How to push up house prices in London

The Chancellor has announced a cut in stamp duty for most people in yesterday’s autumn statement, claiming it will help first-time buyers. Labour’s shadow chancellor quickly supported him, adding that it will “help people on middle and low incomes who are moving homes”.

Given the extremely high prices in London, you sounds like great news! But it could actually make things worse. Let me explain with an example from Anerley.

forsale

Imagine you were a rich enough first-time buyer to go for the average two bed flat in SE20, which according to Nestoria costs £329,000! You’ll now have to pay just over £3,000 less in stamp duty to buy it, which will be welcome news.

But this means you, and every other buyer, now has £3,000 more to bid on the price for the home. The Government’s own economists – the Office for Budget Responsibility – say this will push up house prices. Using Shelter’s estimates as my guide, I’ve estimated that this could mean that two bed flat rising to £335,000, so the stamp duty cut will add another £6,000 to the price.

Now in the short run, this might make it slightly easier for you because stamp duty usually eats into the savings you need for a deposit, while that extra £6k on the house price can be spread over the lifetime of your mortgage.

But over time, all of these policies to “help” first-time buyers with tax cuts and subsidies just push prices up.

That could also make life harder for tenants, who are in the majority in the Lewisham West & Penge constituency and yet got nothing at all out of the autumn statement.

What if the Chancellor had spent his time in office trying to keep house prices stable?

se20-pricesUsing Nestoria’s figures again, you’d stand to pay less than £200,000 for a two bed flat if prices hadn’t risen since 2011.

You can see the incredible – appalling even – rise in house prices in SE20 in the chart on the right.

Under the old stamp duty rules you’d pay something like £2,000 in tax to buy that two bed flat, which is almost £5,000 less than you now have to pay with the new stamp duty rules on the much more expensive flat.

You’d also have to save a much smaller deposit, and pay smaller monthly costs!

We can stabilise prices

Rising house prices aren’t inevitable, they are a political choice that successive governments have made for decades.

House prices have been going up because of flawed policies like this change to stamp duty, and because we aren’t building enough homes, and because the ones we do build in London are mostly bought up by investors speculating on rising prices. I’ve been told by a number of estate agents around Crystal Palace that buy-to-let investors are quite willing to put in silly bids because they think prices will only rise. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and property speculation from all over the world is keeping the London bubble inflated.

So instead of fiddling with stamp duty, the Green Party would replace it with a Land Value Tax, which would take out most of the profit from this speculation and so stop them even trying to buy, leaving people who actually want to live in the homes to bid at prices they can afford. It would make taxes on property – including council tax – much fairer, and focus our minds on housing as a home instead of an asset.

Instead of short-term gimmicks, it would help us to bear down on house prices in the long run.

This policy – along with others like rent controls and a big social housing programme – will be fully unveiled in the Green Party manifesto next year, laying the foundations to fix this housing crisis within a generation.

Super cycling in Peckham

In April 2012 I joined 10,000 soggy cyclists in the rain to call for a big change to our streets, so whoever won the imminent Mayoral elections would ensure our streets would be safe and pleasant for cycling.

In response to months of fantastic campaigning, and not wanting all the cycling votes going to the Green Party, Boris Johnson duly signed up, telling cyclists: “I am fully committed to meeting the three key tests of LCC’s ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign”.

Eight months later, TfL began to consult on the plans for Cycle Superhighway 5, from New Cross Gate to Victoria via Peckham, Camberwell and Oval. Here was a golden opportunity for Boris to “make sure all planned developments on are completed to Go Dutch standards, especially junctions”, one of those three key tests he signed up to.

Months of consultation and roadworks later, this is what we got:

Super cycling in Peckham

Does that look fun to you? Does Boris really think lots of people are going to rush to buy a bicycle to enjoy that?

This road has a 30mph speed limit. TfL refused requests from Southwark Cyclists and Southwark Living Streets to reduce it to 20mph, given how many homes, schools and shops front this busy road.

It’s gets worse, though. Here’s a before-and-after photo of a stretch of Peckham High Street:

Super cycling in Peckham

That’s right. TfL removed an advisory lane that ran the whole way across the junction, and replaced it with a couple of blocks to indicate cyclists might be expected.

It’s not as though Boris and TfL were unaware of problems with their designs. Last October, Jenny Jones, with whom I work, brought one example to the Mayor’s attention and asked him to look again:

In that exchange, if you can’t make it through, Boris promises to look at the plans again and to do his “level-headed best to make it as safe as [we] possibly can”.

