London’s success is creating its own serious problem. A problem that most Londoners are all too familiar with – that is London’s housing crisis.
The obvious solution to this crisis is to increase the supply of new homes. That means that private developers and housing associations, who between them currently deliver the vast majority of London’s new homes, will have to up their output very significantly. But if London needs around 50,000 new homes a year, instead of the roughly 25,000 currently being built, can we reasonably expect those organisations to double their output in the immediate future? I very much doubt it, so that means we must hope for new entrants into the industry in order to get supply to where it needs to be. Of course, there might be a stream of new private developers attracted to London, but we should not forget about the ability of Councils to play an important role in delivering the new homes that Londoners need.
Many of London’s Councils, including Kensington and Chelsea, have grasped this responsibility. And with the new freedoms and flexibilities that were introduced through the Housing Revenue Accounts (HRA) self-financing regime in 2012, we have realised that we can and must deliver those new homes without relying on big fat grants from the Government.
In Kensington and Chelsea, with its stratospheric land prices and limited space, we have had to start looking very closely at our own housing estates, some of which are relatively low density compared to other parts of the borough. For us, building on Council estates is the only game in town if we are expected to play a significant role in helping to resolve London’s housing crisis. And we are not alone. Councils across London are bringing forward their own regeneration schemes and Zac Goldsmith has wisely adopted estate regeneration as a flagship policy.
I know as soon as I talk about redeveloping an estate there will be political opportunists who will delight in whipping up a storm and taking advantage of residents’ very reasonable concerns and fears about what will happen to their homes. Indeed, we have already faced a string of accusations that we are somehow planning a “social cleansing” of our borough. I know these accusations to be wholly unfounded, and I believe most of our accusers know the same.
That is why it’s crucial to start discussions with people who live on estates likely to be redeveloped as early as possible, and then to involve them repeatedly through each step of the design and development process, hopefully ensuring that by the end they have real buy-in and confidence in the scheme.
It is also why our Council has guaranteed publicly that any tenant whose home is redeveloped will get a new, better quality home, on the same terms and rent levels on or very near to the redevelopment.
With this commitment on the table, I hope I can reassure the people who live on our estates that our plans, although temporarily disruptive, will in the end result in better housing not just for them but also for some of those who don’t have a home at all.
And, even with those commitments to the existing residents, we believe that estate regeneration must be about more than just the overall quantum of new homes that can be delivered. Estate regeneration’s other key objective must be to create safer, warmer, better connected, and more attractive places for people to raise families in, socialise in, find work in, and feel a sense of pride in. London doesn’t just need 50,000 new homes a year, it needs to build great places that will stand the test of time and where people will want to live in another 50 or 100 years’ time.
In order to create such places for London’s growing population, we do not need to invent a miraculous new solution – our predecessors tried that in the post-war period and look how well that turned out! – we just need to learn from the countless successful communities dotted all around this city of ours. Fortunately, in Kensington and Chelsea we are blessed with many great examples of very successful urban design: the combination of high-density streets and garden squares, the mix of uses, and the mix of tenures have combined to create not only very strong and resilient communities, but high property values, demonstrating that people still want to live in places like that.
I am not here advocating that all new development should replicate the best Georgian or Victorian architecture – although I’m certainly not opposed to that in the right circumstances – but I am advocating learning the lessons of good urban design that have been tried and tested and continue to be most popular with Londoners. Therefore, on our estate regeneration projects, ensuring that we build attractive new streets and squares that are connected to and integrated with the rest of the borough is a key priority. The new developments must be grounded in the characteristics and distinctiveness of the communities they are going to house and the local area they are a part of. They must build on the strengths that the existing residents tell us about, but they must avoid the pitfalls and mistakes of what they are replacing.
So, at the end of what will be a long process, I expect our Council to have delivered thousands of new homes, to have preserved our current mixed income neighbourhoods (as well as actually providing additional affordable homes for those on low-middle incomes, who currently face being squeezed out of inner London altogether), and to ensure that our tenants, who are currently living in Council estates, are rehoused in ‘the conservation areas of the future’, and not just in newer, bigger versions of the post-war estates we are redeveloping.
This must be the right course of action for Councils across the capital (and indeed across other parts of the country too). By delivering on this promise, Councils will play a crucial role in overcoming the current housing crisis. Admittedly, after 30 years of not developing at all, it is taking Councils a bit of time to lumber up, acquire the necessary skills, and start actually delivering; however, Kensington and Chelsea (and I’m sure many others) now has a significant pipeline that should see thousands of new homes being built over the next decade.
We just need the Government to recognise the importance of the role Councils can play. It would be an awful missed opportunity if the Government decides to take away the freedoms and resources so recently acquired through the HRA self-financing regime, and halted this course of action just as it is getting going. The new Housing Bill has recently been published and I am hopeful that the Government will make amendments necessary to ensure London Councils can play an even bigger role in solving London’s housing crisis as described above.
Yes, we support the extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants, and we also understand the logic of disposing of very high value Council properties to pay for the delivery of more affordable housing. But the detail of the Housing Bill (and the ensuing regulation) needs to ensure that the right exemptions are in place and that a sufficient share of the receipts from the sale of High Value Voids is retained by local Councils with an active pipeline of developments so they can replace those affordable homes in their same area.