Sadiq Khan’s housing plans need to be braver and bolder to tackle London’s housing crisis  

The Mayor’s new housing strategy offers ambitious and smart ideas, but rules out the reform which would have the greatest impact – building on the green belt

Last week, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan published his draft housing strategy to the GLA. The headline aims are impressive – in addition to the more than £3bn to build 90,000 affordable homes in London by 2021 announced back in November, Khan wants to raise a further £250m from land value capture to fund new housing starts, and is calling for the Government to devolve London’s £4.3bn stamp duty revenue to the city.

These are all good objectives, and Khan is right to push for control over stamp duty, something we called for in our 2015 report Beyond Business Rates. Unfortunately, however, the Mayor has also continued one of the less helpful policies of his predecessors by ruling out the reform that could most immediately relieve London’s housing crisis – building on the capital’s green belt.

The reality is that London is not building enough new homes. The housing strategy notes that while London should be building at least 50,000 homes a year to keep up with demand until 2035, it is building less than 20,000 a year. As the second least affordable city in the country London is building fewer homes per person than Barnsley, the second most affordable city in Britain.

This shortage in housing squeezes living standards and fuels poverty in London. As the strategy points out, a third of private renters are spending more than half of their income on rent, while one in fifty Londoners are now homeless. Working across the public, private, and non-profit sectors to improve the housing market, such as through supporting SME builders and improving the skills base, as well as innovative methods such as building 10,000 homes on TfL land are all needed to stabilise housing costs in the medium term.

Despite the Mayor’s ambition and the positive proposals in his plan, these reforms do not go far enough in tackling the emergency in London’s housing market. Although the Mayor wants to prioritise development on brownfield land, there is too little to meet London’s housing needs. If London met all of its annual need for housing on brownfield land, all of the land would be used up in less than eight years. Even this is an overestimate, as three decades of a “brownfield-first” approach to housing has already creamed off all but the least suitable sites for new homes. Those brownfield locations left in London are unusually expensive, complex, or undesirable to develop and are therefore less viable for affordable housing, if they are viable at all.

The short supply of land in London could be solved if we were prepared to build on green belt land with little environmental value close to existing infrastructure. Our report Building Homes Where We Need Them shows that if 60% of green belt land within 2km of a train station in Greater London was developed into suburban housing, London could build an additional 432,000 homes. Rolling this out to the rest of the capital’s green belt could unlock a further 3m new homes. Across the ten least affordable cities in Britain including Oxford, London and Bristol, building on less than 5 per cent of green belt land in the ten least affordable UK cities would supply 1.4 million homes close to train stations. These new homes would be cheaper to develop and more locked into existing infrastructure than those on London’s remaining poor-quality brownfield sites, making it possible to supply more affordable housing.

However, at the moment, almost no housing is built on London’s green belt. From 2014 to 2017, local authorities released 170 hectares of London’s green belt for development – just 0.03% of the capital’s green belt land, which at 514,030 hectares covers an area three times the size of London. The Mayor’s decision to rule out building on the green belt (as his predecessors did) not only blocks hundreds of thousands of potential new homes, it imposes a hidden cost by making the housing that is being built on brownfield land more scarce and therefore less affordable for Londoners. In other words, London’s high housing costs subsidise the lack of new homes on green belt land.

London’s housing crisis can be traced back to a range of factors, and many of the Mayor’s proposals will help tackle them. But by ruling out new homes on the green belt, the Mayor is leaving the lowest-hanging and biggest fruit unpicked, and making housing less affordable for Londoners. To solve London’s housing crisis, green belt land will have to be released – the only question is when.

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Peter Thompson
23 April 2018 11:45

I agree with both Joseph and Mike. Releasing green belt is the easy option, and will destroy some of the source of our air quality. If the area used to be farmland then to build on it locks out forever the chance of locally grown food, should we ever need to require that in the's like the current interest in re-opening some railway lines shut under Beeching; there are some which now would make very valuable commuter links but cannot be reopened because they have been built across since the 1970's. I find the Center For Cities material very illuminating and useful regarding the complexities of urban problems, but I am concerned at the APPARENT (I haven't read everything on the CFC website...) lack of any attention to food security for cities, protection of nearby farmland to ensure this, and an appreciation of the health giving qualities of open space. The emphasis seems to be purely on business, infrastructure, and economic growth. Nothing wrong with these three things in themselves, but they must not be pursued to the extent that they destroy the very eco structure that sustains us as well as our cities. I am a city dweller and very much value urban life, but it is so easy to become so immersed in urbanism and its needs (especially as defined by well funded high pressure developers) as to wipe out any sense of the wider need to protect the local environment. A final thought is that you are not going to get social housing on green belt - the developers just will not wear that. I live in Gtr Manchester where there is immense pressure to build on local green belt - from developers who have long ago bought up the land for a song; the mere re-zoning of that land for development will increase its value many times, even before a spade (or JCB) cuts into it. Then there is the additional gain from the actual construction project. The accommodation being discussed is often luxury flats and executive mansions, all way way above local people's purchasing power. So we local people get shafted every which way - we lose our open space and get no social benefit from the process. A major national project which would be very interesting would be for the UK to do what the Dutch did (back in the 1930's ???) - create a Zuyder-Zee to expand the country's land mass without destroying our countryside. You could build whatever you wanted on that, hopefully without upsetting anyone !


Joseph Skinner
14 September 2017 21:01

The only way to solve the issue of the massive housing crisis in London, is too build higher-density housing, in the predominantly low-density, housing types that make up the London Suburbia. Compared to other cities, London is extraordinarily low-rise. Which is why it also requires a revolution. Victorian terraces which make up a substantial portion of the inner-suburban areas of London (and predominantly residential) tend to be at most three-storeys. It may sound revolutionary, but in order to have London be a truly sustainable city, despite the revolutionary nature, the city should build upwards, like it has been doing in the centre with all the new skyscrapers, although those are done for wealthy investors, and not for Londoners themselves. Expanding the city outwards, will mean more traffic and more pollution. It is foolish to think that London should become like Los Angeles. Much of the beautiful countryside of North Surrey or South Hertfordshire would be swallowed up, and would no longer be a part of the still relevant image of England as a 'Green and Pleasant land'.


Mike Frost
29 September 2017 19:21

Well said Joseph. Councils in North ESSEX are promoting isolated 'Garden Cities' with high infrastructure costs in areas of low employment on greenfield sites which are only accessible by road. This has the following advantages for Councils; reduced local opposition to building, achieves 'numbers' of houses built for political reasons and sounds great. However the bigger picture is overloaded motorways, traffic and pollution with public money being spent on high infrastructure costs in the wrong areas.

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