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Can tall buildings solve London’s housing problem?

Secondpoor memory More homes are needed. Its population has grown by nearly 8 million in the past two decades; by 2030, it will grow by another 2 million. Many will be drawn to cities – the engine rooms of the economy. However, the supply of new housing cannot keep up. London alone needs 83,000 new homes a year, but only half are being built, according to real estate agent Savills. The biggest gap is at the cheap end of the housing market – anything selling for less than £450 ($560) per square foot, or £4,840 per square metre. The segment accounts for nearly three-fifths of London demand but less than a third of forecast supply (see chart).

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Strict planning rules that protect green belts around cities can effectively prevent urban sprawl. Too effective: only 6% of the land in the UK is built up. Countryside Charity claims that London has enough vacant or abandoned brownfield sites that almost 400,000 homes could be built there. However, brownfields can be unattractive places to live and often require expensive cleanup. For cities looking to fit more homes on less land, there’s another way: up.

Residential skyscrapers, common in cities like New York and Seoul, squeeze almost the same number of people as London on less than half the land. Other cities in the UK are not as dense. Places such as Manchester, Bristol or Sheffield rank lower than many European cities of similar size, according to think-tank City Centre.

Density has many benefits. Squeezing people into tall buildings uses space more efficiently, reducing commute times and reducing carbon footprints.More than a third of Londoners commute to Go to work by car, while only 7% of Hong Kong people. Dense cities are also more productive: Some economists argue that population density explains more than half of the variation in output per capita in U.S. cities. That means higher wages for skilled workers.

Even so, there is little chance that buildings to the sky will solve housing problems in London or any other UK city. One reason is that the economics of tall buildings do not match the demand for affordable housing. Tall buildings don’t come cheap. Land values ​​in England have risen by more than a third over the past decade, according to another estate agent, Knight Frank; and the cost of building materials has risen across the UK between 2019 and 2022 alone similar amount. Elevators are expensive.

Maintenance costs will also increase. If something goes wrong, it’s usually cheaper to tear down a tower than to renovate it. This is a particular risk in London, a city built almost entirely on clay, which makes structures more prone to cracking and damage. Booming cities like Manhattan and Hong Kong are built on firmer foundations, says Yolande Barnes of University College London. Unforeseen costs may increase.After the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which killed 72 people in 2017, the developer faces repair bills to fix the dangerous cladding And called for a second staircase to be installed in all new residential buildings above 30 meters.

Affordable housing quotas are also putting pressure on developers’ profits. In 2021, London Mayor Sadiq Khan unveiled a target to build 50% affordable housing in all new locations, up from the 35% threshold set in 2016. Increasingly, residential land is being converted to commercial uses (such as warehouses), as Savills’ Emily Williams says, or concentrated in areas with higher property values ​​such as Canary Wharf.

Where high-rise projects succeed, they often shy away from affordability targets in favor of handing out cash to local communities or promising to build cheap housing elsewhere. Nearly 200 towers have been built in London over the past decade, but many are filled with luxury apartments and boast gyms, private cinemas and rooftop lounges. Buyers are usually investors; apartments are often empty. Since 2015, more high-rise buildings have been built in the tower hamlet in the city’s east than in almost any other borough in the capital. But more than 6,100 homes in the region — about 4 percent of the total — are listed as second homes.

Infrastructure is the second hurdle to build. Justification for ambitious new towers is much easier to justify when public transit makes it easy for residents to reach offices, shops, and other amenities. The Elizabeth Line, a new train route in London, is expected to open 180,000 new homes along its route by 2026; and the extension of the Northern Line of the London Underground is driving the development of Nine Elms, a tower complex in south London.Poor transport links are holding back large-scale development in outer London boroughs such as Bromley, which will be one of the least new boroughs Houses in the capital for the next few years. The challenge is greater in cities outside London, where transport networks are less developed.

The UK’s planning system poses another set of hurdles. New plans for London must adhere to strict height restrictions and must not block certain views of landmarks such as St Paul’s Cathedral. Local residents often resist the development of high-rise buildings: planning applications for new schemes are rejected as too bulky, too strange or simply ugly.

The good news is that tall buildings aren’t the only way to achieve higher density, or even the best way, as very tall buildings often require a lot of space around them. Hong Kong’s unique density comes from the installation of many tall buildings on narrow streets, which puts enormous pressure on the city’s transport, sewer and energy networks, as well as spiraling the carbon emissions of the buildings.

Elsewhere, smaller developments in closer proximity can achieve comparable densities on the same amount of land at a lower environmental cost. Maida Vale, an affluent area of ​​London, is the densest square kilometer in the UK due to its mid-rise mansions, usually five to ten storeys high. The Center for Cities estimates that if only 5% of London’s population could reach Maida Vale’s density levels, the capital could accommodate an extra 1.2 million people.

Yet even mid-rise buildings have to overcome perhaps the biggest hurdle: Brits don’t like the culture of flats. British people are more opposed to moving into high-rise buildings than citizens of other countries, according to research by pollster YouGov. About half are opposed to living in apartment buildings that are only three or four storeys high, while their peers in countries such as Sweden and Spain are mostly in favor. While 53% of Britons support the idea of ​​building more homes, this would drop to 25% if it meant smaller homes or taller buildings.

Lack of privacy and the assumption that it is not appropriate for children help explain this aversion. So too is the history of high-rise housing in British cities, which began with the need for rapid provision of large numbers of council housing after the war. A crime wave and maintenance problems have created image problems for the 1960s and 70s towers; several have been bulldozed. Lately, the pandemic hasn’t helped: Tired of commuting and the rise of hybrid work, many Londoners have traded flats and mansions for larger properties, with gardens and home offices further afield.

It’s not all blues. The pandemic has prompted the conversion of some underutilized offices into residential properties. At least 109 new high-rise buildings are under construction in London. But that does little to alleviate the capital’s housing shortage. In the UK, the five-year average of new tall buildings fell by 15%; planning applications fell for the third consecutive year. Many more must come off the ground.

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