Traffic reduction in Crystal Palace and Anerley

One of my top priorities for the Crystal Palace and Anerley area would have to be traffic reduction. Every day on my way home from work, walking back from the station or cycling down the hill, this is what I see:

Traffic in Crystal Palace and Anerley

The crawling queues are similar around the Triangle and down the other main roads in the area. This is bad news, if only because it’s annoying to be stuck in traffic! Plus, it snarls up buses and makes them less reliable.

Here is another pair of pictures, this time showing air pollution in the area.

anerley-road-pollution

The map on the left shows the quantity of deadly nitrogen dioxide emitted by vehicles each day, and in case you’re wondering the dark blue along Crystal Palace Parade is about the same as the Strand in central London, while the pollution down Anerley Hill is similar to that on the roads leading north from Kings Cross and Euston. The map on the right shows the stretches of road that are predicted to still exceed legal health limits for nitrogen dioxide in 2020, and the bus stops near them.

The main cause of all this pollution is traffic, particularly vehicles idling in queues. We have to walk along these roads to catch a train, wait there to catch a bus, sit out next to it on a sunny day with a pint down the pub. It retards lung development in children, increases the chance of asthma and makes the symptoms worse, and can exacerbate heart conditions. After smoking, it’s the second biggest cause of premature death in London.

So less traffic would mean healthier, more pleasant streets with more reliable buses.

Solutions

So how do we reduce traffic?

The first solution is to give people a good alternative to driving. That’s one reason why I support the Space for Cycling campaign. Besides making the area safer and more pleasant for cyclists, and we could also remove pavement clutter and improve the streetscape to making walking nicer (as the Anerley Regeneration Project are doing). Bromley also needs to embrace car clubs – there are parking bays scattered across surrounding boroughs, but they disappear when you come into the wilds of Tory Bromley. Fewer people would need to own a car if there were more club cars.

A lot of the traffic isn’t even local, we’re just a through-route for people, so we also need TfL to get back to thinking about traffic reduction. Since he was elected, Boris Johnson has actually scrapped or reversed policies that were supposed to reduce traffic. From 2000 to 2012, traffic actually fell across Greater London despite the population growing by one million people and the economy (mostly) booming. Now TfL expect traffic to start rising again.

Finally, we need to block development that encourages even more vehicle traffic. That means stopping the crazy proposed hotel and conference centre in the park, making sure new flats are built with minimal car parking. Some people worry this will cause parking problems, but with the above policies it doesn’t need to. More than half the households in this area already don’t own a car.

Without a clear vision like this, we’ll just drift into ever increasing congestion and pollution.

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.

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.

Who built all that housing in England?

A couple of years ago I included a chart of house building in a blog post arguing that young people shouldn’t necessarily support the removal of planning controls. The chart covered the period from 1955 to 2010, and showed that:

The only time  that the UK has seen house building match demand, and kept housing affordable, was when councils built in huge volumes from the 1950s to 1970s. If you think price bubbles are all about supply, explain the continued volatility of house prices through the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

People who want to see a massive expansion in house building can have their spirits dampened in other ways. Christopher Buckle from Savills wrote an interesting blog post suggesting that, on that house building data from the 1950s to the present day, a major boom looks very unlikely. He wrote:

If private sector housing delivery grew by 7.5% every year until 2017, a period of 7 years unbroken expansion from 2010, output would reach 133,000 new homes per year.  This would still be 10,000 new homes per year short of the average level of delivery seen over the 50 years prior to the credit crunch.  Such a sustained period of expansion has not been seen since the 1950s.

But the charts used by me and Buckle didn’t cover the 1930s, a time when private builders erected more than two million homes, almost twice as many as they managed in the 2000s and when the population was much larger.

Back to the 1930s

Those who think we need to tear up the planning system to solve our housing crisis often refer to the 1930s as a golden age. So I’ve produced a chart that goes all the way back to 1923 for homes built in England:

Who built all that housing?

