London’s housing situation is so dire we must ramp up the release of government land

The housing crises in London require bold action to deliver more homes in places where people want to live.

Every local authority is faced with mounting, almost intolerable, pressures on its housing stock, few people are able to afford to buy or even rent on the open market in central London and the tsunami of price growth is sweeping across the TfL fare zones.

There’s little land or property to provide places for new homes. At the same time, central government owns a vast amount of property across the capital and there is a need to challenge whether this is all essential for its effective operation.

The One Public Estate initiative has had some successes in delivering more efficient and economic use of property. But this can be taken further to challenge why government has property holdings in London with a specific One Public Estate programme for the capital.

For example, is it really true that 20% of the national civil service has to be based in London? The idea behind One London Public Estate is that the government machine should be required by Treasury to justify why it holds property and employs staff within the M25.

There are two tests:

  • Of the people working in the capital how many are needed to deliver services here and of the remainder how many require frequent (more than twice weekly) contact with ministers?
  • Of the property assets held in London which, if any, would you be seeking to acquire if they were not already in ownership?

The staff who need to be in close proximity to ministers should be relocated to space within the immediate vicinity of Whitehall/Palace of Westminster.

The staff who are not in this category should be relocated to city regions signing devolution deals and the attendant economic benefits will help stimulate these economies.

The property released in this way should be transferred to One London Public Estate (as an interim measure) at existing use value and offered to agencies who can justify the need for space. The surplus is then released for development through boroughs – this can be for homes of any tenure provided that the agency relinquishing the property receives a payment or income stream equivalent to the existing use value of the asset from the development generated, but only when the homes are  created.

It is important to ensure that the property released is recycled quickly to generate housing and these homes are affordable to people on average incomes.

As well as the obvious benefit of delivering more homes there are a raft of other positive consequences:

  • Existing buildings, with their embedded carbon, are retained and through refurbishment the carbon footprint of their continued use is reduced
  • Homes are provided in central locations, helping support evening and weekend economies
  • There is reduced pressure to expand the size of London
  • Greater density of development takes place in where the physical and social infrastructure already exists.

Where the development costs cannot be financed by the borough or a housing association, one option would be seek finance from a pension fund or funds to create a long-term income. Another option would be to create community land trusts.

The housing situation in London is so dire no option can be left unexplored. Fifty years on Cathy still can’t come home.

Photo by stevecadman

Tony Hutchinson

Tony Hutchinson

Housing consultant

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