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The London housing debate is heating up

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[THIS WEEK] James Pallister attends Open-City’s inaugural public debate

‘We are at risk of driving people with low incomes out of London.’ Stephen Howlett, chief executive of Peabody Housing, took the platform offered by Open-City’s inaugural public debate to warn of the perils of an increasingly expensive city. The danger, he said, was of spiralling property prices was taking away the ability of working people to live in the English capital. ‘A ghetto doesn’t suit the rich or the poor,’ he said, before advocating ‘some sort of land value tax: we need pressure put on people to release land for development. There’s a lot of people making a lot of money just sitting on land.’

The choice of topic: ‘Is London Building a Sterile City’, was clearly one which appealed to many Londoners: the debate was oversubscribed to the tune of 9,000 people, and, for what Open-City anticipated would be a modestly attended debate, over 100 people attended. The motion was sufficiently vague to attract strong feelings on a range of infrastructure topics: from transport to housing, retail and landscaping.

While Stephen Howlett deplored the watering-down of Section 106 agreements, Bob Allies wondered why the buyers of new houses should have to pay a tax to provide local amenities. ‘It doesn’t seem an equitable arrangement to me. Everyone thinks that the developer pays for Section 106 agreements, they don’t – it’s the buyers who pay.’

Head of the Landscape Institute Sue Illman spoke of the need of cities to prepare for the inevitable inundations which climate change will bring over the next 20 years. Leo Hollis spoke of the need to preserve public spaces and questions from the floor highlighted the displacement of tenants from the Heygate Estate in Southwark. Allies answered a point about the degree to which architects were to blame for city horrors and the gap between what the drawings look like and how the buildings actually turn out. ‘To be honest, it’s really hard to tell what they will look like from the drawings,’ he said. Refreshing candour.

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