The plan to make London more like Hong Kong, not Los Angeles
Michael Gove wants to build upwards in the capital, not outwards
Morning — two visions of housing in London went head-to-head this week. One, outlined by the government in a major speech on Monday, wants a denser city, with more people living in the sky. The other thinks there’s no way that can solve London’s housing crisis — and the city needs to grow outwards, as well as upwards. The Spy’s gathered a few experts to unpack the plans after your Thursday briefing below.
Plus: a borough department faces ‘collapse’, discussions about a new statue in Trafalgar Square, and a staircase is put up for sale for £20,000.
Consider supporting us: if you’re enjoying the Spy and want to help us grow, you can pledge your support using the button below. You won’t pay anything yet — but you’ll be first in line for a paid version of the Spy when we launch.
P.S: Hello to everyone who found us on Reddit this week! We’re very grateful to have been featured in this fab list of London news outlets worth reading.
What we’ve spied
📈 Insiders say Tower Hamlets’ council housing service is “near collapse”, with the homeless being told not to seek help and 1,200 emails left unread. Urgent requests for help from residents at risk of homelessness are apparently sitting unread in email inboxes, while staff say they have “never experienced such dysfunction or chaos”. That’s according to a letter of complaint submitted to the mayor of Tower Hamlets, which was signed by the vast majority of the council’s homelessness team. Things have gotten so bad, they say, that council workers have been issued with scripts to use on the phone to try to put homeless people off seeking help.
🏳️🌈 There’s a proposal to erect a statue of Alan Turing on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The idea was first put forward by defence secretary Ben Wallace in response to a review into the service and experience of LGBTQ+ veterans who served in the armed forces before 2000 when homosexuality was banned. Also backing the suggestion is the LGBTQ+ military charity Fighting With Pride, whose chairperson said that Turing’s “treatment in his time is a stark contrast to the debt we recognise we owe him today.”
🚗 It’s been a bit touch-and-go on the future of London’s ULEZ expansion this week, as fallout from the Conservative win in the Uxbridge by-election continues. There’s been conflicting reports about how much mayor Sadiq Khan is willing to tweak the air pollution scheme and how much pressure Labour leader Keir Starmer is applying, after his party failed to grab the outer west London seat last week. A brief timeline of where we’ve got to:
On Saturday, the Times reported that Khan was in retreat over ULEZ expansion following a private call with Starmer. According to the report, Khan was in “constructive listening mode” and had promised to review the policy.
On Sunday, it emerged from a “source close to the Labour mayor” that Khan was actually committed to the policy after all, and that he wouldn't compromise in any way that would reduce its effectiveness.
On Wednesday, it was Starmer who appeared to soften. While he refused to say if he supports the policy or not, he did back Khan’s call for the government to help fund a more generous scrappage scheme.
👮♂️ The Met Police has hired external lawyers in an effort to block the release of a report on its record with women in London. The report in question is the Met’s “problem profile” on violence against women, a type of document that analyses police performance on a given crime. The force has been ordered to release it by the Information Commissioner, but is instead taking the transparency regulator to court. This all comes in the context of the damning findings of the Casey report earlier this year, which quoted an official saying that rape “may as well be legal in London”. Also this week: the Met has referred itself to the police watchdog after wrongly arresting a woman in front of her son for bus fare evasion. Footage of the incident in Croydon has gone wild on social media.
🔥 A fire has destroyed a derelict mansion on the notorious 'Billionaires' Row' in north London. The Georgian property, which is worth an estimated £73m, was once owned by the Saudi royal family but has since been bought by a company based on the Isle of Man. No need to shed a tear for its owners, though — it appears they wanted to demolish it anyway. A planning application shows that plans were already in the works to tear it down and replace it with 65 flats. The plot is on Bishops Avenue in Barnet, a posh street that, in 2016, had 16 properties that had not been lived in for several decades.
🏃♀️ London may host the Commonwealth Games after the surprise withdrawal of Victoria. The Australian state of Victoria’s decision to pull out had prompted speculation that the 100-year-old games might be called off for good, but City Hall officials have said that London “stands ready” to host the games “if required”. The final decision rests with the central government, though, and there’s no guarantee they’ll say yes.
🚨 A bomb scare in the West End saw theatregoers evacuated from the Lion King. It seems to have been a false alarm, though, since police searched the building and later confirmed that no bomb was found.
🗞️ A surprise buyer has appeared for struggling London business newspaper City AM — an online health beauty retailer called THG. It’s the company of multimillionaire businessman Matthew Moulding, whose previous brushes with journalism have included ranting at an FT journalist for its coverage of his company.
🤷♀️ The latest nonsense from London’s housing market: Zoopla has just listed a 991-year lease on a staircase. That’s right, a staircase. The listing says it will be sold “vacant”, so that’s a plus. And the floorplan shows that it covers four stories, so lots of space. A virtual tour is available.
Can London avoid ‘concreting over’ its countryside?
If you want a sense of the government’s latest plans to fix London’s housing crisis, head to Stratford, Wembley or Elephant and Castle. There you’ll find tightly-packed hubs of flat blocks towering into the sky, many built on cleaned-up industrial sites or demolished post-war housing estates. You’d be hard-pressed to find the more traditional, low-rise London terrace anywhere close by. It’s a taste of the new focus for housebuilding in the city announced in a major speech by housing secretary Michael Gove on Monday: densification.
