London has enough land to double housebuilding.

This land offers a more immediate development opportunity than the green belt or garden cities. Yet the debate about where to build can catapult from prime London to the Hoo Peninsula, underestimating the vast development potential within London’s 38 opportunity areas.

These areas, from the Upper Lee Valley to London Riverside, have the advantage of scale, improving infrastructure and — yes — location. They are all within the city with the highest housing demand, the fastest population growth and the fifth largest city economy in the world.

It is with this in mind that the Mayor of London and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have launched a new programme called ‘housing zones’. The concept is simple. While London’s housebuilding is flourishing, most of the activity is concentrated in a handful of areas - only four of London’s 33 boroughs last year recorded more than 1,000 residential starts. So there needs to be a greater spread of construction activity across the capital, helping to increase both supply and affordability.

The purpose of housing zones is to help to stimulate action where the market would otherwise take longer to mature, using public policy to create an environment in which the private sector wants to invest. It is clear that many potential sites across London, even in today’s buoyant conditions, need something extra to accelerate development. Housing zones aim to offer that.

The principles for housing zones were set out in the Mayor’s housing strategy and the Greater London Authority (GLA) opened a competition last week among London’s boroughs for 20 zones. The initiative is backed by £400m, from the GLA and HM Treasury, and a menu of flexible policies, there to be applied where they can be proved to unlock increased housing supply. Boroughs will identify and package together brownfield land which could be used for development into a zone, remove unnecessary restrictions and partner with developers to build new homes.

The GLA will work with boroughs to plan the development, put in the infrastructure, release public land, simplify planning, clean up pollution, streamline compulsory purchase orders and do anything necessary to open up the regeneration of an area. There is a desire to promote innovation and a willingness to do things differently, from the potential use of local development orders which will help to accelerate planning, through to offering pre-sales guarantees which will help to speed up construction.

The zones will be governed by 10-year frameworks, offering commitment and affording clarity and certainty.

The plans have been developed with boroughs and the prospectus names some potential sites, including Southall, which will soon boast Crossrail, with the potential for 6,000 homes; Poplar Riverside; estates adjacent to Clapham Junction; Tottenham Hale; and Meridian Water in Enfield, an 85-hectare development opportunity. In total the aspiration is for 50,000 new homes within the zones, supplementing what the market would otherwise produce.

The objective, partly driven by the locations, is to build homes that are also more affordable to Londoners. London’s economy is booming and it is important that housing costs do not undermine it.

With more than half the new jobs being created expected to be in the professional and service sectors, it is essential to build a product that these households can afford. So the intention is for housing zones to help to meet the Mayor’s target for 250,000 Londoners to benefit from low-cost homes, as well as purpose-built private rentals.

It was arguably the designation of an enterprise zone in London’s Docklands, together with private-sector entrepreneur zeal, that fundamentally shifted the balance of real estate in the 1980s with the creation of Canary Wharf.

It is time to do the same with residential on London’s brownfield sites.

Together with a range of other initiatives, from the London Housing Bank to releasing all of the GLA’s developable land, the Mayor’s programme of housing zones is part of a fresh approach to residential development in London, treating housing as infrastructure — as essential as rail and road — and seeking to address a 30-year failure to build enough homes to support the capital’s economy.

Richard Blakeway is London’s deputy mayor for housing, land and property

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