London housing crisis: Build up, build out – or accept weaker growth

City A.M.
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City Hall Contest Continues As London Mayoral Election Nears
The City Hall candidates must get off the fence on London's housing crisis (Source: Getty)

There's no accounting for taste. A new 30-storey block of flats on Edgware Road will either be “a monstrosity”, according to some local objectors, or “a vital way of providing the homes London needs” according to Priced Out, a campaigning outfit that calls for an end to the housing crisis.

The development was given the green light yesterday, but many others remain stuck in the planning system. In the opposing corner to Priced Out are groups such as the Skyline Campaign, who were appalled by yesterday’s decision and will continue to oppose the construction of new, tall residential buildings.

The situation is similar when it comes to office space in the Square Mile. The design of emerging skyscrapers is guaranteed to divide opinion, with the Walkie Talkie winning last year’s uncoveted Carbuncle Cup for the ugliest building in London. The Shard, more happily, has fared well in surveys of public opinion.

Aesthetics aside, a more fundamental debate concerns whether the City should permit the building of new skyscrapers (for which there is demand); plenty of people believe that there are already too many.

Cities are, inherently, places where people crowd together for the sake of economic efficiency, job prospects and cultural stimulation. As the population grows – a key sign of success – there are three options: build up, build out, or restrict both and accept a slower pace of economic growth.

Campaigners who oppose densification must explain which alternative they prefer, and the same goes for activists who cannot stand the thought of any building on the green belt (even in areas within the M25 such as Chessington and Barnet). Could the former tolerate some degree of sprawl, and could the latter cope with some higher buildings in more central locations?

The same goes for the leading candidates of next month’s mayoral election, neither of whom have been willing to endorse taller buildings, nor any relaxation of green belt rules. Both avenues are politically dangerous, so their positions are understandable – but unless they have the conviction to jump off the fence, London’s housebuilding story will continue to be one of complex demand-side interventions and stop-start development.

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