Even with a ‘bold plan’ for urban centres, Michael Gove’s housing plan doesn’t know how to connect the suburbs to the city, writes Jonathan Seager.
The Lionesses are on the way to the round of 16 at the Women’s World Cup, and it seems Whitehall and City Hall are getting into the spirit of the tournament by using housing as a political football. Unfortunately, securing a positive result on this issue seems much further away than it does on the pitch.
Michael Gove kicked things off with the government’s housing speech last week which included a range of announcements – and many reannouncements. This was swiftly followed by the Prime Minister threatening to “step in” and solve London’s housing crisis. In response, the Mayor and City Hall swiftly launched counter attacks on the government’s own housing numbers.
The political grandstanding is only likely to increase between now and the Mayoral election next May and a probable general election at some point in 2024. Whilst the politics of the housing debate has grabbed the headlines, it is welcome that the significant challenges the capital faces when it comes to housebuilding – the need to build at least 66,000 homes a year – are rising up the agenda.
Gove’s approach to delivering more homes in London, and other urban areas, is rightly based on the need to densify – maximising the full potential of development on land which can be built on. London must build at higher densities to meet the huge need for new homes, but Gove is very specific about where this should happen; in “inner cities” in order to preserve suburbs and green spaces. It is however this segmented view of London, which sees the suburbs as detached from the centre, almost part of the shires, and viewing density as applying to only inner areas, which will thwart any concerted efforts to deliver the scale of housebuilding the capital so desperately needs.
The capital’s public transport network extends far into and beyond London’s suburbs with accessibility the foundation upon which dense and thriving communities can be built, particularly in and around town centres in some of suburban London. This should be a defining feature of the evolution of London’s urban environment in the 21st century as set out in our recent place commission report.
Done well, densification can bring benefits to local areas by attracting the critical mass of people to support more shops, better local services and improved infrastructure. Intensifying land use does not automatically mean building high-rise buildings, though these have a place in the urban landscape. To see this as the preserve of inner areas is to artificially constrain the very benefits that the Secretary of State rightly identifies that density brings.
A similar point can be made about Gove’s emphasis on the importance of focusing development on brownfield land. Priority must continue to be given to redeveloping and densifying brownfield land, but this alone will not meet the scale of London’s housing need. London’s green belt was created to stop the city’s physical growth when its population was falling. It mixes public open land, which should be preserved and enhanced, with poor quality and inaccessible sites which serve no civic or environmental purpose. London’s green belt should be reviewed and the poor-quality parts which are close to existing or future transport nodes redesignated for sustainable, high-quality, well-designed residential development that incorporates truly accessible green space.
As for the government’s Dockland 2.0 plan, it will either need to put its money where its mouth is or provide the London government with the fiscal devolution to invest in the transport infrastructure that unlocks this development, such as the extension of the Dockland Light Railway to Thamesmead. More generally, confirming Transport for London’s capital investment budget in a timely manner and reversing the short-sighted pause on bringing HS2 to Euston, are two sure-fire ways to leverage more private investment, boost economic growth and build more homes.
Recent years have seen a narrative and spending allocation that has pushed development away from London and the south-east. There is now cross-party acceptance that the capital does have a housing crisis and building more homes is the way to address that. Failing to act would be a spectacular own goal.