Here are TfL’s plans for the relevant stretch of the Cycle Superhighway, with a big red arrow pointing to the junction Jenny was talking about . You can see how the route going each way along this stretch of Peckham Road changes from a mandatory lane (dark blue) to an advisory lane (mid blue) then no more than a bit of blue paint as you go past a junction:

going-super-3

Here is what that junction looks like now that the ‘super’ highway has been implemented:

going-super-4

On the left, there is finally some good news, with a nice wide mandatory cycle lane painted onto the road. Before that soggy day in April 2012 I would have described that as a very good bit of provision for cyclists. But the ‘Go Dutch’ campaign the Mayor signed up to raised the bar, and that lane no longer clears it. There is no segregation – no protection from the traffic – and no attempt to route cyclists around the back of the bus stop so they don’t get squashed or held up by buses.

In the middle and right-hand photos we can see the promised unbroken line of blue paint replaced with a couple of squares. There is absolutely no protection here for cyclists against motorists cutting across to head north on the rat-run Southampton Way. Nothing.

And there we have it, folks. Two years after our “cycling Mayor” signed up to “make sure all planned developments on are completed to Go Dutch standards, especially junctions”, we have more millions spent on another bungled Cycle Superhighway that would embarrass any qualified Dutch road engineer.

Densifying London the wrong way

I’m a firm believer in “densification” – that we can make our towns and cities more dense. This can help us to avoid building on other species’ habitats, and to support more sustainable transport habits like public transport and cycling. I’ve written two blog posts looking at the scope for densifying outer London.

But yesterday, Eric Pickles re-announced his own densification programme, and I’m dead-set against it. The Communities Secretary wants to give Boris Johnson £150m to accelerate the demolition of council estates in London, building more dense housing on the land.

The official statement describes the estates as “London’s most deprived”; the Evening Standard helpfully spelled out what they meant by that, describing “run down” and “notorious” areas. It’s one of those easy stereotypes to trot out that actually have very little basis in fact – UKIP supporters are wealthy Tories, housing benefit claimants are unemployed scroungers, and council estates are crumbling and crime-ridden.

In a bizarre attempt to make this sound benign, the official statement mentions that 1.7 million more people lived in inner London in 1939 than are expected to live there in 2021, implying that it really isn’t all that dense at all. Compared to Tokyo, it isn’t, but compared to 1939? Back then inner London was seriously overcrowded, still blighted by slums; depopulation was a deliberate policy to improve quality of life, moving people to outer London or new towns.

You might wonder – why doesn’t Pickles want to regenerate the sprawling low density suburbs? The potential housing capacity there, as I demonstrated, is anywhere up to a trebling of our housing stock.

The answer is obvious. Council tenants in inner London are easy targets. Their councils lack the funds and imagination to protect and maintain their homes and so, reluctantly or otherwise, they go along with these redevelopments. This in spite a growing list of such schemes that have seen the net loss of social housing, the expensive new flats mostly sold to investors, the dislocation of settled communities, the worsening health of affected tenants, and the environmentally destructive loss of existing buildings.

For Pickles and these councils, the tenants have no right to stay put, certainly not equivalent to home owners. But why not? Think of this as a moral, not a legal question. These tenants have been offered a social contract, the assurance that they will be secure in their homes so long as they want to stay there and can pay their rent, equivalent to the social contract for home owners who can continue to pay off their mortgage. They thrive in lively communities, cope with poverty and social exclusion by relying on networks of neighbours, establish settled family lives and hold down jobs they can afford to commute to.

What is the difference between a compulsory purchase of a council estate, such as the Heygate with 1,200 homes on 9 hectares of land, and a compulsory purchase of some homes in Bromley or Havering, with typically 270 homes on an equivalent 9 hectares?

The difference is cost and political will. Councils own their land and can do with it as they wish; the only question is whether they will gain financially from the redevelopment. But to buy those homes in Bromley or Havering they might need to find the best part of £135m. An imaginative council might see an opportunity to fund that by building 1,200 homes and selling half of them on the open market, but councils aren’t encouraged to be imaginative and proactive in Britain. More importantly, most politicians treat the property rights of home owners as sacred while the rights of tenants are temporary and fungible, and few would countenance the idea of redeveloping swathes of suburbia in this way.

If Pickles wanted to densify areas of London to meet needs, he should look at all areas of low density housing and explore how clever use of compulsory purchase and land assembly can deliver his aims in a way that recognises homes are about people and communities, not bricks and mortar.

This so-called regeneration of council estates is densification through urban clearance, sweeping away the powerless and ignoring the impact on their lives in order to deliver numbers – new homes built, council tax revenues collected, stereotypes confirmed.

