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London’s building: Reaction to Sadiq Khan’s London Housing Strategy

Philip Breese, Senior Partner at Weston Williamson + Partners, discusses the plans to address London’s housing crisis, and the mayor’s strategy to deal with the problem.

Near my home in South East London I pass three modest land parcels every morning and evening. These parcels are adjacent to railway infrastructure and on each passing I feel a sense of responsibility to unlock them for small scale housing. Why? Because development would contribute to housing supply, builders would get work, and the community would benefit with well-designed buildings to replace the overgrown fenced off land.

The reason they are fenced is they provide important maintenance access to the railway to keep London moving. But only the gate, a small path, and steps is used for this and shouldn’t now be holding back the potential development of these pocket plots. It is therefore encouraging to see a particular emphasis in the Mayor’s Draft London Housing Strategy to bring forward and help facilitate house building on sites like these, peppered along our railway corridors or adjacent to other public assets.

The draft strategy is a hefty document, perhaps a reflection of the level of fix required for London’s housing need. It emphasises the diversity of issues the capital faces which is wide-ranging: land supply, affordability, homelessness and skills as a start. Attempting some quick wins to get things moving as well as structuring a pathway for long term resolution is ambitious but necessary after years of de-prioritisation and stagnation.

But this is the scale of the task. Supported by his Deputy James Murray, who has been everywhere over the last year gathering allies and intelligence, the Mayor’s term is surely more about resetting the strategic direction with a robust plan that can be carried forward through policy, and critically, provide a backbone for future Mayoral terms.

In 2015 Weston Williamson and Partners suggested in an essay celebrating their 30th anniversary “with housing integral to the goal of a cohesive society, there is no reason why high quality public housing and bolder delivery targets cannot be both valued and achieved once more. All that is needed is the political will to make it happen.”

The political will is now finally emerging out of necessity but remains reliant on central government funding to make a real difference. The Prime Minister’s recent Conservative Party conference announcement to provide a further £2 billion into the affordable housing programme is welcome but the reported 25,000 homes for affordable rent this will supply is a pittance, particularly when proportioned down to London.

In recent weeks promoting the draft strategy James Murray has stated ‘80% of new housing in London is affordable to just 8% of Londoners’. The ambitious strategic 50% threshold for affordable homes on public land will be challenging, particularly on more complex sites attached to transport infrastructure. We are likely to see more linking up with donor sites for affordable housing provision elsewhere in boroughs where sales values have a lower price point and ensuring maximum land receipts can be extracted from the complex transport sites. Land values are not about to nosedive so private developers and housing associations will need to develop innovative solutions to meet the 35% affordable provision threshold.

Lack of affordability is resulting in a generation shift from home ownership as default for middle incomers to a predominantly private renting demographic. The draft policy encourages diversification in the Private Rental Sector (PRS) with variety of different tenure models and living experiences providing better choice for Londoner’s with a new growth stream of homes. It has been estimated against current growth projections that by 2025 PRS will for the first time shift the balance away from owner occupier properties.

The inaccessibility of land and limited opportunities to purchase, particularly smaller plots has arguably been a significant contributor to the decline in house building. The Small Sites, Small Builders initiative will incentivise new players in the market but only if the GLA can actively support the public landowners to release sites. Gestures such as helping with ‘a full set of surveys to help reduce risk’ is welcome but is perhaps small fry. Incentivising small scale developer and builders to take forward and purchase publicly owned sites will need a significant reduction in red tape and process smoothing to ensure they become attractive and viable house building opportunities.

The draft strategy is far-reaching which is both welcome and encouraging but as yet untested as the GLA builds its internal teams to action the initiatives and its success will ultimately be judged by the number of sites that begin to come forward and the number and quality of homes that get built.

To this end it is encouraging to see one of the three parcels of land on my journey to and from work now under development making a contribution to the homes we so urgently need to build. Hopefully development of the other two will now be kick-started by some of the new policies set out in the Mayors Housing Strategy before Sadiq Khan’s current term ends in Spring 2020.