Housing takes centre stage – LREF day 2

Friday 16 June 2017

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

With the tragic Grenfell Tower disaster setting housing issues into sharp relief, the topic was a key strain in day two of LREF – but with more of an emphasis on the continuing quest for an answer to how and where London can attend to its supply deficit.

In the morning’s keynote address on the mayor’s vision, deputy mayor planning regeneration and skills Jules Pipe prepared the background, saying that London’s 8.8 million population is growing at a rate of 70,000 a year, a measure of its success but which bring challenges on infrastructure and land use. The capital needs to deliver 60,000 homes a year to cater for growth and a 50% increase in public transport capacity by 2050, along with investment in utilities to keep pace with the demands of a modern city. And the infrastructure might cost £1.4 trillion and there is a £175bn gap in the transport and affordable housing budgets alone. But one transport initiative that might help unlock 200,000 homes, Crossrail 2 had recently dropped off the Conservatives’ manifesto. ‘We need to absolutely press for the powers that we need to construct what is a vital scheme during this parliament’, said Pipe, hoping that its omission was more ‘presentational’ for the rest of the country. Funding innovation for improved infrastructure was needed, to ease the housing crisis. Community and political opposition will become ‘a major challenge if we don’t take into account pre-existing communities where we want to take forward a development’, said Pipe, with high quality design and mixed use more crucial than it has ever been before if we are to deal with increased densities required to meet growth targets.

London needs more affordably priced homes, said Savills’ Katy Warrick, and we need to think about where Londoners can rent or afford to buy. ‘And that means opening up new parts of London’, along with investment in place.

For some, part of the answer lies in the build to rent market, and it is one that the GLA’s David Lunts suggested City Hall is more open to encouraging to ‘level the playing field’, especially given its prospects to add to supply rather than just ‘cannibalise’. The administration has ‘nailed its colours to the mast’ and was now getting ‘down and dirty with the sector’ to understand the metrics and viability challenges, said Lunts. ‘We’ve actually road-tested this now, on real sites’. However, its strategy will be more about ‘positive action’ rather than ‘positive discrimination’, he said.

And despite what JLL Adam Challis, the moderator of Build to Rent: not just talk called ‘whingeing’ about where and how this sector will finally take off, there was a degree of evidence on the ground now that it already had. ‘There’s a real sense of optimism’, said Challis. ‘It’s a pretty exciting moment’.

Angus Dodd’s Quintain is one of those putting words into action, notably at Wembley Park, where it has already built some 1000 homes on its 85ha of land and will have 3000 under construction in a couple of weeks, the vast majority of them for rent. ‘There’s a very deep universe of potential tenants we can all tap into’, he said. And it can help with the pace of supply, since Dodd said he could rent 40-60 units in the time he could sell 12-15. Another proponent is Michela Hancock of Greystar, which is bringing its US expertise to the UK market, aims to create 10,000 units by 2020, and is already a third of the way there. This, said Hancock, is the ‘executing’ phase, rather than just talking about it, but part of the issue is explaining the offer to the customer, and particularly how it works. ‘I’ve heard so many people say: “we’ll sort out the operations later” – it really should be the opposite.’ Those who do not implement good management strategies at the beginning of the process, Hancock added, will struggle. But things need to be a different proposition from the US, where an ‘amenity arms race’ has gone on, said Alex Notay from Places for People.

The next session, on Housing Delivery, had similar lessons – notably that endeavours such as that by Swan Housing towards instigating a modular factory in Basildon will help close the gap. The Kings Cross’ construction skills academy will also help, said Argent Related’s Symon Bacon, but more still should be done to accelerate delivery, said Cllr Rachael Robathan, with a determination to lift the current level of ‘intermediate’ housing in the borough significantly from its current 1.5% of the total housing stock. Westminster will also be looking to ‘efficiencies’ in the density of its existing estates, and there may be a case to look at smaller units while the GLA’s Andrew Williams said that City Hall is ‘encouraging more modular to come through’ and has scope to be flexible in the case of ‘exceptional design’ when it comes to smaller flat sizes.

Perhaps, though, as Peabody’s Adriana Marques said, proper regeneration takes more than building just housing. Culture can be split into a number of forms, said Publica’s Lucy Musgrave at the session on the role of culture in placemaking, with ‘lived culture’ including the response to the Grenfell fire disaster, and institutions of culture being the world class ‘vessels’ we are lucky enough to be near to. Culture to amateur wine-maker Juliette Morgan is more akin to the ‘terroir’ of a place, or at least is borne out of human interaction and participation, as her British Land colleague Roger Madelin is fond of saying. Architect Phil Coffey commended the work Barking and Dagenham is doing to bring culture to the area, enticing artists to eschew Berlin in favour of the concerted efforts it is making to lure them to ground floor artist studio uses it is creating. But the key to getting artists to stay was to attract them with long term leases, said Marques. ‘Artists are people too’, she said. ‘They want to settle down and have families.’ Such a long-term approach makes good financial and community sense. Pubilc art is also important, and no-one wants sterile public spaces, said the Crown Estate’s Anthea Harries. But perhaps ultimately what was required was the ‘authentic’ said Publica Lucy Musgrave married with ambition. ‘We also need some really provocative thinking about international vision’, she said.  

David Taylor

Editor, New London Quarterly 
@davidntaylor

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