London’s Housing: Green Belt, Brownfield And Empty Homes

wanstead flatsIn 2013, there were 59,313 empty homes in London. 24,056 of those were empty for more than six months. That’s 1.76% and 0.71% respectively of the capital’s housing stock.

This year, the government announced proposals to build on brownfield sites, while green belt land within striking distance of London is also under consideration. That’s three potential solutions to ease London’s housing crisis. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of using them.

Empty houses

The figures from the Empty Houses campaign group exclude uninhabitable homes, flats above shops and (thankfully) homes scheduled for demolition, but nearly 60,000 empty homes is still a pretty big number. The government has looked at a variety of ways to discourage people from buying property then leaving it unoccupied, from banning overseas investors to slapping extra taxes on them.

So what about the empty houses owned by people other than Shanghai millionaires? Well, you can report it, either via Empty Homes or the local council’s website (like Hackney’s or Barking & Dagenham’s). Self Help Housing also has step-by-step guides on finding and proposing uses for empty homes.

Pros: Makes use of existing property, grants available to make homes livable, community-building.

Cons: Potential bureaucracy of finding properties, no one group co-ordinating efforts.

Brownfield sites

A combination of planning law relaxation, a property boom and previously unloved bits of London now being loved means that developers are speculatively eyeing sites they hadn’t considered before. Chancellor George Osborne’s recent announcement that London could get ‘up to 50,000 new homes’ looks on the face of it to be just what some of the capital’s disused factory and office spaces need. But the very planning regulations which insist on a certain percentage of affordable homes within a development have had to be relaxed to entice developers. So while there may be more homes, it will only be Shanghai millionaires who can afford them.

Building on brownfield sites is also a lot less contentious than building on green belt. Apart from a few notable exceptions, not that many people care about brownfield sites, so putting a spin on getting rid of those nasty 70s office blocks to build homes for hard-working families is likely to be a vote-winner.

Pros: Urban regeneration, using (and potentially decontaminating) existing land.

Cons: Potentially fewer affordable homes, too small a solution for too big a problem, over-development.

Green belt

Housing shortages have turned the country’s green spaces into a political football, perpetually kicked between people who want housing built full stop and people who don’t want it on their village green. This New Statesman article from June throws the green belt out there and rather than ask if we should build, asks where we should build. It also includes a handy map from Barney Stringer which identifies areas within 800m (or a 10 minute walk) of an existing station. Golf courses don’t fare too well.

Of course, there’s more to it than just fencing off a few acres of Wanstead Flats to build some actual flats in Wanstead — as the NS article points out, schools, roads and other amenities need to be considered. But few things are guaranteed to get more local fur flying than proposed development of green belt land. The political impact of swiping green spaces could mean the loss of a council seat as a result of local opposition to plans.

Pros: Proximity to public transport, efficient use of space.

Cons: Politically sensitive, local opposition, loss of green spaces.

The answer is (predictably), that we need a combination of all three. Other useful stuff we need is more affordable housing that’s actually affordable, reforms to the private rental market and to allow councils to borrow so they can rebuild their depleted housing stock. Is this too much of a tall order for any government?

Photo by Oliver in the Londonist Flickr pool.

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  • Kent Wang

    The 1% empty homes rate is very low compared to the US gross vacancy rate of around 13% nationwide and 10% in New York City: http://www.census.gov/housing/files/FCSM%20paper.pdf

    I see very little wrong with foreign investors buying properties to let them out. A much bigger problem is if they were buying and leaving them empty, which is happening in China, with a 20% vacancy rate: http://online.wsj.com/articles/more-than-1-in-5-homes-in-chinese-cities-are-empty-survey-says-1402484499

  • d

    The notion that there isn’t enough brownfield land to hold all of London’s required housing is not correct. It’s all dependent on density. The New Statesman article quotes a maximum of 600k homes, but that is a completely abstract number: obviously you have a choice whether to build single-family detached houses, or fifty-floor skyscrapers. I’m not suggesting we do the latter, but the Britannia Village development that Dave Hill has pictured in his article is ludicrously low-rise for a major city. We should be building 5-8 story blocks of flats at least on brownfield land.

  • jonathan rowe

    Absolutely, lets build on a scale that will tackle the crisis. Insist on High density near public transport, medium to high density elsewhere. More 3/4 bedroom flats for families.

  • jim1999

    Houses are empty for a multitude of reasons. Death, divorce, sale, renovation, etc… Most empty homes are filled within 6 months and the remaining see them filled usually within a year. The “empty homes phenomena” is a myth and frankly xenophobic as “foreign” investors are usually blamed for the empty homes.

    What I find disturbing is that it’s Labour banging this racist drum the loudest. Shame.