London has 1% of the land area of the UK, 13% of the population and over 20% of the economy. And the population of London has just reached a record level.
So it’s not surprising that the cost of housing in London is an issue. Get used to it!
Despite the hype about which new London baby will be the record breaker the reality is that the person that takes London beyond its previous highest population will be an immigrant.
Most likely it will be an immigrant from the north of England or from the European Union.
And these immigrants want to live in London. They don’t want to live an hour or more’s uncomfortable commute from their work and from the bright lights of the city centre. There is a nice app here
that shows you commuting distances by public transport as time contours.
The average London commute is about 37.5 minutes each way compared with about 27 minutes for the country as a whole.
Dutch planners regard 35 minutes as the longest acceptable commute time for their biggest cities and plan accordingly.
So the superficially attractive idea
that developing low grade Green Belt around stations can deliver a million homes probably isn’t the housing solution that will most improve the quality of life of London’s population. If you use the map app you will see that virtually no Green Belt is within 35 minutes of central London.
So what to do? It was interesting to listen to the recent Newsnight debate, instigated by the Centre of Cities latest report, on Milton Keynes.
Simon Jenkins called Milton Keynes urban planning out of date and noted that as our only well located new town it wasn’t surprising that it was fast growing (18% over the decade 2004-2013 according to centre for cities, mainly on green field land, compared with about 13% for London, 98% Brownfield, and 7.5% for England, 80% Brownfield) and Michael Edwards observed that places like Ebbsfleet and the urban extensions of Bicester lacked the scale to attract universities and therefore to be real cities.
Ebbsfleet and the Graven Hill extension to Bicester are both Brownfield sites and are both considering large numbers of Custom Build homes and both have some locational advantages. Both have or are getting improved rail connections to high growth locations within reasonable proximity (if not reasonable fares). And the neighbourhoods in Ebbsfleet just sneak in to the 35 minute commute to Kings Cross (though not further into central London) and the new Bicester neighbourhoods are within 35 minutes of Oxford when the new train line is operational.
But neither are they about to create attractive cities of 300,000 population.
The winner of the Wolfson economics prize, Urbed, advocated the sustainable expansion of attractive mid sized cities which might include places like Cambridge, Oxford and York. This works with the grain of market demand and inevitably will divert some demand from London.
Their challenge is to deliver sufficient public transport, cycle routes and dense walkable neighbourhoods which negate the need for a car and therefore avoid exacerbating the already insufferable congestion these places already experience. The new Oxford Parkway station with its large car park is not the way to achieve this. Instead it should be the centre of a dense, low car use, walkable neighbourhood serving Oxford.
The Centre for Cities report identified the decade of limited job creation in northern cities. One potential way to take some of the English immigration pressure off London house prices would be to invest heavily in the infrastructure that would deliver competitive advantage to these cities. HS2 isn’t that infrastructure but HS3 and the Northern Powerhouse just might be if combined with investment in the liveability of these cities.
New public transport infrastructure that is fast, frequent and affordable can expand the reach of a strongly attractive centre like London’s. HS2’s likely fare pricing and station locations will limit its ability to do this but Crossrail, Crossrail 2 and the proposed extensions to the Northern and Bakerloo lines do help to open up reasonably accessible locations, with reasonable fares, with the potential for high density walkable neighbourhoods.
In the longer term there is significant potential for existing London suburbs to change, around their stations, from semi detached densities to much more vibrant mixed use walkable neighbourhoods along the lines of those found in inner London in places like Islington and Kensington. The market will eventually deliver this, or at least the density though probably not the quality, but local government intervention will be required if this is to be delivered in the timescales required to address current housing needs.
These options are not either or. They can all make a contribution, if sensibly planned, to the housing and employment needs of the country.
Even Milton Keynes will be densified as it tries to retrofit a sustainable, liveable urban form on its car and fossil fuel reliant plan.
If planning is to be effective it has to be the sort that has hold of the purse strings. That can invest in infrastructure to make places more competitive. And that applies to all levels of Government. It is very hard to divine the spatial growth logic behind national infrastructure plans. How they connect to growing economic sectors. How they build on public transport investment with the critical placemaking, cultural and liveability investment needed to be competitive.
This isn’t a small matter. If some parts of the country cannot deliver job accessible homes fast enough for their growth, or for affordability, while also enhancing their population’s quality of life then the national plan is either absent or insufficient.
Government is not great at that this stuff, being too easily swayed in its investment decisions by party politics. The incoming Government will have choices. It could densify London’s outer suburbs, it could accelerate London’s commuter infrastructure, it could invest in a big way in the Northern Powerhouse public transport and the liveability of the inner urban neighbourhoods of the northern cities. Or it could do all of these things and maybe put off HS2 for another day having secured the route for posterity.
Whatever it does, we can be pretty confident that, relatively, London house prices will still be expensive!