brownfield sites: GLA research has found that an estimated 42,000 homes per year can be built on brownfield sites.  The challenge here will be actually delivering them – many of these sites are large and require very long lead times, with considerable remediation or additional infrastructure.

Emphasising the need to try to reach the needs of this city within the bounds of Greater London while retaining sufficient green space, servicing and infrastructure, Chris Blundell (Golding Homes) challenged the design profession to turn the GLA’s Housing Zones into places that people aspire to live, and to learn from other megacities across the world to successfully create a denser city. Blundell was nevertheless sceptical as to whether Greater London in itself can house its growing population – of the GLA’s target 42,000 homes per year only 17,000 were created last year.  He questioned whether we should look at London within this boundary, or as a wider metropolitan economic area – a connected network of places all providing good quality of life.  Let’s seriously consider and start to action the suggestions made by Wei Yang and URBED, and in the Farrell Review and the Taylor Report.

John Hocking’s main points were based around the research that the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT) undertake around the question of affordability. While grants to housing associations are decreasing, research has shown that some form of subsidy is essential to provide affordable housing. There is no country that has managed to do it without.  Despite a fall in unemployment, there is a rising number of people in in-work poverty and at risk of falling into poverty, and all the while the cost of essentials (food, housing, transport and childcare) have risen.  In London, this is heightened, with people paying up to 60% of their wages on accommodation. Hocking believes we need to engineer a reduction in what people are paying for what they are living in.  The JRHT are undertaking research into marketing a living rent linked to income rather than property value. The GLA’s definition of affordable is 80% of market value (this includes dwellings targeted at those earning as much as £80,000 per year).  Hocking believes affordable should be defined as 28% of income – just like a mortgage.

Sam Brown introduced us to some new and alternative ways of providing affordable housing, in particular a project he is involved in.  RUSS (Rural Urban Synthesis Society, set up as community land trust), is a group of people in the process of designing, commissioning and building housing on a site in Lewisham to then occupy and manage it themselves - an update of the Segal model of affordable community-led self-build pioneered in the seventies and eighties, in which many councils (including Lewisham) were involved. He calls it a pilot, an attempt to identify something that could be replicated by other councils. However, the project has come up against many challenges: cross-subsidy without being dependent on grant, providing a capital receipt for land rather than being reliant on being given it, finding ways to maintain affordability in perpetuity…  Significantly, procurement has been an issue: should a local authority be actively enabling collaboration with its residents, or should all development opportunities be offered out on a competitive basis?  After five years of RUSS’ investment in the project, the LA have recently informed them that the project would go to OJEU tender.

What followed the speakers was an engaging debate geared around creating a list of key things that collectively we feel can/should/must be done to make a real difference to the current situation in London. Rowan Moore of the Observer stressed that the state needs to find new ways to play a role as house builder – the only time housing targets have been close to being achieved was when large scale council housing was being built, and the market has never filled this gap. Chris Blundell then asked whether there are ‘productive, creative and imaginative ways’ in which we can capture subsidy?

The debate then moved from finding ways for land value capture at the point of planning approval, to pension funds as a way of ensuring quality housing, via regulation of the rental sector and more (more on all that to follow); Tom Dollard of PTE ended on a positive note with one potential answer to Chris Blundell’s question. He gave the example of a project in Barking where a foreign investor has partnered with the local authority to create 100% council housing.  At a time when grants are not forthcoming, this is an innovative funding model, however it is also the only one of its kind. While there is the glimmer of hope for a new era in housing with local authorities becoming empowered to start building again, it seems certain that this time it will be without the state funding of council housing’s heyday.  Moreover, it’s fair to say that in our current economic climate the investment market, for now, is here to stay. So how can we harness the market to create the right kind of housing?

NB: A film of the event will follow soon, our ten point summary of the debate listing ways which would take us towards solving London's housing crisis is available here.

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