I have had to combine two slightly different data sources for this. The period from 1923-1945 comes from  BR Mitchell’s Abstract of British Historical Statistics (which start in 1923), and the period from 1946-2011 from official government statistics (table 244) which also includes figures for housing associations. This is a bit naughty, but it’s the best I can do.

This shows that there was indeed an explosion of private sector house building in the 1930s, jumping from 144,505 homes in 1932 to 210,782 in the following year.

The role that councils played

But it also shows that councils were still a big force, a point made more clearly by this chart showing the proportion of the total homes built by housing associations, councils and private builders:

housing-supply-1923-2011-proportions

During the 1930s, councils still built a quarter of the homes. That rose to a whopping 73% in the 1940s (not surprising given there was a war on), 64% in the 1950s, and around 40% in the 1960s-70s. In 1997, the year Labour came back into office councils only built 0.2% of homes. Housing associations to some extent stepped into their shoes, but in the 1990s and 2000s they only built 14% of the homes.

Based on this data, and a lot of other reasons, I think there are three arguments for councils building more homes if we are to contain housing costs:

  1. These homes will be affordable to the tenants from day one, and in perpetuity, whatever happens in the market.
  2. In the twentieth century, the only periods during which we built enough homes saw a very significant role for council homes.
  3. Councils building more will expand the construction industry so introducing greater economies of scale and potentially improving skills.

A final note of caution

However, I wouldn’t want to say this is an open and shut case, nor deny I have other reasons for supporting council housing.

It is too easy to draw very simplistic conclusions, and to then make a tenuous connection in order to propose quite radical policies. This is what I think is happening with the romanticism about the 1930s suburbs.

There is a similarity between this debate and that of rent controls, in which we often make comparisons between the UK rented sector and Germany’s. It’s interesting that Germany has a very successful and highly regulated rental sector, and relevant given that Conservative, Labour and coalition governments since the 1980s have opposed those sorts of regulations. But there are many other differences between the countries. Similarly, there are many differences between the UK today and in the 1930s.

Can we have a major private housebuilding boom, as we had in the 1930s, regardless of Buckle from Savill’s gloom about the period from the 1950s to the present day? Brian Green wrote a good blog post in 2011 arguing that a 1930s housing boom seems unlikely. He wrote:

I sense a new romantic surge of interest in the notion of a private-sector-led house-building boom driving economic recovery. But… there were huge differences…

I’d recommend reading his post for his full list of reasons, I won’t quote them at length here. The gist is that in the 1930s you had a large number of new potential home buyers, plentiful cheap credit, low land costs, little demand from landlords and investors and a housing market that was very affordable. His conclusion:

It would seem that if we want a new house-building boom we will need a far more ingenious and powerful set of market prompts than promoting a greater availability of higher loan-to-value mortgages, freeing up planning and continuing to supply mortgages at low interest rates.

You can draw your own conclusions from the data I have presented, and the links to the articles by Buckle and Green.

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.

Mapping for pedestrians

One of the odd things about contributing to OpenStreetMap is that you have no idea who is using the maps and the data. You spend hours, weeks, months, years even building up a wonderfully comprehensive database of geographic features in the area, all because it’s fun, because you believe in the project’s ideals or you need the data for your own project. But does anyone else use it? It would be depressing if the answer was “no”.

So I get cheered every time I see documents like this:

That’s an excerpt from a presentation by Southwark Living Streets. They took the Mayor of London’s transport advisor around Elephant & Castle to show how unfriendly and dangerous the area is for pedestrians, and illustrated the whole thing with OpenStreetMap. The chap who made this loves OSM, he told me he realised how useful it could be when he noticed we had put in all the footpaths through estates, making OSM the only map that reflects the reality for pedestrians in the area.

It was our coverage of footpaths that led to OpenStreetMap being used by parents challenging a school’s decision that they were outside the catchment area.

I also regularly see OSM used by cycling campaigners, for example this presentation on a cycling campaign that’s also about the Elephant & Castle area.

Then there was my collaboration with residents local to the Heygate Estate who wanted to map the trees that under threat from the redevelopment of the estate. That, I’m happy to say, has resulted in many of the mature trees being protected in the new plans.

