Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
From building atop canals to encouraging backyard cottages.
If you follow European issues, you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that London housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable. With demand for London homes outstripping new supply at an alarming rate, the situation is likely to get worse, not better, in the near future. So what can be done to turn things around?
Quite a lot actually. A competition launched by New London Architecture this fall came up with a host of bright ideas to increase London’s housing supply. The 10 best of these are the subject of an exhibition currently running at the NLA’s headquarters. Here are some of the key approaches that the winning projects suggest to give Britain’s capital a fresh infusion of badly needed new housing.
Greasing the planning wheels
London has a lot of land that could be freed up for new housing within the city limits, including anything from large ex-industrial sites to suburban plots squeezed awkwardly between other homes. The problem is that planning restraints and high costs make it difficult for owners and developers to build on them.
One possible solution to this is NLA award winner the Urban Darning Project. As a way of darning up empty holes in the urban fabric, London boroughs could proactively isolate and catalog all the infill sites they have suitable for development. The borough would then commission architectural drawings detailing the ideal kind of structure they would like on the site—drawings that would be available to developers.
Homebuilders could then apply to build with a far clearer chance of having their plans approved on first application. This simple approach could quickly dispense with a key problem for London developers of infill sites: that they often need modify and re-modify plans many times until they get approval, making construction slower and more expensive.
Naked House, another winning project, also falls in this topic area. A not-for-profit developer, it too would isolate infill sites on public land and step in to take development risk away from boroughs. The concept would also broker a landholding system to help boroughs hold onto their land, allowing them to capture some of the rise in value after development.
Building on plots like these could still face strong resistance from nearby residents, especially in low-density suburbia. This issue is where another winning project, called Supurbia, comes in. This scheme plans to unlock London suburbs for more development using two approaches.
First, Supurbia would make suburban shopping streets the first target for new home building, because resistance to new building there is far less intense than in residential streets. Second, it would encourage boroughs to loosen planning restrictions for backyard building. Many suburban homes are on fairly generous sites that could be built on without having old and new housing completely side by side. Making it easier for homeowners to profit from their own land—in high cost London, these backyard building profits are potentially huge—could net the city up to 16,800 new homes a year.
In reality this backyard building is happening already, just illegally and badly. Many homeowners create what are supposed to be sheds or storage units (and thus require no planning permission) and let them out to tenants on the sly. Making this process easier to do legally would ensure better housing quality.
Unlocking new sites
Urban space isn’t solely about open ground. An NLA-winning scheme called Buoyant Starts wants to capitalize on London’s canal space, for instance, by providing affordable houseboats for London’s extensive river and canal network.
The issue here is that many spots on the canals are in fact already taken (albeit unofficially) by people living as non-rent-paying continuous cruisers in British-style narrowboats. Creating a new houseboat network could create tension with this growing group, but it could also help some of them move into better living conditions.
After the canals, there are always the roofs. Another project, entitled Housing over Public Assets, imagines London’s libraries, hospitals, and schools as possible sites for new housing. Developers could add extra floors to public buildings, and refurbish or possibly extend the buildings beneath them.
While these unorthodox sites could help, London may still need to expand onto open land. Currently it can’t, because the city limits are surrounded by a doughnut of protected space called the Green Belt. This strip has kept open fields directly beyond the city limits, but it’s also displaced intense development to a string of exurban sites that lie beyond it.
A proposal called Mega Planning Beyond 2050 suggests biting into this sacred cow’s underbelly by building on a strip of edge land between built-up London and the city’s M25 Beltway. This idea would prove controversial, but it’s also true that some land in this strip is neither publicly accessible nor especially attractive. The plan’s authors claim that all of London’s housing shortfall could be met by simply releasing 4 percent of this Green Belt land for development.
A less contentious idea for unlocking out-of-the-way sites is called ATAL Opportunity Areas. Currently the London Plan limits high-density housing to areas with good public transit access. A refinement to this could be to measure an area’s Active Transport Accessibility Level as well, taking into account accessibility via foot and cycle paths. While this approach risks creating car-dependent neighborhoods, the creation of opportunity areas could spread the load of new housing wider.
Land holding reform
Land prices in London are so high that they hold back development. They place new homes beyond the reach of many people and can encourage owners to land bank, since they can earn safer profits from just holding onto a piece of land than they might from developing it.
A new project with the long-winded title Investing in London’s Future by Learning from its Past looks for a way around this blockage by reviving an older (but not yet extinct) land-holding system. New homes in London are typically offered freehold: you buy the building and its land together. The new plan suggests replacing this system with a leasehold system, where buyers purchase the building but not the land, paying a small ground rent and renewing their rights to the building with a fee every 100 years or so.
This approach, which is also suggested by the Naked House project mentioned above, could reduce costs for buyers. Crucially for boroughs worried about depleting their capital, it could also increase housing supply without obliging them to entirely give up their most valuable asset.
London’s new housing often fails to cater to the realities of many citizens’ lives. Apartments are typically built with singles, couples, and families with children in mind, ignoring the fact that many Londoners share with roommates, increasingly into middle age and beyond. The NLA award-winning Intimate Infrastructures looks at ways to provide more housing for this population group by creating modular housing units designed with non-family sharing in mind.
The Wood Blocks project goes further in changing apartment templates—by dispensing with them altogether. A refinement of self-build schemes, Wood Blocks would provide buyers with a waterproof, fully insulated shell, designed to be partitioned by the buyer according to their own specific needs. Beyond giving homeowners more flexibility, the method could reduce building costs by 40 percent and construction time by 25 percent.