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The housing crisis: perspectives from LSBU

Construction work on buildings in London

The housing crisis is a very real issue, making a discernible impact on house prices in Southwark, wider London, and the entire country

House prices are spiralling, and private sector rents continue to rise. House ownership is declining, and homelessness is a growing problem.

Meanwhile, construction projects are seemingly springing up everywhere, particularly in the capital – but are they really providing a sustainable solution to the underlying issues?

According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, around 125,000 new homes were built in England in the year to March 2015 – just half the number needed to meet demand. This trend has continued for decades, resulting in an estimated shortfall of more than half a million homes (National Housing Federation).

Barriers to building

The impact is hard to ignore. Recent figures published by housing charity Shelter show that more people are renting from private landlords, subject to uncontrolled rent rises and living with the constant fear of eviction. In 2013/14, more than 50,000 households were classified as 'homeless'.

On average, house prices are now nearly seven times people’s income.

Shelter

Then there are the people in the middle, with steady jobs and reasonable salaries, who find themselves sharing accommodation and struggling to meet their housing costs each month. Students are not exempt: Shelter estimates that 50% struggle to pay their rent, and the National Union of Students has spoken of 'an absolute crisis'.

LSBU’s Dr Michael Leary-Owhin, director of the MA in Planning, Policy and Practice and co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Urban Regeneration, prefers to speak of crises in the plural: "In London and much of the south east, we are seeing massive over-demand, including for housing as an investment. We’re losing viable businesses, office space and industrial land, while still failing to meet the need for affordable housing. In other parts of the country, there is such an over-supply of cheap housing that properties can be snapped up for a few thousand pounds.

"In London in particular, we’re also seeing a change in demographics. As prices rise, families on low and medium incomes are replaced by affluent young professionals, who then stay for a while before moving on. Ethnically, and socio-economically, the city becomes less diverse. And with that high level of turnover comes a loss of community."

There is in fact no absolute shortage of housing in the UK. It’s the way it is distributed that is causing the crises.

Dr Michael Leary-Owhin, LSBU

Professional opinions

LSBU alumni and staff who all have a connection with housing and regeneration share their perspectives on the crisis, both personal and professional.

Robin Hawkes (BA Town Planning, 1978) is an independent housing consultant and campaigner. He sits on the board of West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Homes.

"London has a rising population coupled with a massive shortfall in new homes – and much of what is being built is not only out of reach for those in housing need, it’s beyond the means of most ordinary people too. The overall 'masterplan' for Earl’s Court includes demolishing the famous exhibition centres along with 760 mixed tenure homes. The developers are obliged to replace those homes, but residents are overwhelmingly opposed to demolition. The only additional affordable homes (something of a misnomer, given that 'affordable' is now set at up to 80% of market rent) will be 740 units: just 11% of the 6740 new homes being built, of which 6000 will be 'luxury' apartments with prices starting from £595,000.

"Our goal is to achieve community ownership for the existing homes on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates. We know from experience that what works best is for social housing to be managed at a local level. To me, regeneration has to start with meeting the needs of local people. It can’t be top down. In Earl’s Court we’re already seeing the impact of the redevelopment project, before the main building work has even begun. This was a vibrant neighbourhood, with a distinctive character. But with the demolition of the exhibition centres, shops and cafes are empty, and people are going out of business.

"My concern is that a project like this does very little to meet local needs or to address the housing crisis. I’m not naïve – I know that developers need to make a profit. But there must be a balance. I believe a healthy community is a mixed community, not one largely composed of luxury homes owned by domestic or overseas investors who may never even set foot there. Many talk of the 'social cleansing' of large areas of London – and it’s not hard to see why. The general picture in London is also dire for those on low to middle incomes who are dependent on the private rented sector, with no security and rising rents. The benefit cap will increasingly hit both public and private sector tenants and we are going to see lots more people losing their tenancies or being forced out of London. We need longer-term tenancies, and an end to untrammelled rent increases."

David Barker (BA Town and Country Planning, 2004) is a partner at Evolution Town Planning, which provides planning advice for a wide range of commercial and residential projects.

"Builders and developers often cite planning as one of the main barriers preventing them being able to satisfy the demand for new homes. I’d say that’s certainly more of an issue outside London. The planning system can be slow to respond to changing circumstances. Local plans are often out of sync with what’s happening on the ground, and the process of changing them can be lengthy. We’re currently looking at a vacant waterfront site in a market town in Yorkshire. There’s demand for housing and a drive to see the area redeveloped. But the local plan doesn’t currently allow for it, so we are either faced with a long wait for the local plan review, or we have to prepare a speculative planning application to argue the principle. This is expensive and risky, and so not attractive to the landowner. What is needed is a system that can move quickly, and take advantage of these kinds of opportunities.