So we have useful maps, and powerful tools for community campaigns if there’s an OSM expert about to help out.

But as I wrote last year, there’s a whole other world of data we could be adding, especially for groups concerned with streets that are designed for pedestrians and cyclists.

ITO have been beavering away on lots of amazing maps that show off this kind of data. These are two maps showing the “walkable city” on the left (the blue lines show footpaths and pavements broken up by black roads) and speed limits on the right (green is for 20 mph, orange for 30 mph).

Here are a few in an area I’ve done some work on, just to show what’s possible:

With a few tweaks to the Potlatch 2 editor on the OpenStreetMap homepage, anyone could easily add all this metadata to streets. There are presets for speed limits and surfaces, but not – yet – for sidewalks. If we could get them in – here’s the enhancement request – I think all those community campaigners already using screenshots of OpenStreetMap might just get interested in contributing data.

How great would it be if Southwark Living Streets could print out a special “walkable city” map of Elephant & Castle for their next presentation to the Mayor of London’s transport advisor?

Southwark’s cycling revolution

Those who are inclined to compromise can never make a revolution – Kemal Ataturk

Every day I set off on my bike for a pleasant three mile commute to work. I love cycling around London, it’s cheap and fun, and I particularly enjoy the spring when lots of “fair weather cyclists” swell our ranks along cycle routes.

Much of London is crap to cycle around, but politicians of all colours claim to support a “cycling revolution”. To achieve that, you’d need to make people from all walks of life feel safe – the number one barrier – and make cycling seem pleasant.

Southwark Council did an audit of their roads recently and found that it was impossible to get further than a few hundred metres without using a road requiring “advanced” cycling skills. You need to be happy using “busy roads” with “complex junctions and road features” to cycle to school, to the shops or to work. Not much good, is it?

For a graphic illustration, watch this BBC journalist’s video cycling around Peckham.

The manifesto for a revolution

If we really want a “cycling revolution”, in which grannies and kids and beginners and road warriors all feel happy cycling around London, we need the right roads. Southwark cyclists have drawn up some great policy on road design. They state, right at the top, the need for:

Safe cycling on main roads, whether Transport for London’s roads or borough roads, by wherever possible, segregated and protected cycle lanes which are at least 1.5 metres wide but preferably wider; where not possible, because of road widths or other factors, maximum traffic speeds of 20 mph, well enforced by speed cameras or otherwise, or other safety features endorsed by a reliable road safety audit; and bicycle friendly junctions.

In other words, make it possible to get around on less busy roads, or to get around well protected on busy roads, with road junctions and features that an inexperienced cyclist could navigate.

So you would imagine a council committed to a cycling revolution is putting in cycle lanes, reducing traffic speeds and making sure junctions are friendly for cyclists, particularly on major cycle routes. Sadly, recent decisions by Southwark Council are making things worse.

Peckham Rye west, heading north

This is a stretch of road I use every day heading north into Peckham town centre (map link). It’s not quite on the London Cycle Network route 22, but a lot of people use this main road coming up from Honor Oak, Forest Hill and East Dulwich towards town. It had a 30mph speed limit and no cycle lanes, so obviously needed some work to fit with Southwark Cyclists’ policy.

The council recently carried out some road works here. Can you spot the difference?

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They have widened the pavement on the left hand side of these pictures. That’s it. The net effect is that there is less space for cars and buses to overtake cyclists.

The council’s reasoning is that cyclists should share the road with cars here, joining the main stream of traffic instead of hugging the kerb. But the road has a 30mph speed limit. Who cycles that fast? Who is confident enough to hold up a white van man on a 30mph road? Almost nobody, that’s who. Every day I see cyclists weaving through traffic jams and putting up with cars hurtling past at 30mph. My wife, a recent convert to the bike, hates this stretch of road.

As for the pavement, it’s a lightly used stretch that was already comfortably wide enough. If anything, the council could have taken the decision to introduce safe cycle lanes on this road. I would even have supported them nipping a thin strip off the common if needs be, because there is no safe and pleasant space for cyclists on this main road.