For an alternative vision for London, visit the Crumbs for London campaign.

Space4Cycling in Crystal Palace

I’m supporting the Space4Cycling campaign in the Crystal Palace ward, where I’m standing for the Green Party.

I often cycle up and down Anerley Hill on the way to work. It’s a steep bit of road, difficult for those of us who aren’t zipping up to Cadence every weekend on expensive road bikes. Cycling uphill without wavering a little is hard work, so providing some protected space at the expense of a little car parking makes perfect sense.

Of course some people who currently park their cars there will lose out. But I want to see streets in Crystal Palace, London, the whole of the UK transformed to serve the needs of people on foot, bike and public transport, and this can only happen at the expense of cars because we have limited road space.

The alternative is to leave almost 20,000 vehicles a day trundling along Anerley Hill, creating peak hour traffic jams. This level of traffic is responsible for illegal levels of air pollution, which will remain until at least 2020 if we don’t do something drastic. Find out more about this here. If you walk down to Anerley Road on a school day, you’ll see dozens of children buying fast food, but very few on bikes. Designing roads for cars at the expense of bikes is unhealthy and bad for the environment.

I would also like to introduce 20mph limits on far more roads in the area, particularly for rat runs like Thicket Road, introduce ‘filtered permeability’ to more roads to reduce traffic, and fix the various barriers, potholes and speed humps that make cycling through Crystal Palace Park confusing and unpleasant.

I want to make it easy, safe and pleasant for everyone to cycle in Crystal Palace, whether they’re an 8 year old going to school in the morning, or a fit 80 year old heading up the hill to the shops.

Some thoughts on the Space4Cycling campaign

I think this new campaign from the LCC and all the local cycling groups is brilliant. It is showing yet again that cyclists can be mobilised to make their voices heard in the democratic system, and I only hope it has a big an impact on local councillors as their lobbying of the London Assembly has had.

I also hope that councillors elected in May honour their promises. I do wonder at the Labour councillors signing up in Southwark, a borough I used to live in and cycle through every day. The council has spent four years doing next to nothing for cyclists, while scrapping the London Cycle Network from its Transport Plan and actually removing cycle lanes from busy roads.

As the Stop the Killing campaign found, many other councils are just as bad. Are all these candidates honestly going to push for the cyclists’ proposals having failed to do so in the past four years? One can only hope.

My one other reservation is that it is difficult for smaller parties and independent candidates to get onto the site. For those who have never fought an election, I can assure you that it’s a huge challenge for small parties dependent on volunteers with full-time jobs just to get all the paperwork in to the returning officer, let alone get a list of candidates out to anyone who asks and respond to lots of lobbying requests.

This campaign web site has been live for some time now, and while very well organised parties can get their candidate lists out nice and early, many others won’t have a final list until nominations close next week.

At the moment, the web site gives a very poor impression of the Green Party, for example, even though we have consistently been the most pro-bike party in the capital. That isn’t just my biased opinion, it was also the view of the Londoners on Bikes campaign in the 2012 elections.

So at the time of writing over 12,000 people will have contacted an incomplete set of candidates, and might think the missing candidates and parties have nothing to say about cycling. I hope you, dear reader, will bear that in mind and hold off sending your lobbying email for a couple of weeks.

Densifying London (part two)

Following yesterday’s post on making London more dense, Tim Lund suggested I do a slightly more sophisticated analysis. Planners in London use a metric called the Public Transport Accessibility Level, or ‘PTAL’, which does pretty much what you’d expect.

Rules for things like car parking levels and the density of housing you should build are based on these, because obviously if you’re in central London you have no need for a car and you can justify quite tall blocks of flats, but in low rise suburbia with only sporadic bus services it’s accepted that more car parking and less dense housing is appropriate.

So if you were to follow these rules, how much more housing could you build in London?

First, I took the data for PTAL levels (the map on the left). Then I took my wards, sliced up to remove any areas that cannot be built on, cut out the Heathrow airport too because it was such an extreme outlier, and worked out the median PTAL level for each one (the map on the right). Click for a larger version.

Densifying London (part two)

Then I took all the wards where the density was below London’s median. I calculated how many homes you could have, taking the midrange for urban areas for each PTAL level from the Housing Supplementary Planning Guidance (page 32). I deducted the actual number of households from that potential to arrive at the extra homes you could build if you were to bring the areas in line with the planners’ expectations.

This would imply flattening the lowest density half of London and building anew at densities between 80 and 225 homes per hectare.

