I’m not going to pretend. Life is complicated. And I won’t sugar-coat this either: developing residential in London is unfathomably complicated, much of the time.
To most punters, it can seem brazenly simple. It involves piling high flats that average Londoners have little chance of renting, let alone buying. It means craftsmen, key workers and creatives being displaced by profiteering housebuilders and rich overseas buyers.
But it really is complicated. We were reminded of this recently in Deptford, where Cathedral’s marketing of residential units in Asia to help fund our public-private scheme there was pilloried in the press.
We’d been selected by the landowner, Lewisham Council, to bring jobs, homes, great architecture and growth to a deprived London district. The brief was nil affordable housing; the high street needed disposable income. So overseas “off-plan” sales were undertaken to fund the scheme and satisfy the brief. The flats would ultimately be rented out to Londoners starved of new housing and local, small businesses would be incubated in railway arches that we would restore.
Some local people saw things differently. Some saw social cleansing, not economic growth. Gentrification, rather than regeneration.
Through the shifting kaleidoscope of London housing, was it one of these things, neither or both?
There’s no simple answer. Developers today are rightly being scrutinised more than ever. The constant bad press is a wake-up call we didn’t need; our systematic housing problems aren’t going away.
London residential is a global commodity partly as a result of world events, but more significantly due to 60 years of market and government failure to encourage housing and social-housing delivery, with the resulting demand/supply imbalance promoting London property investment above almost any other investment type.
With the new year and forthcoming election, let me float a few ideas to address the problem.
Without a broad mix of tenure and affordability, we are killing our towns and cities. The government must man up on social housing, as market forces are failing. We should also review the green belt — much in the London suburbs is actually brownfield golf centres, five-a-side football pitches or scrap yards. Appoint a task force to remove politics from green belt planning for five years.
We should demand developers keep ownership of ground-floor and commercial space for prescribed uses, serving the incumbent population for a five-year period post-completion, encouraging them to care more about the communities they create.
We must also lift the status of property in general. A stronger industry voice (perhaps a collaboration between the BPF and RICS?) would help champion property issues, encourage ethical practice and promote careers for all sectors of the population.
You will have your own ideas, of course. And London’s housing crisis doesn’t have straightforward solutions. But this is a problem so big that we must work harder in 2015 to find the radical right answers.
Richard Upton is chief executive of Cathedral Group