Peckham Rye east, past Scylla Road

Cyclists heading south towards Nunhead and Crofton Park get to stay on the London Cycle Network route 22 the whole way down this road (map link). Cyclists heading that way used to face a useless little bypass that separated them from the stream of traffic for a few metres when the road diverged with its east and west branches. Heading west (off the right side of the picture) you’d get cars cutting across you thinking you were going east the same as them. Heading east down the little bypass you’d emerge for a few metres only to find cars cutting across you to turn left into Scylla Road (the so-called “left hook”).

The council decided to improve this by moving the bypass onto the pavement and making it much longer. For me, heading west, it at least makes it obvious that if I’m on the road I’m heading west. People heading east are probably going to use the bypass. I thought it sounded like a good solution. But…

Here you have it. They have made the bypass longer – great – but made it virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the pavement. Can you see a cycle lane? What’s worse, you now come off this lane straight onto a junction with Scylla Road with no clear priority – are you supposed to wait for cars turning into Scylla Road, or can you move off and make them wait? Every evening cyclists and cars get into a pickle with this one. You can just make out a cyclist in this photo, who had to suddenly brake as a small 4×4 pulled right across her.

Long gone is the cycle lane across the mouth of Scylla Road giving cyclists clear right of way.

Peckham Rye east, heading south

This final stretch of road is just a few metres further down from the Scylla Road junction. It used to feature a nice dedicated cycle lane, breaking only for the bus stop further down the road. A pro-cycling council would have removed that car parking and put in a safe cycle lane for people heading north on this cycle route, right?

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Sadly, wrong. The council have removed the cycle lane, even though there is ample space, and left the car parking intact. They now expect cyclists to head down a 30mph road without any safe dedicated space.

Apparently most people supported this

In their report to councillors, officers stated that 93% of people supported the changes. This is because the consultation asked for an agree/disagree view on all the positive changes. Several people – myself included – naively said we liked the proposals subject to some changes but these views were simply reported as “agree”.  Their headline figures disguised the amount of disagreement with the details, and with the wider problems people experience.

I put in a Freedom of Information Request asking for the full responses, and got it remarkably quickly. Here are a few excerpts:

There is a major problem with the proposals for junction of Peckham Rye East and Scylla Road. The cycle bypass cars turn left onto Peckham Rye East and then immediate left onto Scylla Road straight across the cycle lane, without properly checking for cyclists. These proposals do not solve this. Cars should be prevented from using Syclla Road and Old James Street as a cut through to Nunhead Lane.

I believe that this is the wrong way to tackle this danger and unlikely to be effective.

I think it is worse for pedestrians that the road will be 2 way at that point with no island, as I think islands make it a lot easier to cross.

We would like to ensure that this scheme seeks to calm these sections of road to 20mph. Given the ambition of the borough for its roads to become 20 mph and especially the borough roads which it controls, we are concerned that there is insufficient calming.

The current designs could make the rat run, speeding and dangerous left hooks more common, onto a road with a church and a primary school.

The designs miss the opportunity to create a more coherent network of cycle lanes along roads that form part of a strategic London Cycle Network route. Currently they stop and start, sometimes with dashed lines and sometimes mandatory solid lines. This creates a confusing and unpleasant environment, particularly for less experienced cyclists.

The lead officer very kindly debated the merits of the scheme via email, and met Southwark Cyclists on site to make some last minute changes that improved the scheme. But the underlying problems in the area, and the tendency to compromise on cycle safety and pleasantry for the sake of cars, were never up for debate.

It’s council policy, so please change it

Since these works were carried out Peter John, the Leader of Southwark Council, wrote a blog post responding to The Times’ safer cycling campaign. He said:

I recognise that if we are going to persuade people to cycle and really increase the number of journeys made by bike, we need to make the routes for cyclists around the borough as safe as possible.

The trouble is that the council’s own Transport Plan includes the very policies that led to these crazy decisions on Peckham Rye, decisions that are being replicated in other parts of the borough. Their rejection of cycle routes and cycle lanes in the Transport Plan even led to the London Cycle Network being airbrushed out of draft local planning policy for the Peckham and Nunhead area.