Here are the results. This map shows all the wards that fell below the median, colour-coded based on the number of extra units you re-built them at the density suggested by the London Plan, using every bit of land for housing:

The result: an extra 6,500,000 homes! That’s twice as many as exist across the whole of Greater London already.

Obviously nobody is about to demolish such an extensive area and re-build it from scratch, and to take every inch of commercial and industrial land for housing and mixed-use development. The environmental impacts of such a huge demolition and construction program would also be ruinous. So it’s a slightly absurd number. But it gives you an idea of what’s possible. Maybe this is what would have happened if we had a sustainable planning system during the 1930s, when these sprawl suburbs were built?

An interesting ‘part three’ would be to take those areas and see what capacity there is on brownfield site. Sadly, I don’t know of any good up-to-date sources of brownfield data. There’s this data produced by the now defunct London Development Agency, not updated since 2009, which you can see on a map here. One to think about…

Making parts of London more dense

How do we build more homes in London? The Mayor’s latest exercise assessing needs suggests we need up to 690,000 over the next ten years, but a parallel exercise looking for land only came up with sites for 420,000 homes.

The usual debate is whether or not we build in London’s greenbelt to make up the difference. But there are at least three good reasons not to go down this route to solve our problems: there are an awful lot of protected habitats that we really cannot build on; building sustainable developments around transport hubs and avoiding those habitats could only deliver (in Andrew Lainton’s estimation) 72,000 homes; and if we ignore these,  it could lead to more low density, car-dependent urban sprawl, which the greenbelt was established to prevent.

The alternative, or perhaps complementary, approach is to make London more dense, particularly around transport hubs in sprawling, low density outer London. This has actually been pushed for over a decade by Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson with the London Plan, the main planning document for the capital.

There is a lot more to be said about that debate, but it isn’t my purpose with this blog. Instead, I have indulged in one of my hobbies and done a rough-and-ready analysis of the current density across London, by local electoral ward.

My methodology was as follows. I started with the ward boundaries, and the ONS household estimates from 2011. I then chopped out all the areas covered by the land uses which I reasoned we cannot build on.

  • greenbelt
  • metropolitan open land (strongly protected in planning policy)
  • parks, commons, allotments, nature reserves and other important green spaces
  • railway lines with a 5m buffer either side

The data for these came from the London Datastore and extracts from OpenStreetMap.

I considered cutting out areas covered by roads, but then found it would take so long for my software package QGIS to process the data that I’d lose interest! So, given that roads cover pretty much every area, I decided it wouldn’t make a significant difference and left them out.

I also didn’t cut out industrial or commercial areas, for three reasons: first, often commercial buildings have flats above; second, the coverage in OpenStreetMap is too inconsistent; and third, while many should be retained for this use, there are also lots of areas that could be redeveloped for homes, or as mixed-use sites.

So given these caveats, I calculated the number dwellings per hectare of land that could potentially be built on. Here’s the result:

Making parts of London more dense

The green area is all the land that can’t be built on. The rest is coloured from deep red for very high density to light pinky grey for the lowest. I haven’t put a legend on because, well, it’s a very rough approximation. You can see obvious problems with the data, e.g. where Heathrow airport sits, and the Thames Gateway with lots of strategically important industrial land as well as lots of sites for new housing.

So what could densification achieve? Well, let’s say we increase the least dense half of London and brought it all up to the median density. That would increase the number of homes by 815,000!

I haven’t gone any further with these because it is such a rough calculation. If I can get my hands on better data to account for the flaws mentioned, I’ll give it another whirl. But it would be quite interesting to take an area I know really well and look for development sites, and see whether they could be brought up to that median.

Update see part two where I look at density and public transport accessibility.

On migration, population and ecology

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett recently took a strong stance on migration, warning of the dangers that the other parties risk when stoking up public anger about population. She rightly suggested that we shouldn’t blame migrants for problems with the NHS, schools, housing and jobs. Instead, we should be concerned about the failure of misguided economic policies that have caused these problems.

In response, three members of the Green Party wrote a letter to the Guardian saying that they, and many other Greens, are concerned about migration as well as the nasty rhetoric. The authors of the letter wrote:

Many of her party’s supporters are as concerned as the rest of the public about a high level of net immigration, mainly because it is a major contributor to population growth. This adds to the uphill task of protecting our environment and moving the economy to an ecologically sustainable one.

A long list of Greens replied with “dismay” at this letter, and Adam Ramsay wrote his own letter accusing the three authors of the first letter of “demonstrating an outdated 70s environmentalism obsessed with population while ignoring vast inequalities in consumption levels”.

