Joe Cawley is Senior Consultant at Calvert Communications, stood to be a councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham in 2014, and is goalkeeper for Bluebirds.
As we move towards the London Mayoral election, it is becoming clear that housing will be the key battleground between the candidates. Indeed, the pages of this website are increasingly filled with comment and analysis about housing in the capital, including Andrew Boff’s insightful article on small and self-builders.
The majority of the discussion focuses on housing supply: arguments about ways to increase it, whether to go ‘up or out’ and how to provide infrastructure to allow for more communities to travel to London. These issues are important topics but the discussion surrounding supply often takes for granted the demand aspect of the problem, with much of the discourse on demand focused on immigration instead of the structural issues in the housing market.
Discussion about the ‘pull of London’, the way it entices business and people in, is usually framed in terms of rebalancing the economy away from London by improving transport infrastructure or investing in other cities in the UK. This is certainly to be welcomed, but real redistribution of demand hinges on incentivising businesses and public sector bodies to shift operations outside the South East and London in particular.
Tax breaks for relocation are now prohibited by fair competition rules, but there is an alternative course and it is one that the Government and public bodies have over the last few parliaments been pursuing but rather too sedately. It is to move public sector functions out of the South East. To date, this policy has not been pursued with the vision that could make a real difference to demand in the South East.
If there was a serious intention to reduce the pressure on housing in London more radical steps could be taken.
The first step – and one already underway – is to move out the tens of thousands of civil servants based around Whitehall. Some ministries have been effective already in achieving this, the Ministry of Justice moving many of its functions out of central London being a good example and showing how much more can be done. The Government Estate Strategy focuses on moving some functions to the suburbs of London and touches on possible M25 commuter hubs being used. The Government can go further than this to look at moving large parts of ministries to regions across the country, boosting the local economy and relieving housing pressure in London.
But the Government should also look beyond Whitehall to other state functions. The Supreme Court, High Court and Court of Appeal could be moved to another city. This would not only take the heart of the judiciary out of London, but would also provide a hub for the legal profession outside the capital. The Ministry of Defence equally could relocate bases away from the South East, especially those that have outlived their usefulness such as RAF Northolt. The security services could be moved out, as GCHQ already is.
There are other facilities that are currently based in the heart of the capital, most within a stone’s throw from Parliament, that do not have a clear need to be in central London.
These could be relocated to areas of London in need of investment, jobs and infrastructure. Does the Metropolitan Police need to be based at Scotland Yard rather than at its training centre in Hendon? A more controversial point, but one that needs to be looked at, is whether there is a requirement for the number of large hospitals between Elephant and Castle and Kings Cross. Would there not be a benefit to relocating these into purpose built new hospitals further out of the centre of London?
It is not to say that the suggestions here would be easy, quick or cheap. Or indeed that there are no other public bodies for relocation. That said, there is no clear need for the examples above to be in the most congested area of the UK, cumulatively bringing in hundreds of thousands of staff as well as those who use these services each day.
It is worth also making the point that by moving these operations away from their capital bases it would release a considerable amount of high value land. This land could provide more homes and infrastructure in central London, as well as providing considerable receipts to fund the moving costs. RAF Northolt alone would be one of the largest brownfield sites in London. In the long term this move would also reduce the year-on- year cost of taxpayer-funded staff.
These are some examples to make the point; there are many activities and functions of government and public sector bodies that do not need to be located in the capital or in the heart of it. Moving them to other cities or parts of outer London in need of investment would be a boost for those local economies, reduce demand for housing in London and the South East, and free up much needed land for additional housing in the capital.