GLA housing chief James Murray pledges action on viability assessments

Friday 18 November 2016

The GLA is forging ‘alliances’ across the industry and is poised to publish new Supplementary Planning Guidance to end the ‘confusion, uncertainty and delays’ caused by viability assessments.

It is also focusing on build to rent as a delivery model and more offsite construction across tenures and price points – whilst ensuring that London’s growth can be seen as a benefit to ordinary Londoners, rather than something they simply ‘observe and get frustrated by’.

That was according to deputy mayor for housing and residential development James Murray as he made the keynote speech at an NLA conference on housing earlier this week.

Murray said he had been busy building a coalition, consensus and alliance right across London in the last six months, aimed at building the homes we need, and bolstered by a good relationship formed with housing minister Gavin Barwell. ‘The thing that I hope the government is open to now which we strongly support from City Hall is that, if we’re going to raise supply significantly, the only way we’re going to have a chance of doing that is by supporting different tenures at different prices, and through different delivery models to get those homes built’, he said. That means homes to buy and rent, at market level and below it, and by supporting different delivery mechanisms, Murray having been encouraged by the Housing White Paper’s support for off site and forthcoming announcements on its accelerated delivery. The consensus was that land is a key issue at the crux of housing supply, and the GLA needs to lead on bringing forward public land more quickly than it had done in the past, said Murray. Smaller sites will be identified across London, to support more small and medium sized builders, while TfL’s and GLA’s CPO powers need to be streamlined and merged together, and the GLA has made a case for London getting more of the national investment programme in affordable housing. Finally, Murray said that a new SPG later this autumn will go some way to providing greater clarity, consistency and a common approach when it comes to determining the affordable housing contribution developments should make. Although nothing is ‘pinned down’ yet, the figure of 35% has been talked about, said Murray, as a fixed contribution to avoid getting tied up in lengthy viability negotiations. ‘Is that a way forward for us beyond the difficulties we have experienced recently?’ asked Murray. Finally, Murray said design had to be a major consideration if higher densities are to be built, in a housing crisis whose solutions are built on consensus in what is ‘a marathon, not a sprint’.

The situation currently is certainly dark, however, said Professor Christine Whitehead, Emeritus Professor of Housing Economics at LSE, with at least 55,000 homes needed in London for the next 25 years, and which even then would not help young couples. Projections show that almost no single people now live alone, said Whitehead, with admittedly positive announcements from government being just that, announcements rather than resources or change. ‘The sums look large’, she said. ‘They are tiny’. Does the Chancellor believe we have a crisis, in which case we have an emergency package of offsite construction?

L&Q chief executive and chair of G15 David Montague said he felt the opportunities outweigh the challenges, however, with a shift away from home ownership and a promised state-backed programme that is the largest since the 1970s. But ‘all roads lead to land’ as the main issue, he said, and London needed the confidence of land continuing to come forward. But while building places where people want to be is also a simple, fundamental need, said Peabody executive director John Lewis, perhaps the Green Belt could be something that could be reassessed, said the National Housing Federation’s Dave Smith.

The conference also heard from Legal & General Capital head of housing James Lidgate, who said modular and offsite construction is not the only solution. But it is part of the ‘additionality’ required in the sector and is something the company is investing in, with a cross-laminated timber product that will be built in a factory near Leeds, with the first units rolling off the production line before the end of the year. There are ‘no planning constraints really left in the room that we should be worried about’, said Pocket CEO Marc Vlessing, although we have a habit of putting ourselves in ‘regulatory knots’. ‘The enemy in the room is the borough solicitor’, he said, but modular as a solution to our chronic labour solution is ‘pie in the sky’ – the power it brings is in just in time management. There is ‘immense potential’ in London’s outer boroughs for intensifying neighbourhood centres and existing housing, said HTA Design chair Ben Derbyshire. But the industry does not have the skills necessary to increase capacity, said Laing O’Rourke’s Stephen Trusler – off-site manufacture will play a big part in the future of construction, especially given ‘snobbish’ attitudes towards skills from the government, down, said Vlessing.

Other highlights included PRP senior partner Brendan Kilpatrick presenting the case for PRS: increased density, larger developments, and the importance of the brand and placemaking – even the challenge of creating ‘pet-friendly environments’ and suitable homes for older people. Indeed, there is an acknowledgement now that renting is not a second-class form of tenure, said Grainger executive director Nick Jopling. Finally, Cath Shaw, commissioning director, growth and development and interim deputy CEO of LB Barnet, presented on public sector land and brownfield land release. Sadiq Khan could help, said Shaw, by looking ‘beyond the border’ as a Greater South East, increasing the pace of private delivery, perhaps through ‘tax tweaks’ and incentives – and one more thing: ‘Let those of us that are delivering get on with it!’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 

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