By Kevin Davis, Managing Partner Local Government
In today’s politics it is rare to hear plain-speaking. However, smothered beneath the all-encompassing story of Coronavirus, there has been hidden away a remarkable chapter in the history of housing in London; the response to Sadiq Khan’s draft London Plan from the Secretary of State.
The reality is that London is not building enough houses. This has been a long-term problem but in the past four years, it has gotten worse. Generally, housebuilders across the UK have been getting on with the job of building homes. In fact, records are being broken for the number of homes completed. In London the story is somewhat different. London is the only place left in the country that continues with a spatial strategy which is authored by the Mayor. Spatial strategies were a Prescott policy in 2004 and were abolished by the coalition in 2010 for everywhere but London.
The performance of house building in London has been poor. At the time of Boris leaving the Mayoralty in 2016, granted planning permissions meant that housing delivery in London would hit 40,000 new homes a year. This itself was significantly below the target in the Old London Plan and its subsequent alterations. Under Mayor Khan we have seen housing delivery not advance as it needs to and as the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government, Robert Jenrick MP, has made clear in his letter to Khan:
“Housing delivery in London under your mayoralty has been deeply disappointing, over the last three years housing delivery has averaged just 37,000 a year; falling short of the existing plan target and well below your assessment of housing need.”
The Mayor’s draft London Plan accepted that London needed to build 66,000 homes a year if it is to catch up with the under-performance as well as create enough homes to meet the demand. The plan the Mayor presented to the Secretary of State had reduced that target to 52,000 because the planning inspector did not think the plan identified how the Mayor would deliver his higher target.  In essence, there is no argument about the target itself, but rather how the Mayor hopes to deliver more homes than he is currently, given his track record and the sometimes incoherent lack of cooperation from the Boroughs.
On top of this, the Government has given enormous funding powers to the Mayor by way of the affordable homes grant, including some grant that the Mayor turned away because he did not like the conditions the government set. Clearly, to not spend taxpayers money when it has been made available for you to use points to a delivery problem.
One of the principal difficulties for the Mayor has been his willingness to rule out where he will not allow building (usually political decisions) and not identify where he will build. Yes, there is plenty of brownfield land but the density required to meet targets from that land alone will simply not be acceptable to Government and Londoners. The London Plan concentrates on building more one bed flats because, of course, one bed flats are an efficient use of land and helpful if your motivation for building is to count units, not suitable homes. However, for London to remain a balanced city we also need to see much more family housing (not three-bed apartments) and that is going to require more land. Boris had a very specific agreement to work with the wider South East outside of London and back infrastructure requirements for them that would allow them to build more homes, but that seems to have been pushed into the long grass.
There used to be a good relationship between the Mayor and the Outer London Boroughs that has virtually disappeared. Outer London could help meet the needs of the city as a whole, but not if the strategy is to merely spread urban solutions into the suburbs. Tall buildings and high density rented solutions to be specific. The suburbs are home for families and they need to be supported to build many more homes in a sensitive manner. To date, there has been little Mayoral attempt to support this approach or even consider options to support delivery.
Finally, there is the problem of Council housing regeneration projects. Many of the London estates are simply horrid – we should not be expecting Londoners to live in substandard housing. The Mayor should be directing all his efforts to bring about estate regeneration and not creating blocking policies such as estate ballots. If the State is not able to quickly and simply redevelop its own land then it is little surprise that the private sector is struggling to make up for the failings of the Mayor. There needs to be a massive speeding up of the regeneration process. The Mayor either pushes on with demolishing estates or hands them over to the national housing body (Homes England) and lets them get on with it. The only caveat I make in this is my belief that the current terms on which regeneration takes place is now broken. The current model of the private sector building on council-owned free land has to end as it is simply not generating enough truly affordable homes and is heavily subsidised by the state.
My thoughts on a potential solution to the Mayor’s problems will be explored in our next blog.
Photo credit: Pixabay