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Pies in sky do not help solve London’s housing crisis

Posted 05/11/2017

by Ian Anderson

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“Construction over London rail lines could deliver more than 250,000 homes”, cites Planning Resource (2.11.17), referencing a report by WSP entitled ‘Out of thin Air’.

Suggestions such as these are not only heroic, but potentially damaging. At a time when London’s housing delivery pipeline is creaking more violently than a Victorian plumbing system, the Capital needs decisive, no-nonsense solutions, not proposals better consigned to an A-Level study paper.

Why heroics? Let me tell you. Network Rail have a mandate direct from the Treasury to acquire ransom payments on anything that comes close to a railway line. It takes years to book in a slot on the railways to do any kind of development, and the costs of overrun (a great irony when it comes to discussing Network Rail) are extortionately prohibitive. That’s before contemplating the complexity of building over operational railway lines and the quality of living accommodation that can be provided if all of those obstacles can be overcome. The output? A development that can only be financed by way of high density residential development that cannot provide affordable housing (in the old fashioned sense of somebody on a normal wage having the temerity to actually want to buy a home of their own). The analysis? Contrived discussions with the GLA about affordable housing, resulting in off-plan absent landlords rubbing virtual shoulders with butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, pretending to live in a balanced community.

Why is it harmful? Because the Mayor of London is already dangerously close to believing that fantastical proposals like this can be relied on – or worse, presenting them to fend off concerned Londoners baying for answers. And if that happens, the numbers will get incorporated into London’s hypothetical housing capacity, and that will provide him with further excuses for not facing up to the real challenge – complex brownfield sites do not deliver for all of London’s needs. They only provide two solutions, if indeed they are capable of being built at all. Build to rent, and eye wateringly expensive private developments, neither of which find it easy to deliver affordable accommodation – not because developers are cynical (despite what politicians and journalists espouse) but because it is really complicated, difficult to fund, and time consuming. So no family accommodation, no gardens, no parking – just small living boxes. Does it sound politically incorrect to make these points? Well, it’s what the majority of people of my generation want to live in (and the lucky ones do), and it’s what most people once they are out of their 30’s will continue to aspire to, so how about a bit of common sense and reality?

There may be isolated situations where it is feasible to build over railway lines, probably in the context of station re/developments, and were that to occur, it would no doubt be an interesting architectural spectacle, and it could deliver much needed residential accommodation. However, we need to move away from thinking there are silver bullets to solving the housing crisis; we need a multitude of solutions, and it’s not just a numbers game – it’s about delivering a range of accommodation. To my mind, nobody yet has demonstrated that we can build homes for families, with gardens, at sustainable prices, on brownfield land, be that above railway lines or anywhere else for that matter.