The debate continued with a reply from some members in Devon, who countered:

To be concerned with the impact that world population rising to 9 billion people has on resource availability, pollution, climate change etc is not to be locked in a 1970s time warp. It may have ceased to be the number one issue for some greens, but in terms of the long-term damage to our planet as a habitat for all species, it remains at the forefront.

I want to address this point alone, because it hits a controversial nerve in the Green community. Does population really matter? Should we restrict migration to protect our environment?

I should say that I am not an expert on migration or population, but I have worked for seven years in the connected areas of housing and environment policy. The three authors of the first letter ask us to “read the statistics” in order to pursue “open and honest debate”. I quite agree! So that is what I hope to do in this article.

Does population matter at the global level?

One common starting point is to view our impact on the rest of the natural world as a simple function of our affluence, our technology and our population. We can bring human society more into harmony with the rest of nature by wanting less, improving our technology to get more out of the resources we consume, and by reducing our population.

Life is never quite that simple, of course. How much each person impacts on the rest of the natural world is also a function of our political and economic systems. The “population doesn’t matter” lobby suggest that it is inequality and rampant consumerism that matters, not the total population. They seem to suggest that if we were all more equal and all reduced our impacts, without those rich bankers trashing the planet, then it would be perfectly possible to accommodate nine or ten billion people and lead healthy, happy lives.

So can we really ignore the population factor in these equations? I don’t think we can.

In my previous job at BioRegional I worked a lot with ecological and carbon footprinting, particularly drawing on the technical work of the Global Footprint Network, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change.  Their work tells us that if everyone lived as the average Briton does we would need three planets’ resources to sustain us, and ten times the capacity of the planet to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions.

But it’s not just mega rich bankers in mansions that are living unsustainable lifestyles. Yes, there are vast inequalities in consumption levels, but we are all consuming too much.

One of the projects I worked on at BioRegional was the BedZED eco village in south west London, built to high standards and designed to make it easy for residents to adopt lower impact lifestyles.  Through a monitoring project I worked on, we found that after seven years living there the working class (social tenancy) residents were still living unsustainably. If everyone in the world lived as they did, we would need 2.6 planets’ worth of resources. Their greenhouse gas emissions were also far above a sustainable level.

Blaming it all on consumerism, or assuming we can quite easily get to a sustainable level with a high standard of living, is just burying your head in the sand. If you work in this area for any amount of time, you quickly realise that reducing our environmental impacts to a truly sustainable level is really hard.

Joel Cohen, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, has compiled lots of research by other academics on the question of how many people the earth can support. Most estimates were in the range of one to sixteen billion. What would those different populations mean? The Worldwatch Institute has estimated that we could sustain a global population of 2.1 billion with a “high income” of $36,000 per capita (lower than the US average), or a population of 13.6 billion with a “low income” of $1,230 per capita. It’s worth reflecting on the changes we’d need in the British economy to enable 13.6 billion people to live on an income that is only 5% of a current UK living wage.

Our global population may well peak within this century, rising to 10 billion. If this happens we would each have an allowance of less than a tonne of carbon dioxide. This figure comes from unpublished work done while I was working at BioRegional. As with much of the detail on climate change it is subject to a huge degree of uncertainty – some would say it’s overly pessimistic, others think we should already have negative carbon footprints (i.e. we should be zero carbon and start taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere).

Let’s assume your allowance is in fact under one tonne, as per that work undertaken by colleagues at BioRegional. Let’s also assume that we make big strides towards a renewable electricity grid, and our technology improves as much as we might reasonably expect over the next fifty years. Well that one tonne isn’t even enough to cover the greenhouse gases required for your share of our country’s basic infrastructure – that is, if we divide up the resources needed to run our hospitals, schools and trains, and to build our roads, homes and council offices between everyone so we carry an equal share. It certainly doesn’t leave you with any of your allowance for heating your home and taking the occasional holiday to Cornwall by train. Read this study of London’s footprint to see what I mean. Sustainable lifestyles with a global population of 10 billion, without some incredible new technology, would be hugely challenging and materially impoverished.

If the population stabilised at 5 billion, our allowance would rise to around two tonnes, making it conceivable that with improved technology we could take that one annual British holiday – still materially far poorer than the average Briton today. In terms of other ecological impacts, the consumption of other natural resources would most likely leave almost no space for wildlife and wilderness.

It’s also relevant to know when the population stabilises. If it were to stabilise tomorrow, then fall consistently for the rest of the decade, that suggests a far smaller release of greenhouse gases and a far smaller consumption of natural resources in the 21st century than a population stabilising in 2050 and remaining high to the end of the century.

