Homes for Londoners

Barely a week after the polls closed in the general election, England’s next major political race – to be the new Mayor of London – is already hotting up. Several candidates have formally declared their intention, or hinted at a strong interest in running for their party’s nomination including Ivan Massow and Stephen Greenhalgh for the Conservatives and Sadiq Khan, Diane Abbott, Gareth Thomas and David Lammy for Labour.

What’s clear already is that housing will be the issue that all want to claim as the one they are best placed to solve. With Londoners consistently putting the capital’s huge housing pressures as their top or second priority, this is no surprise. What is perhaps more surprising is that with a year still to go, the candidates are already engaged in a serious and detailed debate about meeting London’s long term housing shortage. This is encouraging, even though no-one has yet come forward with a full plan to build the homes London needs.

Former MP Tessa Jowell launched her own bid to be Labour’s candidate this morning and put London’s housing shortage front and centre. She proposed a new Mayoral agency – Homes for Londoners – to get stuck into actually delivering new homes, much as Transport for London deals with delivering new transport projects. On the vexing and central question of finding land to put the homes on, she identifies (as many others have done) the brownfield land owned by the Mayor and Transport for London’s (TfL) thousands of acres, often ideally located around transport hubs. Tessa Jowell argues that 2,000 affordable homes per year could be built by Homes for Londoners on this Mayoral owned land.

This is sensible stuff, but there are some practical caveats. 2,000 extra homes per year is hardly to be sniffed at, but London faces a shortfall every year of twenty times that. There needs to be more said about how to get small and medium sized builders back into the market, free up well-located land at lower prices and bring local authorities back into housing delivery once again. TfL may also have something to say about the idea, given that they want to develop high-end property to generate revenues for transport investment. Perhaps what we need is a deal where TfL can buy land and develop property flexibly around major new projects like Crossrail 2 to generate revenues, but the Mayor rightly ensures that higher numbers of affordable homes are built on existing TfL land.

Another candidate for the Labour nomination David Lammy has rightly argued that the London’s historic green belt also needs to be looked at in this debate. Green belts have doubled in size since the 1970s and now cover more land than all urban areas combined, including thousands of hectares devoted to golf courses and pony paddocks. London sadly does not have enough brownfield land alone to meet its housing need. While Londoners don’t want to see sprawl over beautiful places, a better approach would balance protection of beauty with sensible and modest green belt swaps to free up low-value land next to tube stations, for example.

A final house building issue that no serious Mayoral contender can duck is how to pay for genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy in the context of government cuts. Nick de Bois, a rumoured Conservative candidate, has argued for investment to provide more options for Londoners who would otherwise be trapped living in their childhood bedroom.

Investment currently relies heavily on a settlement with central government, but Mayoral candidates could make the case for London to be able to invest some of the vast wealth that its property market generates (for instance from Stamp Duty) into new homes. Equally, looking at innovative ways to reduce the basic costs of building, especially land, could free up capacity to build affordable homes.

There are many, many wider housing challenges that Mayoral contenders must face up to in this election campaign on private renting, temporary accommodation, homelessness and the safety net.

On the long term cause of not building enough homes though, we’re encouraged by the tone of the debate so far.