Don’t blame the housing shortage on housebuilders: they are in business and not responsible for a social programme, writes Paul Finch
Writing from the land of the free (I have been in New York and Los Angeles promoting World Architecture Festival 2013) it has been depressing to read about objections in the UK to the simple idea of allowing owners to convert offices to residential accommodation as-of-right. In particular, the attitude of London mayor Boris Johnson, usually so sure-footed in these matters, is unwelcome evidence that, when push comes to shove, politicians hate losing powers, whatever the circumstances.
Aided and abetted by the canny Edward Lister, his right-hand deputy mayor, Boris has declared that just about the whole of central London should be exempt from the pesky free-marketeers who want more housing, and that ‘town centres’ all over the capital should be similarly exempt. Mr Lister is on record as saying, nevertheless, that he ‘supports government policy’. Ha ha ha. He is particularly worried about Mayfair being devoid of offices, to which one can only respond: so what if it was?
You might have thought that, at a time when London councils such as Camden and Newham are trying to export the poor to northern cities like Bradford, the idea of creating additional housing quickly might hold some attractions. Not, it seems, if it involves the town hall giving up one iota of the planning powers that have failed to create an adequate housing supply in the capital and elsewhere.
This whole subject came up at a meeting of London planning officers at Design Council CABE two weeks ago, and general concern was expressed about the implications of a policy that would allow changes of use without planning permission. This is understandable from a professional planning point of view: the ideology of planning is based on direction, rather than enabling. You don’t expect leopards to change their spots overnight.
But what about the politicians? It is, after all, a political rather than planning failure which has resulted in the grotesque housing shortage - and the vicious attack on poor people in council-sponsored accommodation who are not supposed to have a spare bedroom, however mean the space standards of the hutches they occupy. The disgusting spectacle of braying ministers with their country piles and second homes (courtesy of the taxpayer) complaining about over-generous space standards for the poor is almost beyond satire, as is their utter failure to understand that, in the matters of housing, education and health, the dull old civil service mantra - predict and provide - was intelligent and humane. Unfortunately, in respect of housing, it has long been abandoned.
There is a simple answer to the housing problem in London and the South-East: build, build, build. And, because we know that the house-building sector will not be able to provide the entirety, or perhaps even majority of the new homes required, others must be brought into the picture. Housebuilders should absolutely not be blamed for this: they are in business and are not responsible for a social programme.
So, not the least reason for welcoming as-of-right conversions is that the clients responsible will be in addition to, not instead of, conventional housing providers. In other words, thousands of office owners will, if it makes economic sense, become part of the housing supply market. If the policy doesn’t work, we will have lost nothing, since activity will not require public funding. We could even reverse the proposed change to the use class orders. On the other hand, if it is successful, we will wonder what all the fuss was about.
By the way, the moment office values exceed residential, conversions will generally cease. This is what we call, on both sides of the Atlantic, a market.