Economist Article on Housing: Playing sardines | The Economist
We talk about London in our meetings and having lived there, Oxford (see article) and now here, I think the article’s author makes valid points we can use when people ask why we’re so expensive. At least we can add weather into the mix whereas they cannot.
Tally Ho –
WHEN relatives come to visit me in London, they are astounded by two things. First, at how much there is to do—how many restaurants, shops and people are squeezed into such a tiny space. And second, how expensive everything is, especially housing. The rent I pay for a room in a shared flat, my mother likes to point out, would pay the mortgage on a decent-sized family house in a posh part of town at home.
These things, unfortunately enough, are linked. A part of the reason why London works so much better than, say, Leeds, or Bristol, is because it is so densely populated. According to the 2011 census, in inner-London, there are 101 people per hectare, peaking at 139 in Islington. In other large urban local authorities such as Manchester and Birmingham, by contrast, the figure comes to about 40.
The more people are squeezed into an area, the more services that area will be able to sustain. The tube—which sets London’s public transport system apart from the rest of England’s cities’—simply could not be justified without such high population density. Fast food shops which open until 5am, night buses, sports centres you can walk to, pop-up restaurants: all of these things require density. As Richard Rogers, an architect who has been a loud advocate for density for twenty years, argues in the Evening Standard, if you let a city "sprawl", you get "segregation between city centres that clear out when offices close and suburbs that are lifeless all day." He is fiercely opposed to building on London’s green belt, which restricts building on the city’s fringe.
But here’s the thing: higher density means higher costs. Thanks at least in part to the green belt that Lord Rogers is so keen on, in London the average house costs £445,000, or around 16 times the average earnings in Britain as a whole. According to the Centre for Cities, a think tank, London is the second least affordable place to live in the United Kingdom after Oxford (which also has an incredibly tight green belt and lots of wealthy foreign residents), even after accounting for higher earnings. In some inner boroughs such as Islington, house price to earnings ratios reach as high as 17.
Playing sardines is fun in your twenties, but when people have children, they don’t just want restaurants and public transport: they also want gardens and fresh air. That’s why so many millions fled the cities in the 1950s and 1960s when cars made it possible to live out in the suburbs. Lord Rogers, for all his love of crowding people into tight spaces, lives in two houses knocked together in Chelsea, worth some £12 million. No doubt if he were forced to live as new immigrants do in Newham, where 47% of households live with more than 1.5 residents per bedroom, he might be less keen on population density.
As Henry Overman, of the London School of Economics, points out, London is simply running out of space. In a city of 8m people, there are just 24,000 long-term empty homes. Most unused "brownfield" land is in and around northern cities, where housing is still cheap. We should build up, certainly. But high-rise flats are deeply unpopular, especially among families with children. Existing residents also hate the effect they have on London’s skyline. No one thinks that London should spread out for 60 miles, like Tokyo or Los Angeles. But this dogma on density, which restricts so much building, is making families’ lives miserable for the sake of a few measly lettuce fields.
Kevin K. Ho, Esq.
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