The Evening Standard have covered the news that the population of London is about to surpass its 1939 peak and there is a lot discussion going around about London being full and “overheated”. The ES asked me for some quick thoughts. This is what I wrote…
Gerardine my now-wife and I came to London from Lancashire when we were still teenagers in 1980. We took a stall on Camden Market for £6 a day, one in Kensington Market for £12 a week and soon after leased a shop in Neal Street for £60 a week. We could buy a 3 bed house two years later for £22,000 at a time when an average house cost a little over three times the average salary. It was possible to work towards a goal without having to borrow large amounts of money or rely on parental help. The chance for two wide eyed 18 year olds from Lancashire to come to these wonderful bright lights do the same today has been stripped away. Our daughters tells us how many of their friends with partners are leaving London with a heavy heart, or considering leaving. It’s all about accommodation, the difficulty in the capital of fulfilling the natural human instinct to build a nest.
What are the solutions? One part of the jigsaw is more institutional build-to-rent of the kind I worked on with Get Living London in the Olympic Village after the Games, with a social housing element and a non-social element. Somehow society needs to find a way to secure a return on investment on institutional rental properties to bring this type of tenure up to the level that exists in Germany. People will always want to own, but renting shouldn’t be such an inferior option.
There’s also a locational aspect. We’ve had office space in Wembley since 1980. It’s only 18 minutes and 2 stops from the West End by the Metropolitan Line but it’s hardly moved on in 30 years. There are streets of inter war housing that could actually benefit from intelligent densification, sprawling, single storey industrial estates with underutilised space to develop. What is being built at the moment is, on the whole, bog-standard, pack-‘em-in sardines developments lacking in vision and potentially damaging in terms of attracting a community who will help to give the place “soul”.
It’s a myth that London is full up and “overheated” – between Wembley, Neasden, Harlesden and Harrow, or equivalent areas in other parts of the capital, there are lots of places that scream “opportunity”. I abhor as much as anyone the idea of overseas investors buying up property on the Battersea Power Station site and the like and leaving it empty, but moan all we like, we have to recognise that the problem is not going to be solved right now; far better to be positive and take what action we can to improve the housing situation. Force developers to do all schemes on an open book basis; if profits are high, make it a requirement for the amount of social housing to increase. Split large developments between a numbers of developers, as in continental Europe, helping promote competition. Rather than housebuilders being primarily concerned about making money for shareholders, we could legislate to ensure a key priority of theirs is to serve society by developing better and more affordable housing.
– Wayne Hemingway