Why Boris's housing plan will work for London
The Mayor is on track to deliver 50,000 affordable homes.
1961 witnessed the publication of what is arguably the most pioneering housing report of the last century. The Parker Morris committee decreed that as households wallets were expanding, their home should be built bigger too; and so was born the Parker Morris space standard of 72 square metres for the average terraced house.
Back in the '60s, the demand for space came from ever-inventive appliances - the committee found that a fifth of households had a refrigerator and a third a washing machine. The white goods may have multiplied since then, but not the square metres. The pressure on public spending and the need to meet centralist build targets has led to London having some of the smallest space standards in Europe today.
London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, wants to reintroduce the Parker Morris standard. This is part of a strategy to improve the quality - as well as increasing the quantity - of affordable housing in the capital. It is working. The Mayor is on track to deliver 50,000 affordable homes, the largest number in the history of the Greater London Authority, and including the largest number of family-sized homes in the last decade to reverse the trend for building flats. But the challenge is also about giving developers the confidence to start new schemes in the current market to deliver even more affordable homes - and, indeed, housing of all types. Bolstering this confidence entails exploring innovative models to fund infrastructure and, in the absence of sufficient bank lending to developers, finding other ways to make schemes viable - whether attracting institutional investment or releasing some public land for development.
For this to succeed, it will require a recognition that policies will have to be configured differently between London and the rest of England - a radical departure from existing Government policy and the first of three rules that will have to underpin the future direction of housing policy. Increasingly policies are pursued without any reflection on differences between local housing markets; there needs to be a much closer connection between housing investment and housing need at a local level. This includes defining "affordable" itself. While the Mayor wants a better package for social tenants to move into home ownership, if they choose, and to help families unable to afford London prices or to find a suitable home in a private rented sector dominated by flats, the Government maintains the rigid one-size-fits-all approach which applies the same definition of affordable to the whole country. This means Kingston-upon-Hull is considered to have the same cost of living as Kingston-upon-Thames, leaving some households who, under many systems, might otherwise be priorities without assistance, and resulting in an ineffective targeting of public subsidy.
This brings us to the second rule. Without question, it is the Mayor's willingness to allow local councils to play a greater role in delivery so long as they meet London-wide aims - for example, a commitment to deliver more affordable homes - which distinguishes his approach from his predecessor. There are a number of ambitious councils stifled by the straightjacket of the national system which means we are failing to unlock their existing powers and assets to deliver more and better quality housing - whether planning, public land or, potentially, borrowing. This partnership will be absolutely critical if the public finances tighten. London is piloting a model of housing delivery with delegations to councils intended to promote innovation and give certainty over funding, with the potential to deliver better value. Experience in other countries, notably France, shows that moving from a top-down system to one where more responsibility is delegated can lead to a significant increase in the number of affordable homes being built.
The final rule is to look beyond bricks and mortar. There is a clear case for investing in housing because it will deliver health and educational benefits and wider savings for the public purse. To return to the issue of overcrowding, a child living in overcrowded accommodation is ten times more likely to catch meningitis. Here is a clear case for investing in larger homes, helping social tenants to move more easily, and developing creative incentives to make it worthwhile for under occupiers to voluntarily move on. The Mayor has made London the first city to commit to halving severe overcrowding in social housing. It is an issue most acute in London, and it illustrates how across the range of housing challenges, the solution lies not national quotas but configuring policies to meet local requirements, and giving more thought to what we are building, as well as to how much.
Richard Blakeway is the Mayor of London's director of housing.