What do we want from the Mayor when it comes to housing?

Delivering enough high-quality homes in London hinges on reliable infrastructure and a rethink of land law.

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Fresh from the General Election, another vote looms for the capital, with Londoners set to vote for their Mayor in May. The national context sees a new government, with a strong majority and a renewed focus on investment in the regions. The London economic context, however, is uncertain; on what Brexit will bring and on whether the need for continued investment in public transport and in London’s housing will be met.

At Building London, on January 30th,  we will be hearing from the Mayoral candidates on their vision for our city and how we can tackle our housing crisis.  We built 32,000 new homes in 2017/18 – less than half the number the latest version of the new London Plan says we need. 

This affects Londoners in many ways: from homelessness and overcrowding, to high housing costs.  Londoners face house prices which are 13 times median earnings, compared to eight times in England as a whole. A survey commissioned by London First last year showed that more than a third (38 per cent ) of Londoners have considered moving out of the capital due to the rising cost of housing.  

The Mayoral candidates all recognise the scale of the problem. The question is: who will have the combination of manifesto commitments and drive to best tackle it?  

At one level, the easiest challenge to quantify is money. We have calculated that London requires an additional £8.6bn each year spent on housing if it is to meet the needs of the capital. And much of this – much more than has been spent in recent decades – will have to be public money, if we are to get the mix of affordable housing that the city desperately needs. The private sector, through planning agreements, will deliver some affordable housing; but it will never deliver at the scale Londoners need.

But we also need to find the land to build these homes on. All the mayoral candidates rightly want to see development focused on brownfield land. Such development needs to be more innovative – and dense – if it is to maximise its potential.  But there just isn’t enough brownfield land to go around.  We need to review London’s green belt and develop in those parts that have no civic or environmental purpose and which are close to public transport; this must be part of the solution. 

The greenbelt was introduced after the war when London was shrinking. We passed our historic 1939 peak of 8.6m people a few years ago, are at about 8.9m today and are set to reach 10.8m in 2041. Things have changed.

It’s not just London business saying this. A citizens’ jury we convened last year saw the case for revising the green belt rules providing that it would lead to affordable housing. And the Planning Inspectorate agreed with our critique of the draft London Plan, recommending a review. 

Improving the capital’s infrastructure will also unlock land for housing development, which is why investing here is so critical to solving the housing crisis. Schemes and upgrades such as Crossrail 2, the Bakerloo Line extension, and the extension of the DLR to Thamesmead will all go some way to help – indeed the improved connectivity and capacity from Crossrail 2 will unlock up to 200,000 news homes across the South East.

However, it is not just the number of homes being built that needs to change, we also need to find better ways of building that can help to meet demand. City Hall should look to create the right environment for newer housing tenures, such as Build to Rent, which provide high-quality, professionally managed homes for rent.

There are no easy solutions, but the longer it takes for a significant, long-term approach to solving the capital’s housing shortage to appear, the more the crisis will exacerbate. At Building London, we will hear which of the mayoral candidates has the best pitch.

John Dickie is Director of Strategy and Policy at London First. You can find out more about Building London here.

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