Now, it is a big step to go from recognising that population is relevant to then advocating population reduction policies. But we have to face up to two truths: first, that the larger the population, the greater the challenge our technology and politics must overcome; and second, that at some point, without radically new technology, a human population surpasses the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

Is migration relevant to this?

The problem for the authors of the first letter (showing concern about migration) is that it clearly shouldn’t concern us whether somebody lives in the UK or Romania when tackling global environmental problems.

If they have the same lifestyle, it makes no difference to the atmosphere where their carbon emissions arise (and indeed much of our impact arises from global supply chains anyway).

It’s possible that migrants move from less affluent countries to the UK, and become more affluent than they would otherwise have been. So their environmental impact rises, making the task of “protecting our environment” more difficult. But I believe it is unjust to move to an ecologically sustainable economy through nationalistic discrimination. We shouldn’t say “you can’t come and enjoy our lifestyles”. We have to find an equitable way for us all to enjoy a decent quality of life within the planet’s constraints. The Green Party’s longstanding commitment to the principle of contraction and convergence  would be undermined if we sought to protect our own affluence and suppress that of others.

Does population matter at the local level?

I’m going to take Greater London as my “local” scale, only because it’s a region I’m knowledgeable about, I live here, have been involved in politics in the city and have suffered the effects of our dysfunctional housing market. It’s also an interesting case study because the population is in the midst of an unprecedented boom.

If we were to assume high net international migration – lots of people moving from abroad into London – this does present dilemmas. I will explore one  local environmental dilemma – the impact of housing on other species’ habitats – though there are many others such as waste, water and air pollution. I’m not going to explore the impact of population on social policy, such as the provision of health care and housing.

I wrote in a previous blog post about the role of migration in London’s housing market in order to debunk the idea that London is sucking people from the rest of the UK. It isn’t. But international migration has been a major contributor to the city’s rapid growth in the past decade. This chart shows that two factors are pushing up our population: more people move from overseas into London than the other way around; and many more “new households” are formed (births, divorces, etc.) than are dissolved (deaths, moving in together, etc.). It also shows that many more people move out from London to the rest of the UK than the other way around – Londoners are fleeing the capital!

household_changes

One stark conclusion I drew in my previous blog post is that, if the population keeps rising like this, we simply have to build more homes. Read the post if you don’t believe me.

Now, the last assessment of land to build homes on carried out in 2009, looking in all of Greater London’s nooks and crannies for brownfield land, allowing a tiny bit of development on greenfield land and assuming optimal urban densities, only found space for around 37,000 homes per year at a stretch. But the Green Party on the Assembly has already found that these assessments don’t take proper account of the habitats on brownfield land, which can be among the most biodiverse sites in the city. Green roofs and walls are nice, but they cannot compensate for the loss of all habitats for all species. So building 37,000 homes a year will already have a negative impact on our local environment.

The Mayor of London now estimates that we need an extra 40,000 homes to be built every year to keep up with the growing population. Our failure to get anywhere near this in the past decade has led to rising overcrowding. Darren Johnson has dug out estimates that we would need to build 44,500 a year if supply was our only way to stabilise prices. So if we want to build another 7,500 a year on top of the 37,000 we might have space for where will they all go? We can either build at higher densities, or we can encroach further on other species’ habitats, including greenfield sites.

So it may be uncomfortable, but the fact is that migration matters when it comes to protecting our local environment. If we had zero net migration, or if we had a lower birth rate, it would be much easier to accommodate ourselves with the rest of the natural world in Greater London.

However, as with global migration, we have to consider justice when deciding what we do with this fact. Do we restrict entry to the UK to protect our local environment? Or do we open our borders completely and accommodate whoever chooses to live here?

We also need to think beyond our local boundaries. To take Romania as an example, being topical because the rules restricting migration to the UK are about to be relaxed, what habitat impacts in Romania are avoided when people move from Pitești to London? Might it be easier to develop an ecologically sustainable economy with a growing population in Pitești than in London? Or is the reverse true? Perhaps it would be better if people move to London, a compact city with falling car usage, or perhaps it would be better if migrants from all corners of the world settled in parts of the UK with large quantities of empty housing? These questions go far beyond my expertise of Romania or any other country, but they shouldn’t be forgotten!

Population matters, but migration doesn’t (much)

My own take on this, going by the facts and the Green Party’s guiding principles, is as follows: population definitely matters, at both a global and local level. Some may want to dismiss this as “outdated 70s environmentalism”, but I have arrived at this conclusion after working with the latest understanding of ecological and carbon footprinting.  There is nothing racist or xenophobic about it. Higher global populations make an ecologically sustainable global society much more difficult, and past a certain point impossible.

