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Boris Johnson: Does BoJo have the mojo to turn the housing crisis around?

29 Jul 2019

Boris Johnson: Does BoJo have the mojo to turn the housing crisis around?

With a new prime minister, a new secretary of state for housing, communities and local government and a tenth housing minister in as many years, what can we expect from a Johnson-led government on housing?

In his first speech in Downing Street on Wednesday, the new PM outlined a vision of “giving millions of young people the chance to own their own homes”.

Based on his record as mayor of London, that could mean a focus on building more affordable homes. Figures from Johnson’s two terms as mayor show that between April 2008 and March 2016 there were 101,525 affordable homes completed in London, more than under Ken Livingstone. However, critics say the definition of affordable housing was widened in 2011 so the figures are not directly comparable, while the target in the capital for affordable housing was also reduced in 2011 from an average of 23,300 a year to 13,200 a year.

Nevertheless, the fact that Sir Ed Lister has been installed as the new PM’s chief of staff suggests increasing the numbers of affordable homes will be a priority.  Lister not only served as Johnson’s deputy mayor driving housing policy, but his most recent post was chair of Homes England where affordable housing was a key intention. So we could expect to see further announcements shortly on the Conservative commitment to deliver 200,000 discounted starter homes over the next four years for first-time buyers.

But housebuilding overall needs to increase too. The shortage of supply is a major stumbling block preventing potential homeowners getting a foot on the housing ladder.

The government has set a target of building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s but we’re miles away from even getting close to that number – official figures published earlier this month showed that only 169,770 homes were completed in the year to March 2019, while other figures suggest England has a backlog of 3.91 million homes, meaning 340,000 new homes need to be built each year until 2031.

More clues as to Johnson’s views may be found in his endorsement, when leadership contender, of a report by the Policy Exchange, the think tank. This report argued there are too many plots of land in UK cities that are wasted on sites currently occupied by single-storey big-box retail, surface car-parking and industrial sheds. In London alone, the report found there are more than 1,200 such sites with a total area of more than 6,100 hectares. These sorts of sites could be redeveloped as mixed-use neighbourhoods, retaining existing commercial uses while accommodating between 250,000 and 300,000 new homes, resulting in an urban pattern of medium-rise “London-like neighbourhoods”.

The report also recommended that 15 new towns should be built along the major transport routes extending out of London, with development corporations established where appropriate, to lead the delivery of each new town, with responsibility for land assembly, local planning and securing partnerships with the private sector.

Johnson has previously hinted in his newspaper column that he favours renewed efforts to exhaust brownfield before encroaching on the green belt, but because the amount of brownfield or industrial land in cities is limited, he should be bold and consider development of green-belt land.  Much of the land defined as green belt is actually a misnomer: far from the bucolic image it conjures, much of it is either brownfield – previously-used land that includes buildings such as military bases or old aircraft hangers — or golf courses and arable farmland. As Paul Cheshire, professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics has pointed out, more land in Surrey is actually devoted to golf courses than houses.

The good news, too, is that not much of this land would be required. Professor Cheshire points out that green belt across England has declined by only 0.1% in the past 10 years. And, according to the Adam Smith Institute, London’s housing crisis could be eased by building 1 million new homes on the 3.7% of current green belt within walking distance of a railway station.

The political climate at present – not to mention the unpredictability of a Johnson premiership – means the UK could face another general election in the not-too-distant future, and Johnson may fear that proposing development on green belt will hardly be welcomed by Conservative stalwarts. Yet Johnson has portrayed himself as a One Nation Conservative – what better way to prove those credentials by taking a bold stand that would truly address the country’s housing shortage.

Clive Docwra is Managing Director of McBains, a consulting and design agency specialising in property, infrastructure and construction with operations in the UK and Europe

Article & image source: Housing Today

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