London Forum’s President Ben Derbyshire speaking at the October 2023 AGM, highlighted his newly published book – Home Truths. He said that after 50 years as an architect, he wanted to pass on what he felt young architects ought to know. Firstly that we need to learn from ‘Loved Housing’. Homes built in the 19th Century, in particular, four-storey terraces and mansion blocks, have been endlessly adapted to suit the needs of successive occupants and changing lifestyles. Were all of London built at the density of Islington, where such housing predominates and where Ben lives, the city could accommodate twice its current population. Instead, the outer boroughs stoutly defend the suburban low-density lifestyle, and because housing density limits have been ‘abandoned’, the result is high-rise housing blocks across the city. Additionally, as public funding for affordable housing has been radically reduced, profit from homes for sale on every development must now fill the gap. Whereas in 1980 an average salary was sufficient to buy a home, with homes now costing 20 times the average salary, young people cannot afford housing in London. Land speculation must be curbed!
So, what is to be done? Ben feels the most suitable forms of urban housing are streets and squares of between four and ten storeys in height. Neighbourhoods should be arranged in perimeter blocks, creating well overlooked streetscapes and the opportunity for private or shared amenity space within. Done well, places like this can also accommodate the occasional tall building too. That such neighbourhoods can comfortably house people from all walks of life as well as enabling the mix of uses we need for the walkable city. Rejecting the notion that there is anything sinister about the “15-minute city”, Ben asserted that it is both possible and desirable for citizens to be within 15 minutes of everything required to support wellbeing.
Oddly, the Greater London Authority’s housing design guidance doesn’t help. Its requirement for all apartments to be dual aspect drives developers towards tower blocks, to comply with minimum daylight standards. The answer also partly lies beyond the current boundaries of the GLA. Effective governance for London requires extension to at least the whole of its travel to work area, where 75 per cent of the working population relies on the city for employment. In Ben’s view, it is just not reasonable for councils in the Home Counties to refuse housing generated by demand from London, whilst relying on London for so much else. And we must re-think the Green Belt’s purpose. No longer should it function solely as a corset to constrain development. Green Belt policy should instead transform its purpose from agribusiness to a biophilic lung which might very well include new homes too, but only if adjacent to rail transport and if significantly carbon-positive and not the incremental sprawl we see at the moment. Ben says we need to be a YIMBY London https://www.londonyimby.org/ and praised the work of London Forum Trustee John Myers.
Finally, speaking of manifesto promises, Ben noted some ‘straws in the winds of change’ that the Labour Party say they will bring to “rebuilding Britain”. Keir Starmer’s pledge to bring about one and a half million new homes, a new generation of New Towns and to building on “grey-belt” land – Green Belt land that isn’t actually green – reflects much of what Ben believes to be necessary.
Questions from the floor emphasised the need to deal with the unfair / disincentive VAT paid on renovations; how changes in Section 106 could be a “catastrophe for London” and how permitted development changes would lead to the wrong development in the wrong places. Finally, Ben made an open offer as a speaker to societies.
Ben’s book can be bought from Amazon: https://amzn.eu/d/40ObS25