Boris has a plan
Boris Johnson has a plan for London that takes us to 2031.
Given that it is estimated that the population of London will grow by 1 million in the next 20 years, and that this will mean another 700,000 households, it is (on the face of it) reassuring that a plan is in place. On housing the plan provides more certainty for developers on where they can build and how the social housing component can be incorporated. This has led to infighting at the London Assembly and threats of legal action from some London boroughs concerned at losing their right to set social rents. There are fears that setting social rents at 80% of market rents will drive more people out of inner London. In his inimitable and contradictory style Boris himself coined the phrase ‘Kosovo-style social cleansing’ when talking about the effects on London’s social makeup. Added to this social cleansing of the poor is the threat of a rising housing benefits bill as social payments will need to rise for those remaining.
What should be of more concern is that the plan turns out to be not a plan at all. Indeed Boris explicitly rejects targets and masterplans. It would be more accurate to describe it as a public relations exercise that helps to promote London to investors. Success can be claimed for the developments at Kings Cross, Earls Court, Battersea Power Station and the Olympics site, but whether these one-off projects would have taken place anyway is debatable. Boris was recently questioned about the new Elephant and Castle development where existing tenants have been dispersed and the new flats are being advertised in the far east for £350,000. He believes that the benefits of development outweigh any concerns over housing provision for ordinary people. Certainly there is a pressing need to make things happen and it would be churlish to criticize new developments such as at Kings Cross that are revitalizing old run-down areas. But none of this answers the questions about the existing housing crisis and how the forecast 700,000 new households will be built.
Contrast this with the ‘Greater London Plan’ of Patrick Abercrombie and you begin to appreciate the scale of the problem. He drew up his plan during World War Two. After the war over 1 million people were moved out to new towns. It was a plan that helped to reshape the environment (albeit with the imposition of a Green Belt intended to stop London sprawling) and to change the city in a way that better met the needs of ordinary people. That’s what we need today too but Boris’s plan is not it. It would be better to have no plan at all than pretend that we have one. Masterplanning a city is not fashionable today and would no doubt lead to howls of protest if it were proposed. Think HS2 multiplied by 100. But how else, without a plan, are we going to build the new homes we need and solve the many housing problems we face. The new million residents are very welcome but I am sure they won’t all want to live in sheds at the bottom of someone’s garden.
Written by Steve Nash. The Social Policy Forum challenges unthinking orthodoxies in the age of the Big Nudge. We are on Twitter @SocialPolicyFor.