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News analysis: Are ‘city villages’ the answer to London’s housing shortage?

Words: Simon Wicks
West Kensington and Gibbs Green residents protest

Densification through creating ‘city villages’ may provide one answer to London’s acute housing shortage – but it will require vision, patience and real engagement with communities.

That was the overarching message from a discussion featuring housing experts to mark the launch of think tank IPPR’s City Villages: More Homes, Better Communities at the Royal Institute of British Architects on Tuesday.

The book, a collection of essays by policymakers and practitioners edited by shadow infrastructure minister Lord Andrew Adonis, features contributions by architect Lord Richard Rogers, Lewisham mayor Steve Bullock and Pocket founder Marc Vlessing, among others.

Speaking at the London-focused event, Lord Adonis argued that the demolition and rebuild of London’s housing estates as denser, more mixed communities offered a route to resolving the capital’s housing shortage while also turning large swathes of the city into more pleasant places to live. His research had shown that there could be as many as 3,500 housing estates of a “reasonable size” across London that could benefit from some level of regeneration.

“A big issue is how they can be systematically regenerated,” he told the invited audience. “About 50 have been done over the years, but it could go very significantly further. It could be more social housing, but accommodate existing tenants and a big increase in numbers of units, too.”

As Lord Adonis pointed out, the housing estate regenerations that have already been carried out had on average doubled the number of homes.

Lessons of the past

Lewisham mayor Steve Bullock, brought a practical eye and the experience of having overseen estate regeneration to bear on the debate. Such regeneration can – and does – work, he said, but only if you “learn the lessons of the past” and genuinely engage with the affected communities.

The big issue in London, he stressed, wasn’t simply population growth, but an increase in inequality that was particularly acute when it came to housing.

“If we don't learn the lessons of the past we will simply create more places where there are homes that are grouped together that aren’t communities”

“Beneath the statistics are real people,” he said. “These people have told us their stories about living in temporary accommodation and miles from schools and jobs.

“We need to build more homes and quickly, but if we don’t learn the lessons of the past we will simply create more places where there are homes grouped together that aren’t communities.”

The need for rational planning and genuine community engagement were recurring themes brought up by speakers. Bullock himself stressed that local authorities should provide the planning and land assembly before developers get involved – not vice versa, as is so often the case now.

Lord Richard Rogers’ prescription for regeneration of London’s town centres:

- Use brownfield before green belt to build sustainable new towns and cities

- Develop from the centre outwards

- Build strong transport infrastructure

- Empower cities and regions to plan for their own future

- Use a mix of developers of different sizes, including private developers, local authorities, housing associations and self-build.

Architect Lord Richard Rogers, arguing for the building of “new towns” within existing low-density town centres in London, said: “In ever other Western city that I have been to, it has everything done by the local authority and the developer comes in after.

“In England we call in the developer to do this and, of course, their interests are very different. Therefore, we now have the worst housing in Western Europe.”

A failure to deal with London’s housing shortage could be calamitous for the city. The National Housing Federation’s head of policy, Rachel Fisher, voiced her fears that the imbalance of supply and demand was pricing talented young professionals out of the housing market.

They were now beginning to migrate out of the city and go back to their university towns, she said. “We are in danger of London becoming an incredibly boring place to live because all the interesting people are being priced out.”

Challenges to regeneration

Like other contributors, Fisher was concerned about the long-term impact of the government’s right-to-buy policy, which has a history of taking social housing out of the market without replacing it. She said that although the shortage was acute, we needed to make sure we build “the right homes in the right places”.

Creeping gentrification, ‘Buying to leave’ and a tendency for policymakers to prescribe solutions on behalf of communities were also issues discussed by a panel that tempered its visions for London with a pragmatic understanding of the difficulties that would be encountered in regenerating large swathes of the city estate.

Simply identifying who owns what land is challenge enough, as Lord Adonis pointed out. Ensuring that there is adequate transport infrastructure, acquiring leases, obtaining community consensus, building the expertise required, and capturing the value of the land were all identified as potential sticking points by the speakers.

Rachel Fisher’s three key things to think about when designing a densification programme:

1. What’s an equitable and fair way of approaching residents and neighbours? How do you go about integrating local people in the design process?

2. Build linkages into surrounding neighbourhoods so that estates don’t become isolated places

3. Provide a good quantity and quality of green space. The ‘village green’, play area or park – these are the cornerstones of city life and need to be carefully planned.

"We need a policy to support the delivery of city villages. We need a national commitment to regeneration. Something we have not really had for a long time is a genuine recognition of the importance of improving places and placemaking.”

That this is something that local authorities and developers could struggle to get right was demonstrated by the presence of protesters outside the event.

The West Kensington and Gibbs Green Residents Steering Group, representing the community that is going to be affected by the enormous Earl’s Court development in West London, felt that local people had been completely marginalised by the plans for the development.

This [the development] would involve wholesale demolition of homes, massive loss of exhibition space in London, inadequate affordable housing provision and overwhelming gentrification of the area through luxury development, they said. Their complaints were typical of the kind that the event’s contributors said it was essential to avoid.

Lord Bob Kerslake, former head of the Civil Service, Permanent Secretary to the Department of Communities and Local Government, and now also chair of Peabody Housing Trust, had words of warning.

“This isn’t about city villages or new towns or new suburbs,” he said. “We won’t deal with the needs through city villages. We need to do all of the other awkwardly difficult things like look at new towns, green belt, infrastructure.”

He went on: “The side point I would make is this is bloody hard to do.

“You need to be aware that these major programmes of regeneration require big money, a lot of expertise and a lot of time. They are complex and difficult and expensive. And anything we do here is disruptive.

“To do this we require new kinds of leadership, some of which we have lost over time. Placemaking is not about physical buildings. The number of people who have been there and done it are fewer than you would imagine.

“London cannot solve its housing issues without a new level of devolution,” Lord Kerslake concluded. “There needs to be a radical new solution.”

- Read more detail about what the panellists had to say on city villages