Guest Contributor Cameron Appel is a junior at Columbia University majoring in economics and urban studies. He grew up in the UK and is interested in global politics and sustainable urban development.
The United Kingdom is facing a housing crisis, and the country’s future and the livelihood of its citizens rely on finding a solution. The crisis itself can be explained quite easily: princes are astronomical due to a shortfall of supply. House prices in Britain increased by a factor of 3.36 between 1998 and 2014 and by a factor of 4.24 in London, while real net disposable income per capita grew by only 19.6% over the same period. Conservative estimates suggest that it is necessary to build new houses at a rate of 260,000 per year to stabilise affordability, while in 2015/16 only 190,000 were completed: in short, not enough houses are being built.
The need for new houses is worst in Britain’s most thriving cities like London and Liverpool, which are also usually the least affordable. A report by the Royal Town and Planning Institute states that “a nation’s prosperity is dependent on its cities’ success. In many countries, cities produce more output per worker than average and more output within growing economic sectors. They can also be more environmentally sustainable”. Failure to build the necessary houses in Britain’s cities will preclude further growth as people and business get priced out, which leads to economic decline. The UK is set to become more economically isolated after it leaves the EU, making the success and economic attractiveness of its cities more important than ever before.
Many potential solutions to the crisis have been proposed by various organisations and commentators, but most agree that the main factor limiting supply is the paucity of land available for development in the nation’s cities. No one has felt this pressure more than Londoners, who elected their current mayor, Sadiq Khan, largely based on his promise to deliver affordable housing, which he described as “the single biggest barrier to prosperity, growth, and fairness facing Londoners today”. In a first draft housing strategy for London published in late 2017, Khan outlined his plan to increase the supply of land in London. He aims to prioritise development on brownfield sites, encourage public sector landowners to release more land for housing, and invest in infrastructure to unlock new sites: effectively, Khan aims to densify London. The extent of these measures, however, is not sufficient to meet the growing demand and ensure affordability, nor is it necessarily desirable from an urban planning perspective.
To provide enough houses, cities must either grow upwards or outwards. Britain’s major cities are surrounded by 1.6 million hectares of Green Belt land, which is designed “to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open” from inappropriate development. This policy for controlling urban growth is not only outdated, but it necessarily restricts the supply of land available for development and prevents cities from growing outwards. Many policymakers have called for a loosening of these restrictions, while others suggest that it should be scrapped completely. Focusing on London, one study found that there is enough space for up to 1 million houses in the almost 20,000 hectares of Green Belt land within 800 meters (or a ten-minute walk) of existing railway stations with links to the city. As well as densifying the cities, a simple solution would be to develop and densify the Metropolitan Green Belt towns surrounding them.
However, the UK uses a system of town and country planning known as “development control”, whereby local planning authorities regulate land use and new buildings, and development requires planning permission on a case-by-case basis. These local authorities are independent and distinct entities, and their motives and interests do not necessarily align with those of the city. This presents a systemic problem in that the solution to the housing crisis requires cooperation between local planning areas and the city. The mayor’s jurisdiction and the scope of his strategy end at the edge of Greater London, the boundary of which was last expanded in 1965, while the solution to the housing crisis lies beyond the city’s borders and the mayor’s authority.
The question then raised is how to align the concerns of Britain’s cities with the local interests of its surrounding Metropolitan Green Belt towns, and how to incentivise cooperation between them. As housing prices creep toward boiling point and the spectre of Brexit looms in Britain’s collective consciousness, the country’s future is becoming increasingly unclear; one thing that is clear, however, is that the housing crisis begs immediate attention.