There are a few tonnes of hot air being let off on the subject of the severe housing crisis that we are in. However, a little science would go a long way. What is needed is a thorough appraisal of where we can build and what existing properties can be brought back to life or re imagined as residential properties. London needs mapping in terms of:
The densities of micro areas of the city compared to the access to open space, leisure, education, health and transport to create a accurate picture of what extra population these areas can take to ensure that they remain liveable and not overburdened and under resourced. Only then can we accurately look at where to extend, build on, infill, re-build and assign change of use.
Secondly we need to know how many empty spaces there are above shops, how many empty offices, retail spaces, industrial buildings could provide places for intrepid homesteaders to colonise. Once we know the extent of this opportunity we need legislation that allows change of use without the current prevarication.
Thirdly and perhaps more controversially we need to look at where we should be extending what is considered as London. Particularly east along the Thames there are well connected areas towards Dartford and Purfleet that apart from the excellent transport links, on the whole, don’t feel like they belong to the vibrancy of London and its suburbs. A sea of pylons, scrap metal yards and foul looking faceless housing estates and offices don’t make for happy desirable places. We have a history of building new suburban excellence, from Hampstead Garden Suburb to all the hubs along the Metropolitan line. We can do that again.
Once we have this scientifically researched picture of where the hundreds of thousands of homes that we need can and should be located then we need to do the harder bit. Fund it . The most obvious way has to be to look at the billions that are held in local authority pension funds, pension funds that are often invested in equities overseas and often in equities that do not benefit Londoners. If some more of these billions were invested in council housing, and by gosh is council housing and shared ownership needed right now, then we would be putting money into all our futures and ameliorating the current difficulties that the pension fund generation have put young generations in. Give councils and housing associations access to funds and help them unlock their own assets, and they will build as fast as you like because their goal is also more homes. They will not starve the market like commercial house builders have been known to do. Surely its worth losing a couple of percentage points in terms of pension fund yields to ensure that one of the most important contributors to peoples well being, housing, is invested in?
If we can crack this one with Local Authority Pension funds we could find private pension funds and institutional investors flocking to invest in housing. Currently in the UK only 1% of institutional investment goes into residential. For many of our near European neighbors its 15%. In the UK we invest 3.5% of GDP in new housing in Germany its 6%.
It is shameful that we put housing so low down our priorities. Surely it’s time to realise that housing is so much more important than hedge funds.