Written by Juliet Meyers


The Flats Pack

Is the widespread construction of new flats in London solving a problem, asks Juliet Meyers, or creating one?

Construction of more flats near Juliet’s London home.

Daytime TV is a cavalcade of ‘Grand-Designed, Escaping To The Countryside, Under the Hammer’ property programmes. It’s a world away from the reality of most UK cities, where so many people can’t even afford to rent or buy a home.

Property consultancy Savills has warned the UK is facing its biggest housing shortfall since the 1950s. The last Labour Government said 240,000 new homes a year will be needed by 2016 to keep pace with population growth. That target was dropped by the Coalition, which said it wanted to build new homes but declined to set a specific target.

A lot of building has happened. Over the past five years in London, so-called luxury flats have popped up like ornate toadstools all over the shop. Or more accurately, all over bulldozed local amenities.

London prices are expensive but these new glorified metal box developments are like a new super strain. One in Hammersmith has single bedroom apartments starting at £760k (but I could only see ones for £1 million).

The flats themselves are little more than extended hotel suites and not something many people would want to live in all the time. But the absurdly heavy brochure (each page is made of thick card) boasts a health spa, virtual golf, a pool, gym and wine cellar.

There are numerous mocked-up pictures of residents walking through the marble foyer coquettishly laughing while carrying bags from Hermes, Harrods and Gucci. They are clearly aimed at equity-rich buyers and foreign investors, whereas 50% of London’s housing demand comes from households earning less than £50,000.

Many of the new schemes have been made possible by councils allowing developers to buy land and even giving them license to go beyond what has previously been permitted in terms of size or height, on the condition they give part of the profits for the local public good. This might include paying for extra school places, leisure centres or social housing. But, most importantly, they must agree to give a specified percentage of the flats they build to an affordable-living scheme.

Sadly, many of these deals have been reneged on by building companies citing ‘unforeseen expenses’, such as claiming the social housing units require separate entrances (‘poor doors’) and lifts which would make the project ‘unviable’.

Pressure group 35 Percent, which campaigns for the borough-wide policy of 35% affordable housing to be enforced in Elephant and Castle, estimates developers have avoided paying £265m in off-site affordable housing tariff payments.

Bearing in mind many of the flats have been bought by large corporations and people from overseas looking for stable places to invest their money, a large number of flats are not even expected to be inhabited for much of the year. The result being wealthy developers, empty rich ghettos, the death of communities and workers either staying with their parents or leaving London. Many people cite this situation as an argument for a Mansion Tax.

In my part of West London, the A&E is under threat and, before its demise is even finalised, there is talk of building more luxury flats if it goes.

Farewell also to the sweet arts centre that, among other things, had a lady accompanying silent films on her piano, arthouse films and experimental plays. In theory, they are going to build a better one in the basement. Ditto the Kensington Odeon – where, for now at least, the art deco façade is staying. And goodbye to independent cafes that will be replaced by global coffee chains which remove any identity and individuality from an area.

In my part of West London, the A&E is under threat and, before its demise is even finalised, there is talk of building more luxury flats if it goes.

While English Heritage has stated some of the new towers might interfere with the London skyline, London Mayor Boris Johnson has justified them as necessary to address housing needs. But, again, in some cases, the number of units given to affordable housing is as hazy as the London sky can be itself.

Artist Grayson Perry has also weighed in, claiming that, unless London has more affordable housing, it will become a cultural desert, “because rich people don’t create culture.”

Some might argue London has had a disproportionate amount given to its cultural scene already and it’s time for other places to benefit. I saw a comment in a newspaper recently sarcastically exclaiming, ‘Finally, an article about London property prices’.

A friend recently asserted that foreign investors were simply doing to London what Londoners had done to Cornwall. This would be a fair point, except the Londoners needing affordable housing aren’t the same ones who buy second houses and holiday homes. Even Londoners who qualify for social housing are beginning to be placed outside the capital.

But this is not just about London; the entire country already has a housing shortage and the gap between wages and house prices is widening all the time.

What is happening in London will create a ripple effect, as workers leave the city for somewhere more affordable. Companies may decide to relocate, too. This is good news in some respects, but potentially creates a bigger housing problem in other cities. Hopefully, some lessons about what kind of building needs to take place can be learned from London’s situation.

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Written by Juliet Meyers

Juliet Meyers is a writer (for radio and television), comedian, feminist and middle-lane swimmer. @julietmeyers