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Blakeway: ‘London’s housing problems will take many mayoral terms to solve’

James Pallister talks to Richard Blakeway, deputy Mayor for housing, land and property, about building thousands more homes in the capital

Who has the most impact on housing in London: the mayor, central government, local authorities or private developers?

It’s quite a complex environment, and it’s changing very quickly. There’s a diverse range of providers and a changing governance with a much stronger role for the Greater London Authority (GLA).

How has the GLA’s role changed in the last 12 months?

When the GLA was first set up, legislation was very clear in that the mayor shouldn’t spend money on housing. This mayor has since negotiated an amendment to enable the GLA to do just that, in addition to the policy role we have. There’s also been a large transfer of land assets to City Hall. So the GLA is a significant voice in the capital when it comes to affordable housing. The mayor has, in a relatively short period of time, gone from having no authority to invest in housing, to running a £2 billion budget and being one of London’s largest private landowners.

What are your priorities for the next three to five years?

The overwhelming priority is more homes; this is partly due to population growth. The city’s population has grown by 300,000 since 2008 and is expected to grow by another one million in the next decade. London will soon have the largest population it has ever had in its 2,000-year history. Its housing problems will take many mayoral terms to solve.

What kind of homes does London need?

A balance of supply. It’s very important to have a significant amount of mid-market product coming forward as well as more traditional affordable housing and the high-end market, which is very buoyant in London.

Last year the average price of a house in London was £368,000; what is a mid-market home and how much does it cost?

Savills say a mid-market home is £4,306–4,844/m2 but there is a shortfall of supply at that price range. People on modest incomes can’t afford to get into the housing market. We’ve been doing a number of things to stimulate that.

What about design quality?

That remains paramount. In introducing the London Design Guide, the mayor made a very significant statement and there is more we want to do around that.

Do you have any comments about the AJ’s More Homes Better Homes campaign, which calls for a national housing guide?

The thing is, space standards are very important. The experience of introducing that design guide is that the industry wants them to be consistently applied. People get frustrated when they feel there is a lack of clarity or consistency. If there was a tip it would be to get developers on side.

How do you think London can lead the way in terms of the design and delivery of homes?

London can lead the way in the design of build-to-rent. About two-thirds of the rental market is secondary, swapping from home ownership to rental. A bespoke product is something we really want to explore instead of relying on a sales product that ends up rented. These homes may have, for example, larger bedrooms than an apartment for sale – instead of having a washing machine in a kitchen or cupboard, you have communal wash areas, concierge services. The mayor is set to launch a design competition specifically looking at how you design Build to Rent, hopefully, by the end of the financial year.

Why don’t more local authorities act as developers and build their own housing?

Clearly there are issues of scale. It raises questions about a local authority’s capacity, what risk it wants to take. [We] are seeing a shift in London local authorities exploring this. In Camden, they have a significant estate redevelopment programme, which will see a substantial increase in net supply; they are acting as the developer in most instances.

With the changes to housing revenue account, you’ll see local authorities giving more thought to what they can build. However, it’s no substitute for private housing developers, housing associations etc – we need all these players to deliver the required homes at the required level.

Do you have any preferred architects?

I like Norman Shaw. Walking around Bedford Park is always nice and Wells Coates’ Isokon building in Hampstead is a good example of an interesting housing development.

Any there any recent examples of very good housing in London?

The design and quality of homes, not just in space standards but in the details, finish and brickwork in projects like Barking Riverside (Sheppard Robson, Maccreanor Lavington, KCAP) is very high.

One of the things we have been looking at for a while – and which is emerging – is the question: what is a London vernacular? What you are seeing is a return to the London traditional street scene as against traditional estate layout. The Design Guide has helped promote this. Some would go so far as to say there is a new London typology emerging – apartments built in what looks like a traditional terraced street, fronted with brickwork, with fenestration reminiscent of Georgian streets. It’s interesting to see that emerge as a vernacular.

What kind of house do you live in?

That’s very personal. Should I answer? It’s a Victorian house.

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