A moratorium on building is certain to choke growth

Anthony Browne
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IF you are ever tempted to complain that London is too crowded, just reflect that it would be much worse if it were the opposite – deserted. One of the best indicators of how well a city is doing is its population. People move to thriving cities, and leave struggling ones. So many people have abandoned the declining industrial cities of rustbelt America that they no longer have traffic jams – instead they have boarded up properties. In contrast, the extra million people we expect to come to London over the coming decades is a sign of how well our city is doing. People are voting with their feet.

In his fascinating book, the Triumph of the City, published this week, Harvard academic Edward Glaeser describes cities as man’s “greatest invention”, saying they make us smarter, greener, richer, healthier and happier. He is particularly optimistic about the prospects for London, with its educated, internationally connected workforce, and diverse, innovation-driven economy. Few things predict the success of a city more accurately than the proportion of its workers with degrees, and with that we are blessed.

However, growth obviously brings its own problems. The transport capacity has to be increased to ensure the city doesn’t get ensnared in congestion – that is why the mayor has put such emphasis on the tube upgrades and Crossrail.

As Professor Glaeser points out, to make sure the success of the city continues, you also need to carry on building. A moratorium on construction, as some cities have had, is guaranteed to choke off growth. The London skyline is filling up with cranes as companies turn their optimism into offices. The Shard of Glass, near City Hall, already Europe’s tallest skyscraper, is not only a soaring vote of confidence that London will continue prospering, but its very construction makes such prospering more likely.

Just as important is housebuilding, to home the growing population and keep housing costs down. High housing costs not only make life difficult for Londoners, but will deter people from moving here, choking off the flow of talent on which London depends.

The mayor has a target of 50,000 affordable homes by 2012, the record for a mayoral term, and despite the worst recession since the war, we are well on track to deliver.

Spades are going in the ground with increasing rapidity, with the number of affordable new housing starts 35 per cent higher in 2009-10 than two years previously. It was not an accident – it was the result of the mayor putting such emphasis on housing, chairing the Homes and Communities Agency, and making sure major regeneration schemes such as the West Hendon Estate in Barnet went full steam ahead during the economic maelstrom.

It was important to keep on building through the recession, because like all bad things, the recession was bound to come to an end. Avoiding a construction backlog means we are now far better placed as the economy steps up a gear, with housing pressures less than they would have been.

Clearly, as the latest declining GDP figures show, we are not in the clear yet. But as Professor Glaeser points out, London has many reasons to be confident about the future.

Anthony Browne is an adviser to the Mayor of London