But migration shouldn’t really be a major environmental concern at a global level because it probably makes a negligible difference. Insofar as migration increases affluence, this is not a just reason to oppose migration.

At a local level, environmental pressures shouldn’t be so great a concern that, taken alone, they wholly validate the public’s concerns about migration. Pressures on habitats, and perhaps on water, waste management and pollution, are major considerations that we cannot simply dismiss. But if I am honest, at this point I have exhausted my expertise. I instinctively feel that we should be able to accommodate the free movement of labour within a more equal Europe, and to reconcile mass migration with any resulting local environmental pressures. But I am not certain that this is possible, nor am I confident about how to balance these competing demands on public policy.

Finally, this is just my view on one aspect of wide and complicated debates. I’d encourage you to read and think about this subject more, and discuss it. For example, here is an interesting article suggesting that liberal migration policies help people affected by climate change to adapt. Here’s another by Violeta Vajda reminding us that immigration is about human experiences as well as bare facts. I think it’s a shame that the tone of debates such as this can quickly turn nasty, with people seeking to shut down debate and insult each other rather than to seek understanding and consensus.

Two false hopes that won’t solve London’s housing crisis

Darren Johnson has issued a report arguing that building new homes can’t solve London’s housing crisis alone. He suggests the Mayor should consider other solutions including smart regulations for the private rented sector, taxing land values and setting up land auctions.

But there are two policies you won’t see in his list. Two policies that Greens often bring up in discussions about housing. I wanted to take some time this evening to explain why I think we should talk about them a little less, and in a very different light.

Before I launch in, I would heartily recommend this blog entry by Liz Emerson as an overview of the sources of our housing crisis, to give an idea of why we need to act. The Green Party’s policy platform is chock-full of good ideas to rectify this, but when it comes to building new homes I think Greens sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the argument, and sometimes put forward two ideas that frankly aren’t good enough.

I have to make clear – while I worked with Darren on his report I am writing this blog entry in a personal capacity, and this should in no way be taken as reflecting Darren’s views, those of my employer the GLA or of the Green Party.

I also have to make clear that this blog is about London. The national picture is bound to be quite different, but I think many of the basic points still hold.

We should use empty homes before building new ones

The claim runs as follows: there are lots of empty homes in London, we should be making better use of them before building new homes.

Thr problem: It’s true that there are lots of empty homes in London, and that it would be good if we could make use of them. But there aren’t nearly enough to make new housebuilding unnecessary. Not even close.

The latest figures from Empty Homes show that there were 74,811 empty homes in November 2011. But of those, only 29,540 were empty for more than six months. A home empty for a shorter period of time could well be in the middle of renovation or waiting for tenants. So fewer than 1% of homes in London are empty for long periods of time – not very many, is it?

Empty homes are also often quite hard to bring into use. They can be in a bad way, on housing estates awaiting demolition, or owned by some grumpy absentee landlord. Councils, the Mayor and the Government all try to solve these problems, and they could definitely try harder. Our 2012 manifesto pledged to:

Set up a clearing house to offer all publicly owned derelict land to Community Land Trusts and to make all suitable publicly-owned empty homes available to self-help co-operatives to bring them back into short-life or permanent use.

But it would be a tall order to bring every last empty home into use, and to stop any more becoming empty for more than six months.

What’s more, the experts who advised the Government and the Mayor on housing need recommended that we need between 33,100 and 44,700 homes every year for twenty years just to deal with overcrowding and stabilise house prices. So those 29,540 long-term empty homes would deliver at most one year’s supply, leaving at least another 630,000 homes to build over the following nineteen years.

We should re-balance the UK away from London

The policy claim: there are another 250,000 long-term empty homes elsewhere in the UK, and if prices in London are so overcooked because it’s where all the jobs are, then we should give other regions a big economic boost to re-balance the nation.  This way lots of people would move away to Plymouth, Preston and Perth, the market would settle down in London and the south east and we could make better use of the housing stock elsewhere.

The first problem with this argument is that there is already quite a large net flow of people out of London. This diagram from the GLA’s strategic housing market assessment neatly illustrates the point:

The need for housing isn’t coming from job-hungry Yorkshiremen, but from Londoners having lots of babies at a faster rate than people are dying, and from a large net migration from outside the UK. This has changed slightly during the recession for various interesting reasons, but the basic direction of movement remains. A lot of those people leaving are retired, or moving out to commuter towns to raise families. So in fact we would need to persuade even more people to leave London to seek work elsewhere, persuade Londoners not to have so many children, and persuade far more international migrants to settle elsewhere.