Until Peter John amends his Transport Plan to reflect Southwark Cyclists’ policies, and delivers similar changes to this planning document, his pledge to “make the routes for cyclists… as safe as possible” will ring hollow. The revolution will continue to be stymied by compromise for the sake of cars.

Green doesn’t need to mean gentrification

Jim Gleeson has an interesting blog entry about the consequences of making a city more liveable. In short, there is a danger that making an area more liveable can price out lower income people. By reducing air pollution and generally improving the local environment in more deprived areas,  richer people will start to move in displacing the people who should have benefitted.

His prescription is more housing supply to accompany environmental improvements. But we need to think a bit more carefully about this to get the medicine right for places like London.

As he points out, the economic benefits of making an area more desirable will largely go to existing home owners and landlords as the value of the land, and therefore the rent they can charge, increases. Lower income people will be forced to move, presumably (according to Jim’s argument) to less liveable areas. Council and housing association tenants who are secure in their homes gain a nicer environment, but they have no direct stake in the increased value of the land their homes sit on.

Building more homes as Jim suggests could help to keep prices down, meaning less of a windfall gain for land owners and possibly more stable rents. But in practice, due to London’s policy of “mixed and balanced communities”, deprived areas tend to see council housing demolished and replaced overwhelmingly with housing for sale in order to “balance out” the social “mix” of people in the area. There’s no way anyone with an average income and average wealth would be able to buy a new flat in most areas of London on the open market.

The flats will be bought by wealthier-than-average people, and probably many then let on the private market, with a good number of those subsidised by housing benefit. So while more supply might dampen the economic consequences of making an area more liveable, and while it might spread the wealth a little more widely, the economic benefits will still mostly go to wealthier people.

You would need to increase house building across London to 50% higher than Boris Johnson’s aspirational target just to stabilise prices. It would be interesting to know whether there is enough spare land and available development finance to raise supply levels high enough in order to gradually reduce prices so that the benefits of new homes would be principally accrued by ordinary Londoners.

But there are other ways in which we can reduce unequal access to nice local environments while maintaining or reducing levels of economic inequality. Housing supply is undoubtedly part of the picture, but policies need to be a bit more sophisticated to achieve this aim.

One simple policy would be to try to build lots more council housing in wealthier areas that already enjoy high environmental quality. That would require a government to reinstate an adequate housing capital budget; the new budget for London in 2011-15 is two-thirds lower than than the budget for 2008-11!

Another would be to ensure all the new housing is put into the control of a Community Land Trust, which owns the land and so can keep homes permanently affordable. Members of the Trust, usually a co-operative, use any rise in land values to benefit the local community and not private individuals. To date, there is only one example of this in London – Coin Street. Despite valiant efforts and credible plans from various other communities, the HCA, GLA and government have done little to make this concept happen.

A third more radical solution – radical as in dealing with the root of the problem (from radix, Latin for ‘root’) – would be to bring back taxation on land. Winston Churchill and Lloyd George both tried, and failed, to do this at the turn of the 20th century. They were blocked by wealthy landowners in the Lords, whose ancestors got rid of them as the power of the Crown diminished.

We have a tax system that raises income off hard work and consumer goods, and that leaves people to rake in huge gains from increases in land values and capital gains with comparatively little or no tax. If we brought back “schedule A” taxes, land values wouldn’t rise so much, the benefits could be clawed back for investment in affordable housing, all local residents could therefore benefit including council tenants, and people might be encouraged to invest their savings in productive stocks and shares rather than dead bricks and mortar.

These solutions have all been applied in the not-too-distant past. But as with the debate over the National Planning Policy Framework, they seem to get overlooked in simplistic debates over false choices like “housing supply vs. conservation”.

Jim’s post is much more sophisticated, looking at the relationship between environmental improvements and the housing market. But his prescription – more supply – needs to be equally sophisticated to ensure that we deliver environmental and social justice side by side.