1. Governance
August 31, 2016

The Artful Bodger and the bloated behemoth: 10 ways Boris Johnson fuelled London’s housing crisis

By Kelvin Campbell

Boris Johnson’s reign as mayor of London has been over for three months now. He has cleaned out his desk and moved on to bigger and better things.

But Johnson got London’s housing badly wrong – and it is worth reflecting on the reasons why he presided over the rise and rise of the capital’s biggest crisis. Why, on his watch, did housing become the domain purely of the big guys with their overblown solutions? Why is the cupboard bare? Has it all been one big bodge?

To be fair, it was the previous mayor, Ken Livingstone, who created the trend for mega-development, in effect telling developers (I paraphrase), “I don’t care how big it is, as long as 50 per cent is mine for social and affordable housing.”

Livingstone policy shifted social housing from a failing utopian model, to the sidelines of a booming real estate market. The standard investment-led, one- and two-bedroom apartment block was born at a time when money was cheap. Space standards plummeted; urban quality collapsed. We saw the emergence of a foot-loose community with little commitment to place: housing had been reduced to a commodity.  

When Boris came to power, the Ken model had collapsed under the weight of the global banking crisis. But, as we found out later, the banks – and the big housebuilders they were in bed with – were too big to collapse. For the new mayor’s housing policy, this meant one thing: drop the social and affordable housing requirement and plough on. London needs housing. Keep building. The big guys know best.

Boris, as mayor, was born into this complex and changing world. But he cannot escape the blame for what happened next. He could have made a big difference. He had the Olympics legacy and big chunks of land to do something with. He had the energy and creativity of the capital in his favour. People were looking for something new: he had a mandate to develop a new London way of doing things.

He promised change. And his words in the London Housing Design Guide suggested bold ambitions:

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We are building places to live in a city with unique character, with examples of great housing and city-making at a range of densities. London’s terraced houses, apartment buildings, streets, squares and the best of 20th century development have created highly successful residential environments with enduring appeal.

My housing strategy aspires to encourage a new London vernacular that can take its place in this rich fabric.

Yet what followed was a catalogue of errors – or, at best, serious misjudgements. Here are 10.

1) Boris appointed his chum, Richard Blakeway, as his deputy mayor for housing. An international policy wonk, Blakeway knew nothing about delivering housing in the capital, so was a very strange appointment for such a crucial role in London. Boris allowed him to bungle along for his entire term, making all the right noises, but achieving little.

Just compare him with Martin Muller, the former deputy mayor for Berlin, who led on such game-changing housing projects as Self-Made City and the Berlin Townhouse project. Blakeway was a disaster for London.

2) Boris surprisingly retained many of the top city officials who blissfully continued in their role as box-checkers and bean counters at a time when we needed enlightened thinking and action. Some of them were at the birth of London’s housing crisis, helping with its delivery.

This group saw no way forward other than getting the big guys to solve their problems. Vast chunks of London’s housing estates were parcelled up to the big few. There was no imagination, no willingness to try anything different and no desire to allow others to do so. They protected their patch and defended against change. Much of the blame can be laid at their feet.

3) Shortly after he arrived, Boris abolished Design for London. The agency’s head, Peter Bishop – London’s best shot of having a city architect again – was banished to the far-flung reaches of his London Development Agency. Here was one of London’s most valuable assets being wasted for political reasons. What was left behind was a band of amateurs with little experience of being at the coalface of housing.

4) The mayor’s housing guide, originally been commissioned by Ken and led by the Head of Design for London, was intended to be a comprehensive neighbourhood design guide showing the London Way of doing things. But under this team of box-checkers, bean counters and amateurs, it became little more than an uninspiring space standards manual that missed the whole point: another wasted opportunity.

5) Boris and his team dallied with self-build, community housing trusts and new family housing models but nothing ever got off the ground. More complex policies were written; more unrealisable targets were set; more bold and brave announcements followed. More opportunity sites were declared, more big masterplans with even greater unrealistic expectations held London to ransom. More hearts sunk.

6) Boris sold the best bits of land to others. The Chinese got the Royal Docks, one of London’s best opportunity sites. The Qatari Development Agency got a big chunk of the Olympic Village; the rest of the Olympic Legacy sites are being parcelled up to sell to the big players.

It seemed that the only game in London was to parcel up big chunks, sell it to the big players and wait for them to deliver. When they didn’t, we sold them more or gave them more money.

Why did Boris sell the family silver? Berlin has shown how smaller developers could deliver housing 40 per cent cheaper on land with the same relative value as London, by dealing directly with the end-users. So why didn’t Boris cut out the middle man and deliver smaller chunks of land to smaller players on land controlled by his authority?

7) When nothing happens, where does his team go to for advice? To those who have a vested interest in the status quo – the big developers and their mega-consultants. It was like the foxes and the weasels advising the farmer on pest control.

New ideas for housing were invited. The big guys and their megaconsultants helped to judge them. The status remained quo.

8) Despite Boris’s calls for a new London vernacular, there is sheer lack of imagination about what London’s rich building fabric might be. The big guys are producing housing as large chunks of exclusive development, not as the smaller individual building blocks that normally make up our socially-diverse and inclusive neighbourhoods.

Every scheme appears to be a victim of bigness. Every scheme calls for unique brand. Every scheme is a “Square”, a “Quarter”, a “Village. Nothing adds to London’s unique character. Nothing hangs together.

9) The housing crisis has spawned the growing trend of “beds-in-sheds” across London. In one way, this is symptomatic of creative people solving their own housing problems. In another, it is simply the exploitation of desperate tenants.

Boris never showed any leadership in dealing with this issue. He should have found a way of capturing this energy and allow for positive intensification of our sprawling suburbs.

10) Boris and his team have made some disastrous decisions on major schemes in the capital. He circumvented the local planning process to take the decision on the Mount Pleasant scheme, another monolithic development that will diminish the rich urban fabric of Clerkenwell.  His shabby support for the megastructural Earls Court Project was yet another reflection of the fact that he was never committed to the ambitions he set out in his own guide.

Caught in a crisis fuelled by his own lack of leadership, anything became acceptable to show the numbers.

Our new mayor Sadiq Khan has a lot to sort out. He cannot waste one single opportunity.

Kelvin Campbell, founder of Smart Urbanism, runs the Massive Small project. He led the team appointed to produce the London Mayor’s neighbourhood design guide.

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