Andrew Boff: the future of housing in London looks small

by Andrew Boff

Andrew Boff has been a Conservative member of the London Assembly since 2008 and before that a Conservative member of Hillingdon Council (1982-1994, including two years as leader) and of Hackney Council (2005-2006). He is admired across party lines for his independence of thought and spirit. This is his first piece for On London and hopefully not his last. Andrew tweets here.

The number 360,000 should be an obsession for anyone concerned about housing in London. Why, you may ask? Well, according to the latest figures, that is the number of children under 16 living in overcrowded homes in the capital. Even more worryingly, a third of all children in social housing live in overcrowded conditions, with devastating impacts on their current lives and their future life chances.

This is a problem that any London Mayor should want to resolve – not least one who pledged to make housing his “single biggest priority”. Yet, unfortunately, Sadiq Khan’s new housing and planning policies are likely to make overcrowding worse, causing concern across all parties on the London Assembly.

In order to tackle overcrowding, we need a significant proportion of new homes – especially affordable homes – to be family-sized properties with three and four bedrooms. Yes, we can encourage downsizing, which helps. But we cannot get away from the fundamental need to build more new family homes. In fact, my Crowded Houses investigation of 2011 found that building a single family-sized home can solve the housing problems of several households at the same time, by freeing up other homes further down the line.

However, the Mayor’s policies look set to deliver the opposite of this. In his new draft Housing Strategy, he proposes scrapping a previous target that 36% of new affordable homes should be family-sized. There are now no targets for new family homes. Without these, the temptation for public and private housebuilders alike will be to meet stringent new housing targets by delivering smaller units, which are cheaper and easier to build.

When it comes to the draft new London Plan, things get even worse. It contains a statement which claims that two-bedroom properties can be suitable for families, and this should be “taken into account” when assessing need for family homes. It also encourages councils to “resist” new homes with “significantly” high room sizes, effectively turning hard-won minimum room standards into a maximum.

Meanwhile, the background papers to the draft London Plan – known as the Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) – include the bizarre claim that 55% of all new homes, and 69% of low-cost rented homes, should be one-bedroom units. This is bound to be cited by developers to justify building smaller properties.

At the same time, the draft London Plan puts many existing family homes at risk by making it easier to convert or redevelop them into smaller flats, and setting targets for each London borough for this type of housing.

There has rightly been much debate in London about the need for new homes. But it is also important to ensure that we are building the types of homes that are actually needed, not just those that make up the numbers. We need to be improving London’s housing conditions, not making them worse. Sadly, unless the Mayor sees sense, the future looks small for London’s homes.

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