London's Mayor has strategic housing powers and should take the tough decisions that benefit the whole city.
The Prime Minister has kicked off 2016 with a series of announcements bearing down on the ambition to build 1 million homes by 2020. Last week the Government announced that it would directly commission 13,000 homes on public land. This week it was a plan to increase the density and quality of 100 housing estates across the country.
The announcement introduces an extensive estate renewal programme and a £140m fund. These types of programmes are expensive – as has been widely quoted, the last Labour government spent £181 million on estate regeneration in Tower Hamlets alone. The pump priming fund therefore will not be enough to make these significant changes alone, but that’s not the claim made for it. The new ‘Complete Streets’ model for London’s ‘sink estates’ aims to increase density significantly, and to fund the redevelopment of existing affordable homes by selling a number of new homes on the open market – a model similar to that used by Peabody at the St Johns Way development in Battersea.
Putting aside for a moment the genuine concerns about displacement, replacements and the level of funding, the aim is to get a lot more homes built in London (Savills estimates between 50,000 and 360,000 extra homes over several decades). This is the top priority for the Capital, as one of the least affordable cities in the country. Fully utilising ‘wasted space’ and providing more homes is an efficient use of land where the demand is so large and supply so scarce, but the initial announcement does come with some pressing concerns.
Firstly, although increasing the density of estates might provide a significant number of homes, the examples of the Heygate Estate, Woodberry Down and countless other estate renewal schemes shows that each will take many years to complete. This isn’t a reason to not to go ahead, but it should not not be assumed that it is ‘the answer’ to London’s housing crisis. London needs more than 50,000 new homes a year, and as our research has shown, it is not possible to do this without re-evaluating the surrounding green belt – an area of land three times the size of the city itself.
Source: Delivering Change: Building homes where we need them
Secondly, there are many reasons to pursue estate renewal – improving the quality of housing is an objective in itself – but it is crucial that these developments are not ‘over-sold’ in a way typical of announcements in the past. A review of the evidence by the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth found negligible economic impacts on local economies from estate renewal.
Finally, the announcement raises questions about the Mayor’s track record in dealing with London’s housing challenges. The Mayor has strategic housing powers and is accountable to the whole city, rather than specific bits of it. Estate renewal schemes are often contentious at a local level, and this programme – funded as it is by building additional market housing – is likely to be especially so. These types of programmes should involve the Mayor working in partnership with local authorities. The Mayor needs to use the devolved powers he has to take the tough decisions that benefit the housing market of the whole city.
Two strands of Centre for Cities research coming up in 2016 will explore firstly how best to use the strategic planning powers that cities are gaining and secondly what priorities and powers different mayors will have following the 2017 Mayoral elections. Watch out for those in the coming months.
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