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Government / Local politics

To fix London’s housing market, Sadiq Khan needs to stop listening to the big developers

For many years now, housing has been the domain of the big guys: big developers have replaced big government.

This is a natural consequence of government’s withdrawal from its post-war promises to house all its citizens.  By passing the buck to the private sector to solve the housing crisis, it hopes for different outcomes.

The only problem is that the new big guys are not delivering.

London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan needs to change this – but he cannot afford to commission another long, protracted strategy to bring about this change. He needs to ignore the big developers, and instead get a small group of people around the table to give their best shot at defining the new London Way of tackling the housing crisis. Have a draft out in a month; tweak it and evolve it within six months.

He should start by starting, and learn by doing. Using rapid and continuous feedback to evolve the London Way, he must always keep it open to challenge. By using simple protocols or rules to ensure open, responsive and collaborative environments, he should make it comprehensible to all.

Here’s what Khan’s strategy should involve.

1. Don’t get caught in the headlights of big numbers.

The big risk is that London continues to do even more of what it did before in the hope that it will solve the problem. This means more big visions, more big masterplans, and more big procurement processes that promise big change but always fail to deliver.

Khan should rather focus on the collective power of many small actions and see how quickly they add up to the big numbers. The best way of solving the affordable housing problem is to have many, many more homes.

2. Develop the conditions for all Londoners to help solve their own housing problems.

The mayor cannot solve London’s housing problems alone and nor should he: housing must move from a problem to be solved to a potential to be realised. That means widening the spectrum of housing players to include the individual, the collective and the institutional.

He must open up many fronts, and not dwell on the big guys alone. He must focus on the small guys, fostering many developers, many small builders and many community makers.  He must make housing a distributed system done by many – like it used to be.

3. Concentrate on early intervention and not being obsessed with fixed endstates in an uncertain future.

Khan should provide the lightest touch up front that will achieve maximum impact later. Instead of trying to command and control the whole process, he must seed projects to give them early life and let things evolve.

In doing so, he must manage in the present and not be caught up in the past. He must be nimble and agile. In order for Londoners to operate within the sweetspot of creativity and innovation, he must provide sufficient constraints in the system without unnecessarily over-constraining the process. By doing this, a new way will emerge, unpredicted outcomes will be found and housing will flourish again.


4. Rethink social and affordable housing contributions

It will always be difficult to eke out the 50 per cent social and affordable housing requirement from large developments, especially in this tight money market. Besides, the big bloated developments of the recent past never seem to deliver the quality of urban life we expect from our cities. 

Khan should take developers’ contributions in the form of a tariff, and spend the money wisely in releasing thousands of development opportunities across London.

5. Create a new Neighbourhood Enabling Agency and provide high-level support to the boroughs.

Khan needs to move his land and property department from a remote, single-focused, large developer procurement authority to a multi-focused, small-scale project based agency operating at the local level.

This means he needs to get some good experience in there. He must appoint wisely; no box-checkers or bean counters. The focus must be delivery at the coalface. Actions speak louder than words.

6. Focus on the popular home by developing a default range of London housing typologies.

The mayor must structure choice: moving away from housing as a developer product to establishing the London Way of building housing that will best serve its citizens.

These should run from the mews house to the townhouse, from the small apartment to the mansion block. To facilitate this, he must develop a common building code or method to drive down the costs of housing and drive up innovation. He must show the way by example. More importantly, he must always be open to new ideas.

7. Don’t let the boroughs think they can solve the problem by building their own housing.

Council housing hardly ever worked and it only made the poor poorer. Let them rather focus on building catalytic projects and social infrastructure that will stimulate action and set the standards for new development. Everything they do must be directed to helping people realise their dreams of having their own home.

Boroughs must give them every support in this process. This means that authorities must act as enabling leaders, using their funds and resources to release potential and create responsive environments.

8. Think creatively about how the housing associations, too, can build neighbourhoods and not just housing.

Housing associations are our great untapped asset and we cannot afford to waste them by just getting them to build houses alone. In addition to providing a whole-life “staircasing” offer, for people to own part, or all, of their home at any stage of their life, they could act in a loan guarantee role to de-risk projects for commercial lenders. This will take advantage of their “Triple A” status and will unlock much more finance.

They could provide a neighbourhood management role alongside the local authority. They could also be agents of the Neighbourhood Enabling Agency, procuring services locally, parcelling land and delivering infrastructure. They could evolve into being the Agency.

9. Allow the suburbs to intensify incrementally. They are doing it anyway, despite government.

The mayor should show a creative way of dealing with the beds-in sheds challenge that afflicts many of our boroughs. This shows that in preventing our suburbs from intensifying, we are stifling one of our greatest natural processes: small-scale incremental change done by many hands.

Just imagine if we released this potential: we wouldn’t have a crisis. Housing must be allowed to start simply and improve over time to make it even more affordable to many. 

We must not set the bar too high. To formalise this, Khan must demonstrate fast track ways of getting planning consents. He could use local development orders, or use his own powers more effectively and fairly. This is where his Neighbourhood Enabling Agency could operate in a targeted way to open up the potential for effective intensification.

10. Create a neighbourhood challenge fund.

Finally, Khan can galvanise people’s inherent creative abilities to solve their own urban problems. Like the UK government’s City Challenge programme of the 1990s, he can direct funds to catalytic projects by making the process exciting and competitive. This will get communities to self-organise around the problem; with this, social capital will be built and valuable relationships will form.

When people work collectively with government in shaping their own environments they achieve far better outcomes that neither could ever achieve alone. This is how we should be thinking of solving our housing crisis and building better neighbourhoods.

On your marks, get set – go!

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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