"The government is talking about introducing 'in principle' planning consent for brownfield sites. That would definitely help. Changes to planning policy have already made greenfield development easier, giving a lot more flexibility to deliver the homes that we need. However, we need to continue to look for ways to unlock and make best use of the resources we have."

Andrew Wignall is LSBU’s Space Manager, and is currently studying for an MSc in Real Estate. He is finding it impossible to get on to the property ladder in London.

"Professionally, this is an exciting time to be in London. At LSBU we are working hard both to optimise our existing space, and to shape our response to the changes going on around us. The regeneration of Elephant and Castle is set to transform this whole area, and that creates challenges but also great opportunities to form partnerships and be part of the new landscape.

"From my personal perspective, it’s very challenging. The lack of affordable housing is a real issue for me and many other people I know. I’m a working professional, but prices in London are so high, nothing seems within reach. I’m constantly receiving emails from developers or housing associations offering 'affordable' options, but either they’re beyond my budget or the eligibility criteria are ridiculously tight. Even so, they’re still massively over-subscribed.

"I’m thinking of moving a bit further out, maybe to Wimbledon or Putney. It will mean a longer journey to work and probably higher rent too, which will make it even harder for me to save. But if I’m never going to be able to afford to buy anyway, I’d rather be living somewhere more comfortable. My friends who’ve managed to buy have either borrowed money from their parents or moved out of the city altogether and so have a much longer commute. It seems that unless you’re incredibly successful, the only way to be here and take advantage of all the opportunities London can offer is to sacrifice your quality of life. There’s no doubt London is still a brilliant city to live in. But it’s very hard work!"

Regeneration consultant Caroline Pillay (BSc Social Care, 1996) is working with leading housing association Moat on the redevelopment of Pollards Hill in Mitcham, south London.

"There’s no doubt in my mind that the housing crisis is real. Here at Pollards Hill, you can see the impact at first hand. The properties are dilapidated, the community is fragmented and people have stopped taking pride in their environment. We’re focusing on two main areas – making homes more energy efficient, and tackling things that will have a big visual impact on the estate overall. That includes repurposing and reshaping the outside areas. There’s so much green space here, but people don’t know how to use it. We want to create functional areas that will really engage people. We’re also upgrading freeholders’ homes as well as leaseholders’, so the whole estate will benefit.

"To succeed, a project like this must involve the community from the start. We have six special interest groups covering different aspects of physical and social regeneration and there are residents on each one. The aim is to give them as much ownership as possible. So, for example, the landscaping team could end up working directly with the grounds maintenance team to monitor their performance. It’s almost as if we’re reporting to the residents, rather than the other way round. That level of engagement is really important, so that people feel they have a say in the place where they live. Otherwise change is not sustainable.

"It’s been said that regeneration is just a more acceptable word for gentrification. I think we’re some way off that here. This area is too far out, and too badly connected, to really be on the radar, although I’m sure that will change. But I worked on the regeneration of Myatt's Field, near Oval; that really is an area that’s changed beyond recognition.

"Again, we engaged with residents from the start. As a result, I think we’ve ended up with a very successful mixed community. Yes, there are more affluent people living in the area now, but a good percentage of the original tenants have remained. The influx of new people has helped to raise standards and expectations across the board. Before, Myatt's Field was a byword for drugs and crime. Now it’s a desirable place to live.

"My real passion is for what I call 'placemaking'. It’s definitely something we achieved at Myatt's Field and I hope we can do the same here in Mitcham. It’s not enough to give people a refurbished or a new home; you have to create a sense of community and a sense of pride, to provide places where children can play, where families can hang out together, where people can chat to their neighbours. For me, social and physical regeneration have to go hand in hand and that means taking people along with you. Do it with local people, not to them."

Transforming Southwark

The regeneration of Elephant and Castle promises to transform the area around the LSBU campus. The plans for regeneration will open up public areas, making roads and streets safer for local people and creating a new town centre, giving the area a new civic heart.

Alongside high street and independent retailers, there will be more housing, better restaurants and leisure opportunities, with spaces for exhibitions and cultural activities. The regeneration of the former Heygate Estate will provide hundreds of quality homes as well as a new leisure centre and a new inner London park – the largest for 70 years.

There is a strong focus on supporting local communities and promoting the diversity that gives Elephant and Castle its unique feel. Historically, Elephant and Castle’s thriving cultural and entertainment scene earned it the label of the ‘Piccadilly of the South’. The regeneration project hopes to return the area to its glory days.

 
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