With London 40 times more polluted than EU rules permit, those investing in urban housing should be worried that city-centre living could lose its attraction, says Johnny Caddick of build-to-rent developer Moda Living
We’ve all seen news reports of smog across Chinese cities, but the problem is far closer to home than many think, with London having breached its annual air pollution limit just five days into 2017. As managing director of Moda Living, a long-term investor, developer and operator in build to rent, it’s something that concerns me – and not simply because we want people to be able to enjoy the views from the top floors of our skyscrapers. Our ability to retain customers for years rather than months, and the long-term health of our cities are intrinsically linked to the value of our of assets
It’s something that our industry should be more vocal about in working with planners and policy-makers to solve.
Official data shows European cities have some of the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the world, driven by the high ratio of diesel vehicles in use. Environmental campaigners say that London is about 40 times more polluted than EU rules allow, while recent reports suggest 40 per cent of local authorities breach the limits.
Meanwhile, outdated policy sees developers hauled over the coals if they don’t provide enough parking spaces next to city-centre developments. And at the same time we’re still incentivising the sale of diesel cars.
Last year, ClientEarth, a group of activist lawyers, won a second court case against the UK government over its ‘repeated failure to tackle illegal air pollution’. This followed a 2014 case handled by the European Court of Justice, which resulted in Britain’s Supreme Court demanding ‘immediate action’, but which the lawyers say hasn’t happened.
Why does pollution matter? The Royal College of Physicians says air pollution contributes to around 40,000 premature deaths a year. And with the NHS creaking under pressure, the chronic effects of illness are likely to be far worse. If we don’t take a proactive stance on this issue now, the attraction of city-centre living could be damaged.
What makes little sense if that a new DEFRA consultation involving the creation of five clean air zones, including Leeds and Birmingham, will not restrict diesel vehicles. Instead, tax hikes are likely, following the creation of low-emission zones that charge drivers of the most polluting cars to enter city centres.
Thinking about how we pedestrianise urban centres to encourage fitter neighbourhoods really is crucial. Our first scheme in Manchester is part of the NOMA neighbourhood right in the heart of the city. A large attraction of the area is the public square that links Victoria Station to the retail district and Northern Quarter with the ring road pushed back around the north of the site.
Clearly, electric and eventually self-driving cars will reduce the burden on congested roads, but in reality, these things are more than a decade away. Just as our sector is evolving to meet the changing needs of renters, so too must the role of planning authorities. While the government fights court battles with campaigners, many councils could be taking the lead in driving forward sensible plans that encourage the right kinds of schemes.
A company like ours, with buildings of over 30 storeys planned in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, has a vested interest in healthy cities. With the build-to-rent sector investing and taking risks in delivering substantial new housing, which it could operate for decades, we should look to leverage our roles to drive the kind of change that is in everyone’s interest.
Johnny Caddick, managing director, Moda Living