There is no single solution to London’s housing crisis. But a key element is the systematic regeneration of the huge tracts of land owned by the capital’s 32 local authorities, much of it occupied by council estates in desperate need of renewal. Hundreds of new “city villages” should be created, improving the lot of existing residents while housing large numbers of new residents too.
The scale of the housing crisis is well known. In the year to June 2014, house prices in the capital rose by 20 per cent, with the average price of a home rocketing to 14 times the average income at £485,000. In more than half of London boroughs, average weekly rents are now more than 50 per cent of average local wages.
The nature of the crisis – chronic undersupply – is also well known. Just 18,000 homes were built last year – less than half of the mayor’s own target of 42,000.
Much less appreciated is the capacity of local authorities to make a big difference to housing supply by mobilising their own land already zoned for housing.
The scale of existing council housing estates is vast. Southwark Council owns about 43 per cent of the entire borough of Southwark, including 10,000 garages. In many Inner London boroughs, councils own between a quarter and a third of all land. Islington alone has over 150 council estates of more than 50 units, occupying some of the most expensive land in the world. I estimate there may be 3,500 estates London-wide, although (tellingly) there are no official figures.
These council estates were mostly built in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Many were badly designed. Most have barely been redeveloped in half a century, and they are often in poor physical condition. Too often they are social ghettos, and their density is generally low, partly because of the post-war policy of depopulating London.
Over recent years there have been some “estate regeneration” schemes. But barely 50 have been started in the last decade – and though housing densities have typically doubled as a result, there has been less attention on transforming local amenities. In some cases – as at Elephant and Castle – there has also been a net loss of social housing. The imperative is to increase the supply of social housing, while also providing more homes for sale and private renting too.
The creation of hundreds of new “city villages” is an opportunity to build attractive mixed communities learning from the mistakes of the past. The hulking, brutal tower blocks of the 1950s and 60s, set in concrete wastelands, do not generally provide high densities. Restoring streetscapes is vital: the expensive terraces of Kensington and Chelsea provide some of the highest residential densities in London. City villages need streets, modern housing of all types, and retail, commercial and community facilities integral to the redevelopments.
The mayor of London has a big part to play. Most boroughs lack masterplanners, and financial and regeneration experts. The mayor should build a world-class team able to work with the 32 boroughs, so that each has an ambitious city village programme.
Bold action is needed to build more homes and better communities across London. City villages would be transformational.