The Tory manifesto has ruled it out. Yet building on only 2 per cent of London's green belt could provide 430,000 homesby Andrew Carter / June 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
The devastating Grenfell Tower fire has inevitably provoked many difficult questions about how the disaster could happen, who should be held to account, and how we can prevent a similar incident taking place again.
Moreover, it has refocused public attention on London’s myriad housing problems—with public grief and outrage broadening into a wider discussion about the conditions that many Londoners live in, and the capital’s desperate shortage of quality affordable homes.
To some extent, the Government responded to these concerns in last week’s Queens Speech. As well as offering an apology for the inadequate support offered to those affected by the Grenfell fire, Theresa May emphasised the Government’s commitment to tackling some of the wider housing problems which provided the context for the disaster.
However, aside from the pledge to scrap letting fees for tenants, this amounted to little more than vague promises to build more homes and to promote fairness in the housing market.
Nor does the Tory manifesto, or the party’s record on housing under Theresa May, inspire confidence. The Tory manifesto, for example, set out plans to build 1.5m new homes by 2022, and to reform Compulsory Purchase Order powers so that cities can buy brownfield land more cheaply than at present.
These measures are welcome, but the manifesto (and those of other political parties) failed to address two key issues which will be crucial in meeting the UK’s housing needs.
Where building is required
Firstly, more new homes are clearly needed, but not in every part of the country. There is no national housing crisis in terms of supply—but there is one in the Greater South East. For example, in places like Burnley, Hull and Sunderland, average house prices are around 4-5 times more than average wages. In Cambridge, London and Oxford, the figure is 16 times.
It is these places which are in urgent need of new and affordable housing, and which the Government’s drive to build more homes should focus on (in other parts of the country improving the quality of housing stock will be more important). The Government’s manifesto pledge to “rebalance housing” by building new homes across the UK fails to recognise this reality.
As a result, housing demand in the most economically-vibrant cities such as London, Cambridge and Bristol far outstrips supply—resulting in spiralling housing costs, and a private rental market in which people are forced to pay exorbitant fees to live in often appalling conditions
Inevitably, it is the poorest residents who are most affected. New analysis by Shelter suggests more than a million households in private rented accommodation are at risk of becoming homeless by 2020 because of rising rents, benefit freezes and a lack of social housing. Unsurprisingly, this coming crisis is expected to be most acute in the capital.
Loosen the green belt
The second critical issue which the Government has failed to address is how it will make more land available for new homes in places where demand is greatest. In London and Cambridge, for example, there simply isn’t enough land to build the homes needed. Policy-makers must consider all options available—including building on the green belt. Our research shows that building on just 2 percent of London’s greenbelt could provide more than 430,000 suburban homes in close reach of train stations.
However, the Conservative manifesto explicitly ruled out this option (as did Labour’s). In fact, the housing strategy published by May’s administration earlier this year included specific measures designed to make it extremely difficult for local authorities to build on green belt land, stipulating that ‘all reasonable options’ must be considered first. This commitment is a luxury the Government cannot afford if it is serious about tackling the housing crisis in our most successful cities.
Of course, these issues are not solely the Government’s responsibility. In the case of London, Mayor Sadiq Khan also has a critical role to play. So far, he has been cautious in his approach, refusing to consider developing the capital’s green belt. This is hardly surprising: when national government is making it increasingly difficult to get any form of green belt development off the ground, it seems unlikely that Khan would be willing to risk angering voters in London’s outer boroughs by proposing it in the first place.
A renewed effort
The economist Diane Coyle recently expressed hope that the public outrage following the Grenfell disaster would inspire a renewed effort among all political parties to addressing the problems in the UK’s housing market.
For that to happen, politicians and other decision-makers must first recognise the geography of the UK’s housing crisis, and start to take the difficult decisions required to ensure quality, affordable homes are built where they are most needed.