Socialist Worker

Greedy building bosses are out to grab London’s homes

by Alistair Farrow
Issue No. 2502

Construction sites are mushrooming across London

Construction sites are mushrooming across London (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Both the Tories and Labour are arguing for intensive housebuilding as a central part of their London election campaigns.

They want to knock down estates and flog off public land to developers so they can build their way out of the city’s housing crisis.

But London is already full of construction projects for luxury flats that then lie empty.

Simon Elmer from Architects for Social Housing (Ash) told Socialist Worker, “It’s not so much a shortage of homes, there’s a shortage of homes that people can afford to live in. The real crisis is that people can’t afford their rent or mortgages.”

Alternative

Ash works to undermine the bosses’ and politicians’ arguments by proposing alternative models.

Simon argued that targets for housebuilding are about providing new markets for investment, not for bringing down rents or providing housing for working class people.

He said that “Every report or body talking about London’s housing needs agrees that we need to build 50,000 homes a year for the next 10 years.

“But it’s the same people sitting on the boards of all these organisations. Yolande Barnes is the head of research at real estate company Savills but also writes for the London Housing Commission.

“Lord Kerslake is the chair of the London Housing Commission but is also the chair of the Peabody Trust, a very powerful housing association.

“London has the most valuable land in the world. The people who are promoting these housebuilding figures are those who stand to profit from it.”

The contradictions of the market influence where and what kind of housing is built—and how the housing crisis affects different places.

Cramped

London’s population is soaring while that of other regions stagnates or shrinks. Young people in particular are driven in search of work to a city of cramped flats at sky-high rents. Simon said, “The issues that affect housing—density, availability of land, all these factors—are different all over the world but the policies being proposed are very similar internationally.

“These housing policies are happening in Bristol and in Cardiff too.

“That shows you that it’s got nothing to do with a particular situation or the way a city is built.

“It comes down to a certain type of economic plan, call it neoliberalism or whatever you want.

“London is the test case for this because of its place in the world as a financial centre.

“It’s becoming an offshore tax haven at the heart of Europe and housing in London is a commodity with one of the fastest-rising prices in the world.”

Councils and developers claim that estates have fallen into disrepair and aren’t dense enough because they want to justify their demolition.

He said, “If they fall into disrepair it’s because there’s been a managed decline. All of the estates that we work on literally haven’t had any maintenance work done on them in 15-20 years.

“You can actually increase the number of homes on these estates. You can build around homes and on top of them to increase population by between 25 and 40 percent.

“It’s very important that we hold on to these estates because they are the only sources of housing that anyone can afford to live in anymore.”


The housing is there and so is the land—but in the wrong hands

The housing crisis isn’t a question of resources. There are more bedrooms than people in Britain.

And state bodies such as government ministries and councils own a huge bank of 900,000 hectares of land—that’s more than a million football pitches.

There’s enough for a mass programme of council house building with plenty left for important facilities such as parks.

But the figures were revealed in a survey by estate agent Savills—which is salivating at the chance for private developers to get their hands on this land.

Another Savills report released earlier this year has been used to define both Tory and Labour housing policy for London.

It says that up to 1,750 hectares of London’s estates could be demolished in order to build up to an extra 360,000 homes. Ash has shown in a number of studies that demolition and rebuilding can be less efficient and far more expensive than adding housing to estates.

And crucially, giving land to the private bosses is no guarantee it will be used for building.

Simon pointed out that, “The nine largest building firms in Britain own enough land nationally to build 600,000 homes on. It’s called land banking, stockpiling land to push up prices.

“There’s a lot of people doing this.”

Savills is both writing and implementing housing policy. And while it is perhaps the most powerful firm there are alarming links between council bosses and property tycoons.

“There’s a constant revolving door between the people who make the laws and make decisions over public land and the private world that they’re representing”, said Simon.

“They pass laws to enable the actions of the private companies they are going to be working for.”

One crucial difference is that while council-built homes have to be built to a certain standard of quality, private new builds get smaller every year. This has a serious impact on people’s health.

Rule changes in the Tories’ new Housing and Planning bill will give these bosses an even freer hand.

“This is typical of what’s going on all over London and internationally, the transfer of wealth from public control into the private realm,” said Simon.


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