Tall Buildings: Outward, Upward and Alternatives

This week I played a bit part in BBC London’s in depth look at the growth of high rise buildings in London. The report was largely a response to New London Architecture’s own study which you can view here.

In an appearance that lasted only a few seconds, I attempted to sum up how the tall building debate relates to London’s insatiable appetite for affordable homes. Tall buildings work in some parts of London, and we need to be very careful that we don’t allow them to spring up where they cannot be supported. Secondly, if we can’t have a sensible debate about expanding London outward, we need to have a rational conversation about expanding upward.

Invariably the debate raises some serious questions about affordable homes, as well as the character of neighbourhoods, the public services and importantly the nature of land ownership and development in London.

In a Borough like Ealing, with some of the best transport connections in London and with Crossrail soon to arrive, we’ve seen serious development pressure. Transport infrastructure investment ensures that Ealing’s workers have great options to travel into the city, but it also means that this connectivity is pushing up land value. As an administration, we have attempted to be very clear that acceptable housing growth should be located in areas with good transport locations. Housing growth in North Acton, Ealing Broadway and Southall reflect the attempt to ensure that development takes place where it can be well planned.

The accusation that tall buildings produce expensive flats that act more like investment products for foreign buyers are well founded. Servicing tall buildings is expensive. The higher you build, the more expensive it is to maintain lifts, clean windows, pump water and sewage. All of this adds to the servicing costs. The fact that so many foreign investor off-plan purchases find their way into the private rented sector has spawned a new trend in London’s housing market.

Increasingly, like at the location I was filmed at, tall buildings are being constructed on a build-to-rent basis. Using patient capital investment, often in the form of major foreign pension funds or sovereign wealth funds, private developers can gamble on better-than-bank-interest-rate-returns from London’s rental market. Rather than properties to be purchases, flats are increasingly being held and released into the private rented sector.

Like with all development, the challenges for local authorities to control the growth of tall buildings are limited by the law. With a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ central to the national Governments National Planning Policy Framework, coupled with rules that ensure the financial viability of any development trump the planning obligations we can place on a development, we are less in control of governing the growth our city than we have ever been since the nationalisation of planning rights in 1947. Increasingly local authorities, Ealing included, face a tough task of negotiating with developers to ensure what they build on the land they own reflects the needs of our community.

In Ealing, we could not be clearer. Any development must achieve at least 35% affordable homes. We expect social rented accommodation in every major planning application. For developers who claim that they cannot meet the grade, we publish their viability reports that can for the more disreputable developers contain odd math and contrived calculations. In addition to strict housing targets, we equally expect every developer to contribute money toward expanding provision for health services, roads, schools, parks and open spaces, and use legally binding agreements to enforce things like air quality, construction methods, environmental sustainability, employment standards and local apprenticeships.

Whilst the private sector has their part to play, their central objective is returning profit on their investment. As a Borough, our priorities are different. After decades of constraint on our own ability to borrow and build, constructing new municipalism. Rather than relying on the private sector alone, Ealing is gearing up to return us to the time when council house building was the core business of councils. Rather than some added extra on the periphery of our public services like street cleaning, bin collection, schooling and adult social care, constructing healthy, decent homes in sustainable neighbourhoods is part of our core mission.

Using our own land, money, access to borrowing and people, Ealing already has a reputation as a council that is building council homes. Our programme of near 3,000 homes already in the pipeline is one of the biggest in London, and precisely why the Mayor of London has granted nearly £100 million to support it.

Tall buildings are one of many solutions to London’s overheated jobs and housing markets. But there are plenty of others. In Ealing, the Labour administration will continue to do all we can with the resources available to us in an era of crippling urban austerity to deliver on our core priority: genuinely affordable homes.