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Artillery Row

Sadiq Khan’s hot air on housing

The London Plan is bad for the capital

It is a universal truth that London does not have enough homes. Some may be sceptical over how many, of what design they should take and where they should be placed; but it is impossible to find any reasonable person who questions the need for our capital to have more of them. Keir Starmer realises this, as does Rishi Sunak, and so does everyone working in housing policy with two brain cells to rub together.

A lot of NIMBY nonsense locally stems from national policies

This shortage is typically blamed on our discretionary planning system’s allowing “NIMBY” councillors to oppose new developments for any number of ridiculous reasons. This is partially true, but it does miss some nuance. Councillors sitting in Local Planning Committees have to use factors from their Local Plan to determine whether a given development ought to be permitted. This plan must be in general conformity with both the National Planning Policy Framework created by the Government and the London Plan by the Mayor’s Office. As such the Mayor of London and the Government do have a lot of say in local planning decision making.

Reading these documents, it becomes clear that a huge amount of the NIMBY nonsense used to block homes locally stems from national policies that the Councillors have no choice but to consider. As such, it is vital that these documents are well drafted, evidence based and present an institutional environment that can make London great. Sadiq Khan’s London Plan does not do that.

Most obvious is its own admission that it will not ever permit enough homes to be built to meet London’s needs. The London Strategic Housing Market Assessment has identified a need for 66,000 new homes a year for at least the next twenty years. A normal person would therefore assume that the Plan should aim to reach these numbers. Yet the Plan only targets 52,000 homes a year for the next 10 years with no plan of what to do after that. This means that even if we do meet the targets, every year London’s shortage will become greater, and the effects of the housing crisis will worsen. The reality is that we have never come close to reaching this figure.

When one really gets into the weeds of the policies, it becomes clear just how ill thought out so much of this is. One particular area that garnered a lot of tension on social media last week was its policy on air conditioners. Specifically, the Plan advises against the use of air conditioners because of the urban heat island effect. The problem being discussed here arises when cities develop in a way that absorbs more heat. This situation can be potentially dangerous as it traps natural heat within the urban areas during hotter seasons, leading to even higher temperatures.

The plan will mean many buildings will never get built

The problem is genuine, and it does need to be taken into account. However, so does the new reality that London’s summers are increasingly hot. If we do not invest in air conditioning we will only become less productive. Studies showing this are voluminous. Indeed, one paper from 2020 found that test performance on hotter days in schools without air conditioning is significantly lower than in schools that use it. They found that a school year that is one degree Fahrenheit hotter can reduce overall learning by one per cent. Extrapolate this effect across every job in the country, and you can imagine the massive reductions in overall output and therefore in the living standards of the country as a whole.

More fundamentally, warning against developments installing air conditioning across a whole building will actually encourage more damaging practices to follow. Where whole buildings are not kept cool, this incentivises individual unit holders to invest in renovations that keep just their unit cool. This will become increasingly likely if we agree with the official projections of London’s average summers being ⅕ drier and 3 degrees celsius warmer by 2050. This decision is much worse in creating the urban heat island effect, because it uses cool air much less efficiently across a building. Moreover, dissuading investment in air conditioning will slow the progress of new advancements in sustainable cooling technologies — such as using propane or district cooling — due to the reduced demand for them, thanks to the planning barriers to taking advantage of these technologies.

It is true that the plan does not prohibit air conditioning, but it does make it harder for developments reliant on it to get permission. The effect is that new builds become less desirable to move into, reducing the return on the investment on the part of the developer. Once you add in the high cost of Community Infrastructure Levies, s106 agreements, and regulatory and planning risk for many buildings, this will simply mean they will never get built. We often talk about the housing crisis in London, but these factors also massively hurt businesses through an arbitrarily high cost of office space — dissuading highly innovative companies from investing in Britain.

This is just one example from a London Plan that creates far too many ill-considered grounds on which to stop development from taking place, whilst making the new builds that do squeeze through the planning system worse than they could be. The Government has hinted that it is going to review the London Plan — and it should. These absurdities ought to be removed to allow the capital to take advantage of new technologies that make our lives more bearable, to ensure that its housing needs are actually planned for.

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