Gove’s choice of venue was part of his message. In the heart of King’s Cross, once an industrial area fed by the canal that’s now a glassy redevelopment, he outlined a strategy to pack more homes into city centres. He promised that new reforms will make it easier to grab disused sites in central London and to build in areas that are already built up. More empty retail premises will get converted into homes, if all goes to plan, and development corporations will have the power to buy up swathes of old industrial land — known technically as brownfield. The speech wasn’t solely focused on London — one of Gove’s headline projects was a “new urban quarter” for Cambridge — but for a government previously set on levelling up the rest of the country, London got a surprising number of shoutouts. The housing secretary even announced a flagship project for the capital — ‘Docklands 2.0’, a nod to the Thatcher government’s redevelopment of Canary Wharf in the 1980s that will mean up to 65,000 new homes along east London’s riverside.
But there was another, pointed message to Gove’s pitch: he was presenting an alternative to “concreting over the countryside”. It was a direct reply to Labour leader Keir Starmer, who in May said he’s willing to allow more building on the green belt — protected land that encircles cities like London. Originally designed to stop the capital from sprawling into miles of suburbs, some think it’s now constraining housebuilding too tightly, and exacerbating London’s high house prices and rents. But Gove’s speech firmly set out that the government wants more building upwards, not outwards.
There’s definitely scope for London to get densified — the capital is relatively roomy compared to other international cities. At its densest, London has around 24,000 people living per square kilometre. That compares to a peak density of 47,000 in Paris and 50,000 in New York. And then in cities like Hong Kong or Mumbai, that figure rises to 120,000. The gaps close when you look at the average density across the entire urban area of these cities, but London still often comes behind even smaller European cities.
Anthony Breach, senior analyst at the Centre for Cities, explained to the Spy: “If you wander around places like Milan or Brussels or Lyon or Marseille, you will see that they have much more mid-rise apartment blocks comprising up to five storeys or so within the inner urban area. That's not really the case in the UK cities, including London. You step outside of the city centre, and you'll be in low-rise, terraced, semi-detached urban neighbourhoods, even outside of tube stations within zones two to four in London.”
In Anthony’s view, denser development in London has been held back by the unpredictability of the city’s planning system. “It’s very difficult for private developers to buy up bits of residential land, and then assemble those into a single plot, and then go forward with an application to the council to say, 'Hey, I want to knock down these houses and I want to build a mid-rise block of flats in its place.' That's almost impossible because it's so risky under the current planning system.”
Instead, London’s densest developments have been limited to small pockets — like the aforementioned Stratford, Wembley and Elephant and Castle. These areas had the right kind of land, usually owned by the public sector or acquirable by the public sector, that could more easily be stitched together into a big project. Recent schemes like these, combined with mayoral policies, have managed to have a significant impact on London’s density as of late.
“London has actually become a third denser overall between 2000 and 2020,” Richard Brown, a London writer and commentator, told the Spy. “That’s because of a principle that the first mayor, Ken Livingstone, pushed and subsequent mayors have stuck with which was London will accommodate its population growth within its boundaries. That's roughly been the principle for all three mayors.”
The key question though is how much further densification can go. The remaining undeveloped industrial land in London is increasingly expensive, and there are only so many former housing estates left to regenerate — or as many would say, gentrify. “Getting up to the same density as Paris or Barcelona would mean a wholesale replacement of the urban fabric,” continued Richard. “Basically, demolition and rebuilding of a lot of stable residential areas. I don't think that's really something that's really politically tolerable, even if it was the right thing to do.”
That’s where the temptation to allow building on the green belt comes in. There are groups, like The Countryside Charity, who fear for the destruction of green space and habitats. Their worst-case scenario is London ending up like an American city like Los Angeles, where suburbs end up sprawling for miles. But others think that, despite the pros of densification, a tightly packed city just can’t satisfy every Londoner’s needs.
“There are huge benefits of density,” said Richard. “It's a more efficient use of land, it's generally much more environmentally sustainable in terms of car trips and carbon emissions per population. It creates the sort of volume of demand for local services, whether that's transport services, or local schools, shops, bars, cafes.
“But some people simply want a bit more space. However much you say there's a great park nearby, some people say ‘Well I want a private garden where my kids can play. I want my own space.' You can build outdoor space in high-density flats, but it's difficult and it probably isn't quite like having your own lawn in the suburbs.”
Starmer himself by no means called for unregulated building on the green belt, and other groups advocating for the land to be brought into play stress it should only have limited use — such as Dr Maya Singer Hobbs, senior research fellow at think tank IPPR.
She told us: “Some limited development on the green belt should be permitted within 10 minutes of a station, and only to local authorities or non-profit housing delivery organisations. This will meet housing need without unconstrained urban sprawl, and will ensure new developments are not building in ‘car dependence’.”
But the politics are treacherous. No doubt there are many in outer London boroughs willing to mobilise in defence of the green belt, even if, in some cases, the land isn’t necessarily the most environmentally valuable. And then there are councils outside but bordering London who would likely need to be brought onside to any plans. Perhaps tellingly, mayor Sadiq Khan appeared to distance himself from his own party leader’s comments, stressing he was “committed to protecting” the green belt. “It’s not a vote winner for anyone who's running for mayor of London to look like you're giving up the green belt,” said Richard.
Others take a harder view, and believe attempts to win over “NIMBYs” are misguided. “Some people will always object to development, no matter what, and they will always find some excuse to do so,” Dr Kristian Niemietz, head of political economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs, told the Spy.
“The solution is not to strive for all-round harmony, but to do what's right. And if that alienates some people — so be it."
Attention will now turn to Gove’s Docklands 2.0 project as a bellwether for the success of his densification drive. The housing secretary wants to regenerate areas around Thamesmead, Beckton and Silvertown, setting up a development corporation to take control of the planning process. It’s handy timing, given plans in the works to extend the DLR in the area. But the scale of the challenge is immense. As the IPPR points out, even if the Docklands 2.0 provided all the 65,000 homes Gove promises, right now there are 60,000 homeless households in London. Densification may only scratch the surface.
Thanks for reading London Spy! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our work.