The effects of Covid-19 have thrown into stark relief the inequalities caused by our existing housing crisis. People sleeping rough, those living in overcrowded homes and temporary accommodation, and private renters with no security of tenure have had to deal with a public health crisis exacerbated by their already poor housing situation.
But the crisis has also shown what can be achieved when we work together and, crucially, what can happen when the government stumps up the cash. This has been demonstrated in the herculean effort by City Hall’s rough sleeping team, boroughs and homelessness charities to bring more than 1,200 rough sleepers into hotels and other safe accommodation to self-isolate. To talk about opportunity in crisis might make us uncomfortable, but there is genuinely a once in a lifetime opportunity to help these rough sleepers leave the streets for good and to transform how we deal with street homelessness in the future.
The precariousness of the private rented sector has been exposed like never before. Expecting renters to build up debt and then agree an “affordable repayment plan” with their landlords is totally unfair and unrealistic. The government has put a pause on evictions, but that is simply kicking the can down the road. Unless bolder steps are taken, we could see mass evictions and homelessness in June. More Londoners rent from a private landlord than own a home with a mortgage. The case for the government to grant the Mayor the powers he has long called for to introduce rent controls in London has never been stronger.
The challenges posed by this crisis for the delivery of the genuinely affordable homes London needs must not be understated. Following Sadiq Khan’s election in 2016, there was a step change in both ambition and delivery from City Hall. Last financial year, we were on track to meet the target of 17,000 affordable home starts agreed with the government – the most since 2003. The year before that, more new council homes were started in London than in any year since 1985, the year I was born.
City Hall has also been securing more affordable homes through the planning system. On the large applications that come across the Mayor’s desk for his scrutiny and decision, the percentage of affordable homes has increased from 22 per cent to 38 per cent. Achieving this has required the political will of the Mayor and the immense skill of a crack team of viability experts who thoroughly interrogate planning applications to make sure we secure the maximum possible number of affordable homes from every scheme.
The Covid-19 crisis puts this progress in jeopardy, compounding the struggles of an industry already grappling with the twin challenges of unsafe cladding and other building safety remediation works, as well as Brexit. Construction work has halted on many schemes during the lockdown. Social distancing means that even where sites restart, work must inevitably slow down.
Current government policy makes affordable housing delivery extremely reliant on cross subsidy from private sale. In 2008/9, government grant made up 50-60 per cent of the cost of building a social rented home. That figure is now only around 15 per cent. Even when the housing market is strong, this model does not deliver enough cross-subsidy to meet housing need. In a weak market blindsided by crisis it could fall apart completely.
It is therefore essential that the government provides significantly more grant as quickly as possible, as well as long-term funding certainty. We cannot simply go back to the way things were, and the public sector must play a key role in the future delivery of homes. That is why I have established a housing delivery taskforce to plan for our recovery.
We also need to think about what this crisis means for housing need and demand in the longer term. While eventually many of us will return to our offices and other places of work, increased home working is here to stay. Freed from a regular commute, many Londoners may choose to move from Central and Inner London to the suburbs – or even out of London altogether – in search of larger homes and outside space.
This has profound implications not just for housing, but for our schools, amenities and commercial development. Demand for office space may fall, leading to less commercial development and more empty office blocks. There is a danger that owners will take advantage of a planning loophole deliberately created by the government to turn these offices into flats without having to apply for planning permission. These “permitted development rights” have already led to the creation of thousands of sub-standard flats, most of which do not meet minimum space or other standards. If this crisis should teach us anything, it is that such standards are essential for people’s health and wellbeing.
We are also likely to see rising demand for homes that enable home working (be that studies or studios), and for key worker housing. And there is one thing that I can say with absolute certainty: if there is a serious economic shock as a result of the pandemic, demand for our already short supply of social housing is only going to increase.
Of course, Inner London’s attraction is not just its ease of commuting to work. Many will still choose to stay because they enjoy the vibrancy that comes with inner city living. But London’s growth and development post-Covid-19 may look rather different from that which we anticipated before.
The Mayor has placed the principle of “good growth” – growth that is socially and economically inclusive and environmentally sustainable – at the heart of his London Plan. As we emerge from this crisis, we must ask ourselves what good growth looks like in a post-Covid-19 world.
Tom Copley is London’s new deputy mayor for housing and residential development. Follow him on Twitter.
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