The second problem is that these very big changes are far beyond the wit of the Mayor of London and local councils. We can certainly talk about these big trends and our ideas for the national Government. But when the Conservative or Labour government continues to fail to grapple with these trends, we have to be ready to say what we would do if elected in Camden, Lewisham and Bromley. It’s not good enough to throw up our hands and complain about the Government’s economic strategy.

Sticking to the facts

We can definitely say we should do more to bring empty homes back into use, and to re-balance the UK’s economy to boost the north, west, Wales and Scotland. I don’t agree with those who tend to write these ideas off because they are so fixed on new housing supply being the silver bullet. There is no silver bullet, Darren’s work shows that in no uncertain terms. We need every good idea we can get.

But we cannot pretend that they would be sufficient to meet London’s chronic housing need and that they are therefore a reason not to build new homes. Doing so makes us as guilty as those who pretend we can solve climate change and carry on flying more and more if we just build some nuclear power stations and insulate our lofts. We know that the facts don’t support the waffly half-hearted policies of other parties on climate change, so we should be sure that the facts support our policies on housing.

There are often issues with new housing developments. They can be on unsuitable land that should be protected for farming (or they can be on useless pony fields for little princesses); they can be low density car-dependent suburbs (or smart extensions with good transport links); they can feature too little affordable housing (or at least get some built in areas that desperately need it). But we must build housing in parts of the country where the need for housing is greater than the stock available. The social and economic costs are so severe that it should be one of our highest priorities to ensure this happens.

We needn’t be slaves to the market – we can advocate building council and co-operative housing for example – but we also cannot be the party of wealthy elderly councillors blocking housing needed by younger constituents as the Integenerational Foundation has warned.

London’s natural geography

I’ve been playing around with open data from OpenStreetMap and Natural England to make a pretty map of “green and blue infrastructure” in London. Here’s the result:

You can download a PDF version suitable for printing here: natural_london.

I’m pretty happy with the result, my first real attempt to produce something useful with QGIS. The data I used was:

There’s no reason the Natural England data couldn’t be manually added to OpenStreetMap, giving us a complete dataset of natural features. I just chose to get on and do it this way rather than wait, or try to add all the data across areas of the city I don’t know well and am not going to visit any time soon. I also didn’t really need to use the Ordnance Survey data for boundaries, but it’s slightly more accurate and complete than OpenStreetMap data.

The map is probably missing lots of smaller patches of green space, including grass verges, green roofs and biodiverse brownfield sites. The biggest omission is the humble private garden. They cover 24% of London’s land!

But the map at least shows the more obvious, visible, public green spaces, and is a nice example of what a geek with no GIS training (but years of playing with OpenStreetMap) can do with free software and free data these days.

Routing around pollution – any help?

While we’re benefiting from all this rain in London, which keeps air pollution at bay, I’ve been wondering about including pollution data in OpenStreetMap-based routing engines. The trouble is that I lack the technical skills to implement this, so I’m writing this post in the hope that somebody might be inspired to give it a go.

Another hazy air pollution episode in London

Air pollution is the second biggest cause of premature deaths in the UK after smoking. Here’s a little league table of nasties taken from Department of Health data:

Smoking – 87,000 premature deaths per year
Air pollution – 29,000
Alcohol – 22,000
Obesity – 9,000

The main pollutants in cities are particulates (PM10, PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and nitrogen oxide (NO). Unlike the pea souper fogs of years gone by, these are invisible to the human eye but very deadly. They’re most concentrated on busy congested roads and around airports – so unsurprisingly in central London, around Heathrow and City airports, and in congestion hot spots dotted around the rest of London. We have some of the worst air pollution in Europe.

Long term exposure to these critters is obviously a bad thing, so it would be nice if we could find routes to walk or cycle without being affected. To some extent it’s just a matter of avoiding main roads, but some are much worse than others and in central London there are plenty of non-A roads that should be avoided as well.

WalkIt has a neat little feature that lets you choose a “low pollution” route. This basically tries to avoid roads with high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide. But it doesn’t cover the whole of the city, it doesn’t take account of nitrogen oxide or particulates, and it’s only for pedestrians.

So… who fancies taking the London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory maps, delivered in 20m grid shapefiles, and plugging them into one of the various OpenStreetMap routing engines to provide a walking & cycling “avoid polluted roads” option for London?

Bonus points could go to anyone who uses live data from the London Air Quality Network and Defra’s air quality monitoring web site (with its latest readings from a few monitoring stations) to give more or less priority depending on conditions.