Home building in London looks set to slow sharply. So now what?

By Richard Brown

The number of houses and flats in London grew by nearly 40,000 in the year ending March 2017 – faster than it has since the mayoralty was established in 2000 and only just short of the former Mayor’s annual housing target. Some of the growth was down to controversial conversions of offices to homes (“permitted development”), but 30,000 new homes were built too, which is an achievement to be celebrated.  

But what if this is as good as it gets? It seems almost churlish to make the point, but there is a pile up of indicators suggesting that new home building in London is about to slow down sharply. The first alarm bell is rung by falling house prices and transaction levels, as highlighted in Centre for London’s The London Intelligence bulletin at the end of January.

House prices across London have fallen at their fastest rate since 2009, and the fall in prices and transaction levels has been particularly sharp in relation to flats in the centre of the city. A recent survey by Molior Consulting confirms this top-of-the-market slow down: less than half of the luxury flats that were started last year were sold (off-plan or on completion).

Molior’s figures refer to flats selling at around £3 million and these may seem pretty remote from the concerns of most Londoners – luxury flat developers are pretty low on the league table of much-loved London professions. But all the moving parts are connected. As housing grant has reduced, more and more affordable housing in London is delivered through developer obligations. While the number of affordable housing starts supported by mayoral funding has been rising, as the £3.15 billion funding package agreed with the government in 2016 feeds into the system, developer contributions still account for 50 per cent or more of the total. If the flow of luxury flats slows, so will the flow of affordable housing.

And there are other factors suggesting that supply is slowing. NHBC – the National Housing Building Council – issues warranties for around 80 per cent of new build homes in the UK. These tend to be issued just before construction work starts and therefore give a good indication of future supply. The number of warranties issued in London fell from 26,000 in 2015, most of which will have been built in the bumper 2016/17 year, to 17,500 in 2016, and stayed at that level in 2017.  

While the market cools, the politics of housebuilding in London are heating up. Haringey’s proposed joint venture with Lendlease is only the most prominent of a number of controversial partnerships for housing estate redevelopment. Campaigning in Haringey has unseated council leader Claire Kober and probably sealed the fate of the Haringey Development Vehicle itself. Other councils and developers will at the very least be more cautious about joint ventures – which typically take years to plan and even longer to implement – and nothing will happen before local elections in May.

Finally, Sadiq Khan’s draft new London Plan presents a tough policy environment. The Mayor has tightened affordable housing targets, proposed residents’ ballots for estate redevelopment schemes, restricted use of industrial land and shifted the burden of development on to the Outer London boroughs, where new development is most controversial politically. Many Londoners would support most if not all of these policy positions, but the assumption that developers will live with them in return for a stake in London’s super soaraway property market may be outdated. There is already talk of some of London’s biggest housebuilders shifting their focus to Birmingham, Manchester and other places where the market seems more buoyant.

In short, the prospects of accelerating housing delivery to meet the new London Plan target of 66,000 homes a year are looking slimmer by the day. But perhaps a sharp slowdown of housebuilding would not be such bad news after all. “Never let a crisis go to waste,” in words variously attributed to Winston Churchill and Rahm Emanuel. For some years now, London’s housing market has hobbled along like a Heath Robinson contraption, with housing shortages driving land price inflation, social housing becoming an exercise in gamesmanship rather than provision of public goods, and housing targets always soaring ahead of supply like the stakhanovite fantasias of soviet planning.

Perhaps, if this model starts to look broken, we can look for alternatives. All sorts of magic bullets – housing estate redevelopment, Green Belt liberalisation, public sector land – have been aimed at and missed London’s housing targets to date, so we should be wary of singular solutions of blinding simplicity. But we could start to think about possibilities – about packages of measures that could fix London’s dysfunctional housing market.

This may indeed mean thinking about the Green Belt and estate redevelopment – ways of finding the land needed for new homes – but we also need fresh approaches to how homes are built and paid for. If slow sales are deterring traditional housebuilders, how can we rethink the institutional framework, funding structures and building methods?

Could housing benefit payments support borrowing to build, rather than being funnelled to private landlords? Could local authorities borrow more, directly or through central government bond issues, or work with pension funds and other long-term investors to find sites and build homes for rent, providing a stable income stream for both parties? Could off site construction be used at scale to supply local authorities and developers across the capital with low cost homes for vacant sites?

Tackling London’s housing crisis may mean going after some sacred cows: more focus on rent rather than sale; a positive approach to public investment and less worrying about how borrowing is treated in public accounts; more aggressive approaches to land hoarding; more direct public sector involvement; perhaps even a development corporation that can push through planning and construction across the capital.

Some of these options may be controversial – though a consensus for a radical package of reforms is growing among London’s politicians and housing experts – but watching as the market sputters to a halt seems even less attractive. To adapt Sherlock Holmes, “When we have eliminated the impossible, what remains, no matter how unpalatable, must be the housing delivery plan.”

But is there the political appetite and will to match the urgency of the challenge and the scale of the opportunity? Mayor Khan has already announced that he needs a five-fold increase in government funding for affordable housing, and roundly condemned the autumn 2017 budget for its failure to commit investment at this level. For its part, the government is cash-strapped, Brexit-blinkered, and unlikely to see much political capital in helping out a Labour mayor or London itself. The challenge – to Whitehall and City Hall – is to rise above the politics of the housing crisis, to take shared responsibility and shared credit for the bold steps needed to fix London’s broken housing market.

Richard Brown is research director of the Centre for London think tank, a friend of this website. His previous contributions to On London are here and here.

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