Comment: knock, knock, knockin’ on London’s door
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If London doesn’t start listening to its young people, they’ll go knocking on the doors of Bristol, Manchester and Leeds instead
If my eight months in property has taught me anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as good news in this game. If rents are down, that’s good news for the consumer, but bad news for the market. If house prices are up, that’s good for sellers, but not so good for buyers.
Every week there’s a new ‘affordable’ development going up somewhere in London, but ‘affordable’ is subjective, its meaning defined by the eye of the beholder. It’s difficult to write about affordability in a borough where most family homes cost upwards of £1 million, and where first time buyer flats come in at over half that.
What London needs is genuinely affordable housing for anyone and everyone who wants to live, work and play here. One of the hardest things to come to terms with over the last few months has been the obvious social exclusivity of new housing developments, driven by the needs and incentives of private developers rather than social policy and public money.
There’s a good reason for that; selling off-plan provides instant liquidity to get homes built. But off-plan selling at high price points tends to exclude those who need those very homes most; local people forced out of the council-owned properties on high value land now deemed either ugly or financially unviable to repair.
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You can call it regeneration, but what that translates to, inadvertently or not, is social cleansing. It’s only regeneration if it reinvigorates the existing communities, and flattening council homes to replace them with rabbit hutches selling at twice the price or luxury flats going to part-time dwellers doesn’t cut it.
Regeneration also destroys a much misunderstood chapter of our post-war architectural and social heritage. The simplicity and equalising styles of Modernism and Brutalism, employed in Camden by Sydney Cook, democratised housing. Buildings I once considered ugly, I now see as a relic of a time when the government prioritized affording its citizens a home, rather than how much councils of all colours, burdened with cost-cutting measures, could pocket in exchange for selling off land.
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When Thatcher implemented Right to Buy, she set in motion a long spiral of short-termism in housing policy. She hadn’t the foresight to see that house price inflation would leave the ball in the court of private hands as housing became another string to your bow rather than a basic human need and right.
Millennials, of course, don’t work hard enough. They spend too much money on coffee; that’s why they can’t afford a home. It has nothing to do with the fact that wages are unaligned with house price inflation. That’s if they’re paid at all; those who took advantage of Thatcher’s policy probably didn’t have to work unpaid for a year to earn their stripes.
It’s a different world now. Our population has expanded, our global city ever more so, and that relationship carries over into our homes. Modernism began with Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos in Europe. The unequivocal interiors victor of recent times has been the Danish import of Hygge, the one to watch is Japanese: Wabi-Sabi. Anyone who falls into the trap of blaming all of London’s housing problems on foreign investors forgets the role that the rest of the world has had in shaping our housing, and our economy, for the last few hundred years.
Those who shunt all of our housing woes into the lap of Brexit make a similar error. Yes, wary British buyers are opting to ‘wait and see’; yes, European buyers are more sceptical, but, like our history, the market’s problems have a complex lineage, and there has (as yet) been no diabolical crash. This city has always borrowed from the world beyond Europe, and continues to attract global buyers who believe in the potential of our capital city.
If its potential is to be realised, London will have to stop ignoring its young people and give them one of two things: rent control or affordable housing; prices that meet the wages of those who can’t rely on the bank of mum and dad, or rents that don’t cost the earth. Without one of the two, the very people who define London’s future will stop knocking at its door and look to Bristol, Manchester or Edinburgh instead.