Time to stage an intervention in London’s housing problem?

25 May 2018

Last week, the GLA, led by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, laid out plans to take an interventionist approach to land assembly with the intention of accelerating the delivery of affordable housing in the capital. This includes the call for new land assembly and CPO powers from central government, as well as plans for an industrial intensification strategy. Clearly any steps that will speed up the land assembly process to deliver much needed housing in London are entirely welcome. However, with an ever evolving dialogue on who is responsible for the nationwide undersupply of housing, the question is can these interventionist initiatives make a difference, and can they practically remove the barriers to delivery?

On paper and in many ways the answer is yes; GLA intervention to assemble land? has the power to get more homes built faster. First, and perhaps the most significant change is to the use of CPO powers. These changes will provide a slightly different basis and justification for the use of CPO, with the GLA planning to take on both private and public sites to unlock development, with the length of the GLA’s involvement depending on the situation. For example, the GLA could take sites through planning or pass them on to a partner once the land has been assembled. This has the power to provide the missing jigsaw piece and the solution to preparing complex sites, and it aligns firmly with the proactive stance now being taken by Homes England to housing delivery throughout the UK. If the GLA, and local authorities more generally, can become more willing and frequent with the use of their CPO powers then it will certainly accelerate the unlocking of difficult sites and secure housing delivery at pace.

Secondly, the GLA’s objective when buying sites is to build more affordable homes and boost the associated social returns, rather than to make a significant investment return. This means that it has the flexibility to take a lower level of profit than a private sector developer, and will take a different approach to absorption rates. This will add another dimension to the range of housing being delivered in London, which can only be a positive thing.

Crucially, the success of the GLA’s plans are reliant on it taking a stronger lead in the planning process and actively using these new powers as well as its existing ones. Land assembly, particularly across borough boundaries, can be a political minefield that some boroughs can find difficult to tackle. Any local authority needs to be prepared to make big decisions and communicate effectively with its electorate throughout this process.

Changing the topic to consider the industrial intensification strategy, there is an urgent need to look at the balance between residential and industrial and logistics use in London, and to think creatively about this balance. Large volumes of industrial land have been lost to residential in recent years, and pushing these uses toward the outskirts of London and beyond does not work as a spatial planning strategy as it leaves a disconnect between homes and jobs. Further, rapidly changing shopping patterns are leading to ever increasing consumer demands for prompt home deliveries, meaning that different types of sites for consolidation centres, small scale and ‘last mile’ distribution centres need to be preserved in inner and outer London for these uses.

Intensification on existing industrial sites, co-location with other land uses and multi-story schemes with vertical land use mix all need to be explored. High quality design can be used to mitigate impacts between the land uses on mixed use schemes, but this comes with a cost, so the overall economics of such schemes would need to be carefully considered, especially in terms of affordable housing delivery.