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Bypass developers for more affordable housing, London architect tells MPs

Words: Simon Wicks

Bypassing private developers could speed up housebuilding on public land and enable local authorities to build more of the right homes in the right places at the right price, a London architect has told MPs.

Speaking at the All Party Parliamentary Group on London’s Built Environment, architect Richard Hyams of Astudio said the very high cost of land was leading developers to build the most profitable forms of housing rather than housing which was affordable and met the actual needs of communities.

Land values which were completely divorced from average earnings, and the ongoing dependence of local authorities on a housebuilding model that sees them selling land to others to build on, meant the government’s promotion of public land for housing was being undermined.

“A number of local authorities have said to me they have the land, the need and the money from Right to Buy,” said Hyams. “But most are sending it back to central government.

“What’s stopping them [from building on their land themselves]? We have no method of getting it done without a developer stepping in, buying the land and maximising the profit,” the architect continued. “You take developers out of the answer, you keep the land in the public purse you build on it quickly using off-site manufacturing.”

Among the consequences of this reliance on a profit-making development model were that London was only building half the homes it needed each year, Hyams said. Many of these were not tailored to actual needs, and workers were being forced to live further away from their jobs and make longer commutes.

Slow builders

The APPG, convened by The London Society and chaired by Ealing Central and Action’s Labour MP for Rupa Huq, was discussing the role of densification as a solution to London’s housing shortage.

Estate regeneration expert Professor Anne Power of the London School of Economics, seemed to concur with Hyams’ analysis when relating the concerns of a developer of a major inner London site that she didn’t name.

“The leading developer said they were very, very concerned that it’s unachievable now for developers to produce affordable housing on the present model,” said Power. “He told me ‘We have to sell at least 40 per cent of it off plan three-and-a-half years before we can build, and the only place we can do that is in the Far East.”

She continued: “Forty per cent of their properties automatically go to foreign investors. They are worried because that doesn’t make for sustainable communities. But Londoners can’t borrow from banks until six months before the property is ready.
“It’s too late for developers. We are locked into a regeneration model that simply doesn’t work. That’s the third big developer that has told me this.”

Figures revealed today (Wednesday) indicate that the gap between houses being consented and houses being built has grown to a record level. According to The Independent, consents have increased by 60 per cent since 2010, but housebuilding has only increased by 48 per cent. Moreover, the time taken to build houses on average has lengthened from 24 to 32 weeks.

"London has a density problem and a population problem"

MPs, including housing minister Brandon Lewis, have accused housebuilders of building deliberately slowly in order to keep profits up. The government is reportedly considering a measure to force developers that buy publicly owned land to build more rapidly.

Power herself was heavily critical of government estate policy, in particular the intention to demolish estates and rehouse residents as part of regeneration. Powers said the common element of all “problem estates” was poor management. Better management, and community-driven improvement of estates, including densification and greening sites, could make a substantial difference to the lives of residents.

She noted that London was a relatively low-density city and had not recovered from postwar migration to new towns. “I lived though the whole new towns process so I saw London being sucked out of itself,” said Power. “It still hasn’t recovered its density. Fifty-five homes per hectare just about supports a public transport system, which is why London’s works and all other cities’ cities don’t really work.

Outer London had a density of just 35 homes per hectare she said – but should be at least 50, which still wouldn’t be crowded. “London has a density problem and a population problem,” she said, proposing solutions that included more construction of small terraced houses and more accurate recording of developable sites as small as half an acre.

These alone, she claimed, would provide “enough land within the built-up area of London for the next 30 years” – and mitigate against building on green belt.

Suburban infill

Riette Oosthuizen, urban planning partner at HTA Design, said 1.4 million homes could be built in London using a suburban infill model. ‘Supurbia’ would see local authorities give permission in principle to suburban homeowners to build on spare garden space.

Areas with good public transport accessibility levels (PTAL) would be prioritised and locally sensitive design codes would ensure any development remained appropriate. This could also lead to a revival of small and medium-sized builders.

Overall, though, a variety of approaches were needed to resolve London’s housing shortage. “We need more parties empowered to contribute to the housing crisis,” she said. “‘Up or out’ is a false choice – we need to have both, we need every single possible initiative to contribute to more housing. And we need to find a way for the SME sector to contribute to housing.”

“To take greed out of the equation, we’ve got to take land out of the equation"

Bishop Rob Wickham, the bishop of Edmonton said we needed as a society to focus on “liveable” housing developments and to rethink our attachment to houses as investments. “A lot of the time we talk about values. But we know deep down that the value that underscores the whole thing is financial. It’s complete rhetoric about these other forms of value.”

Hyams closed the meeting by reiterating his central point: “To take greed out of the equation, we’ve got to take land out of the equation,” he said.

Related information

A report released last week suggests that planning permission for 59,875 homes was granted in England during the third quarter of last year – an increase from 53,409 permissions in the same period of 2014.

The report, New Housing Pipeline: Q3 2015 report by the Home Builders Federation (HBF) and construction market analyst Glenigan, suggests that 242,819 permissions were granted in the 12 months to October 2015, the highest since 2008.

However, the HBF and Glenigan said many of the homes identified in the report still have a “significant part of the planning system to navigate before any construction work can start”, which could take two or three years.

More about this report can be found here.