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630,000 homes could be built above London's schools and hospitals

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New research by consultant WSP has identified space for up to 630,000 new homes in London by building flats above hospitals, schools and libraries.

Drawn up in collaboration with University College London, the Building Our Way Out of a Crisis report says the revamp or rebuild of municipal buildings could be paid for by the private sector which would be given the space above for new flats.

The proposals, which were debated at an AJ roundtable discussion in October, suggest these extra homes could help solve London’s acute housing crisis.

The report’s findings showed that if only half of municipal buildings were renovated, the extra ‘air space’ apartments could provide 78 per cent of the additional 400,000 homes the GLA has identified it needs to build over the next decade.

A ComRes survey of 1,000 people living in the capital, commissioned by WSP, found that 61 per cent of Londoners approved of the propsals. The survey also found that 63 per cent of the public would be willing to live above a library, 31 per cent above a court, 23 per cent above a hospital, 23 per cent above a school, 19 per cent above a fire station and 8 per cent above a prison.

WSP director Bill Price said: ‘This isn’t about replacing schools and hospitals with apartment blocks, it’s about using the existing land more effectively with the added bonus that you can regenerate community facilities at the same time. It makes so much sense; these sites by their very nature are ideally located for new homes, close to transport and amenities. So why isn’t it being done already?

‘What we realised is that the challenge is more about the perceived issues of people living above places like hospitals because it’s not the ‘done thing’ in the UK. But it’s being done elsewhere.”’

PRP chairman Andy Von Bradsky, who attended the roundtable and is quoted in the report, said: ‘There is obvious synergy between healthcare and the needs of an ageing population. Housing for the elderly should be located close to central facilities and can be to high densities, so lend themselves to building over communal and public facilities as the WSP report suggests.

‘We are already designing in this way, for example at Shrewsbury Street, Manchester for Trafford Housing Association, which recently received planning consent and incorporates a health centre, library and other publically accessible facilities. There is no reason why this cannot be replicated on a large scale on a London site. The challenge is aligning the interests of Housing Associations and health trusts and foundations which have different agendas and timescales for decision making.’

And Jonathan Seager, director of housing policy at business group London First, said novel solutions were needed for the capital’s housing crisis. ‘We are building less than half the homes we need in London and we will have to embrace bold new ideas like using ‘air space’ above sites if are going to turn this situation around.


Julia Park, head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein

‘The report is a positive extension to measures which are already being taken, albeit on a small scale. Architects are already providing housing above schools, health and community centres, and even swimming pools’.

‘However I do wonder how some of the ideas raised in the report would work in practice and what they would look like. How do you keep a hospital running while you are building housing above it – and what happens to the drainage from dozens of bathrooms? ‘

‘In our experience, when you need to demolish a worn-out, but still-needed facility, you replace it on a different site (or different part of the site) otherwise you lose continuity so a strategic overview that considers phasing and decanting is essential’.

‘We have to be really practical about how we do this and very careful that any housing that results, passes ‘the decent homes test’.  Hospitals are busy places, day and night, usually surrounded by a sea of cars, so the daily experience of ‘arriving home’ could be pretty unpleasant unless the parking is relocated underground for example’.

‘It doesn’t feel particularly easy to produce good family homes in such situations.  My instinctive reaction is that it could work really well for student housing, as this is effectively temporary and there isn’t the same need for gardens, play space or parking’.

‘As a practice we have been looking at new ideas to help the thousands of young professionals, many in their 30’s and 40’s, who are trapped in flat-shares because they can’t afford to buy or rent a flat.  These people need a good, interim housing solution while they save - more than student accommodation but not an entire family home.  This could be the perfect opportunity to produce some ‘genuinely affordable housing’ for those who are getting left behind while London works out how it can still claim to be a city for everyone’.

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