Shards of light amid the current gloom of housing

While there is little political disagreement that one of, if not the biggest, crisis facing the country is in housing, there seems little willingness among members of the current government to take the radical steps needed to address it.

Indeed, as last week’s budget and the launch of a new ‘Save to Buy’ ISA demonstrated, the Tories seem to be fixated on addressing demand, rather than dealing with the real problem: a woeful lack of supply.

Fortunately, for both the party and the country, Labour has some bold thinking in this area.

The party’s own ‘Mr Infrastructure’, Andrew Adonis, has been focusing on the problems of squeezing a quart into a pint pot. In his new, and admittedly London-centric, IPPR book, ‘City villages: more homes, better communities’, he argues that low densities are the problem, and one that can be fixed by thinking about brownfield land in a way we are not used to doing: not as ex-industrial land or ex-military bases, but our council estates.

Low densities are to blame for inner London’s population being 1.7 million below its peak in 1939, despite the fact that the population of the capital as a whole is now larger than ever. ‘Rediscovering just half of this former housing capacity in inner London would supply the whole of London’s projected housing needs for the next 17 years,’ the book says.

Across inner London, councils commonly own a quarter or more of the land in their borough, Adonis reckons. Regenerating this to provide much greater density of housing, along with a richer mix of size and tenure, would solve much of the capital’s problem.

Estate regeneration has garnered a bad reputation of late – not least due to the attendant loss of social housing. Indeed, just last month the London assembly housing committee reported that the number of affordable and social homes on regenerated estates had dropped by a fifth – a net loss of 8,000 homes. Meanwhile, an overall increase in density has been driven by increasing market sale homes by more than ten-fold, making this the largest form of tenure.

This approach can be doubly damaging, not just in terms of policy outcome but also that of public trust. A prime example of this effect is the approach taken by Tory authorities like Barnet in West Hendon, where a litany of promises to tenants and leaseholders alike have been broken. Local councillors and the London assembly member Andrew Dismore, also the local parliamentary candidate, have worked diligently with the community to expose how the Tories have used regeneration to create communities more likely to vote for them, rather than addressing the social housing shortage in their borough.

But this need not be the case if both policymakers and politicians are upfront about the challenges and, crucially, involve communities in the decision making process.

As the IPPR report says: ‘There have been many regeneration projects that tenants and wider residents felt were going ahead without either their participation or consent. Transparency about the future tenure mix is essential from the outset and at a minimum, tenants should be balloted on regeneration schemes.’

Indeed, we need a clear set of standards on regeneration, including, as the report suggests, that ‘all demolitions should aim to retain or increase the volume of social homes for rent’ and that councils should ‘offer the existing residents the opportunity to move back in when the project is complete’.

Many Labour councils already understand these prerequisites for effective regeneration. I am proud that my own borough, Camden, is using both wholesale estate regeneration and targeted infill to create more social housing, to the extent that it has built more council homes than any other council over the last few years.

Amid all the prevailing gloom on housing, there are some political shards of light. While the Tories are content to tinker in the Treasury and continue to use estate regeneration to divide, rather than build, communities, it is heartening to see that Labour is thinking radically about how to address this modern crisis.

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Mike Katz is a member of Progress. He tweets @MikeKatz

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