Following a recent debate on the future of high-rise housing held at the office of my architectural practice, I was asked for my view of the solution to London’s housing crisis. I had already given this some thought. I wrote a book about the subject called Home Truths – a primer, based on my 50-plus years as a housing architect, aimed at anyone thinking of a similar career.
In a chapter called Learning from Loved Housing, I celebrate the lessons to be learned from homes built in the 19th Century, in particular, four-storey terraces and mansion blocks, which have been endlessly adapted to suit the needs of successive occupants and changing lifestyles. It is well known that were all of London built at the density of Islington, where such housing predominates and where I live, the city could accommodate twice its current population.
London is a low-density city and its outer boroughs stoutly defend the suburban lifestyle their citizens enjoy. Land for new housing is scarce and very expensive. London’s first Mayor, Ken Livingstone, effectively abandoned limits on housing density. Public funding for affordable housing has been radically reduced, so now profit from homes for sale on every development must fill the gap. These factors combine to make it virtually impossible for new housing schemes to echo their surroundings in scale and form, generating as a result the increasing number of new high-rise housing blocks across the city.
What is to be done? I stick by the lesson of history that the most suitable forms of urban housing are streets and squares of between four and ten storeys in height. Neighbourhoods should be formed of housing arranged in perimeter blocks, creating well overlooked streetscapes and the opportunity for private or shared amenity space within. Done well, places like this can also accommodate the occasional tall building too.
We know from experience that such neighbourhoods can comfortably house people from all walks of life as well as enabling the mix of uses we need for the walkable city. Yes, despite rumours to the contrary emanating from the Conservative Party conference, it is both possible and desirable for citizens to be within 15 minutes of everything required to support wellbeing. Moreover, we can design both the public realm and private amenity so that nature can coexist in abundance with humankind to create a state of symbiotic biophilia. Mixed neighbourhoods like that are what make London a global success.
So, why don’t we just do it?
Oddly, the Greater London Authority’s housing design guidance doesn’t help. Its requirement for all apartments to be dual aspect drives developers towards point blocks or balcony access solutions, which were more commonplace in post-war redevelopment. The iconic and highly sought-after Albert Hall Mansions, for example, would not comply with these and similar rules about minimum daylight.
An opportunistic planning system, no maximum densities, acute housing shortage and the cross-subsidy requirement for social homes add up to a context in which the ideal of mid-rise gentle density is soon overlooked when development options are being considered. This is despite street-based urbanism being cheaper to build, manage and maintain than high-rise.
But what about gradually increasing the density of the outer boroughs? At HTA we have been working on suburban intensification for over a decade and our Supurbia project, under the heading of “street votes” in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, might soon reach the statute book. But don’t expect this to happen overnight or to deliver great numbers of new homes any time soon. Supurbia is predicated on the willing involvement of suburban neighbours, and the NIMBY lobby remains strong.
Maybe London has reached capacity. The truth is we won’t be able to offer a fair deal for Londoners until the demand for space in the capital has regained some balance with the demand for space in the rest of the country. What I’m saying is that London needs to relax a bit about sharing resources and Westminster certainly should relax its grip on the purse strings of the most centralised western economy.
The answer lies partly beyond the current boundaries of the GLA. I’ve argued before, at The London Society, that effective governance for London requires extension to at least the whole of its travel to work area, where 75 per cent of the working population relies on the city for employment. In my view, it is just not reasonable for councils in the Home Counties to refuse housing generated by demand from London, whilst depending on London for so much else.
No doubt you will cry: what about the Green Belt? Well, we must re-think its purpose. No longer should it function solely as a corset to constrain development. Green Belt policy should turn instead to the task of offsetting all aspects of sustainability that cannot be met within the city’s existing built footprint. Obviously, that should include biodiversity, but also aspects of leisure, recreation and health to benefit Londoners. The transformation of the use of the Green Belt from agribusiness to biophilic lung might very well include new homes too, but only if adjacent to rail transport and if significantly carbon-positive – certainly not the incremental and inherently unsustainable sprawl we see at the moment.
But none of the above will deliver until we solve the problem of speculation in land. Conservative minister Oliver Letwin recommended limitations on the “hope value” of land acquired for housing back in 2019. Michael Gove agrees about the need to capture a bigger proportion of the uplift in land value generated by a planning permission. The Labour Party has been saying since May that compulsory purchase at closer to existing use value will be a key to its housing plans.
This is good, because cross-party consensus is necessary to prevent landowners hanging on for get-rich-quick election manifesto promises, thwarting any attempt to deliver the supply of good quality affordable housing that London, and the rest of the country, so desperately needs.
Finally, speaking of manifesto promises, it’s worth noting some straws in the winds of change that the Labour Party say they will bring to “rebuilding Britain”, as Keir Starmer characterised his prospectus for power. His pledge to bring about one and a half million new homes, a new generation of New Towns and to building on “grey-belt” land – Green Belt land that isn’t actually green – reflects much of what I believe to be necessary.
The devil is in detail yet to emerge, but it all depends on Starmer, as Prime Minister, achieving his ambition of quelling the feeding frenzy driving land prices that lines the pockets of speculators but sucks value – in its widest sense – out of housing development.
Ben Derbyshire is chair of HTA Design, a Historic England commissioner and president of the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies. Follow him on X/Twitter. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to Dave Hill’s Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. Photo of Albert Hall Mansions from Dexters.