A year ago, I started this website. After having grown up in London, I was becoming increasingly concerned about the way in which our city was being exploited.
One particular frustration was the way in which property developers were undermining the rules designed to protect our communities and our built environment (and making absurd profits in the process), and the lack of critical investigative journalism covering this subject.
London is a city which is bigger than many countries in Europe. But it has only one daily newspaper, the Evening Standard. That newspaper provides almost no critical analysis of one of the greatest challenges facing us, the failure of the city to house itself. Instead, every new ‘exclusive’ property development is celebrated in their property pages, which seem to cater exclusively for a wealthy international elite.
With this website, my goal was to bring a critical eye to London’s housing, property and development industries. To help develop a greater understanding as to why our city is failing, and share that knowledge with you, the readers.
Over the course of a year, the site has managed to cover a huge number of issues, from the dark arts of daylight surveyors to some of the absurd lengths a property developer will go to, to destroy a London pub and turn it into a single family dwelling.
Surveying the crisis
For much of this year I have focused on the role of surveyors, who have played a central role in the development of London’s housing crisis. In particular we looked at some of the accounting tricks they play to remove affordable housing from new housing developments.
We have uncovered some real scandals, including how surveyors appear to have wildly underestimated the profits of new housing developments in order to allow their clients to avoid affordable housing obligations.
One of the most brazen examples of this was at the Heygate Estate, where surveyors used estimated costs of compulsory purchase that were higher than the real costs of compulsory purchase that had already been realised by their client. The effect of this was to artificially inflate their costs, deflate their profits and remove affordable housing from the redevelopment of the estate.
That was of course the actions of a private sector developer. Surely we could expect better behaviour from the public sector and charitable institutions? Sadly not. We revealed similar tricks being played by the London Fire Authority and Kings’ College London.
When developers try to play accounting tricks on local authorities to avoid planning obligations, we are reassured by councils that everything is checked by an independent surveyor. However, we found that it is common practice for the surveyors checking the developers’ figures on behalf of the public to be paid by the developer themselves, creating real questions as to how closely they were really scrutinising the figures.
The politics of crisis
One of the features of London’s housing crisis has been the failure of government to respond to it in any meaningful way. In June, we got to understand a little more about why that might be when we learned that a committee, largely comprised of lobbyists from the house building industry, was sitting within the Department for Communities and Local Government directing policy on housing and planning for the department.
The committee, called the Planning Sounding Board, met in secret, with no minutes being taken. When I requested even basic details about what they were discussing, the Department responded that Sounding Board members were to be considered civil servants and exempt from Freedom of Information requests.
The case was taken up by lobbying watchdog Spinwatch, who expressed huge concern with the way in which the government was conducting itself.
A new mayor
There was great hope in May with the election of a new Mayor, who fought largely on a platform of improving London’s dire housing situation.
Personally I was always skeptical of Sadiq Khan’s ability to grasp the nettle. Throughout the campaign Mr Khan consistently stressed that he wanted to be the Mayor for everyone and the most pro-business mayor ever.
Much of the housing crisis in London is a conflict over land. On one side of that conflict we have a number of property developers who see the potential to make billions building high-rise luxury towers and flogging them to the offshore pound.
On the other, we have a vast number of Londoners who want that land to be put to better use: affordable housing, industry and employment.
It is difficult to represent everyone in that conflict; the developers are often Londoners too! In addition, the large developers have managed to successfully capture the business lobby. This is most acutely seen with London First, the most prominent pro-business lobby group. Often, what is presented as being ‘good for business’ by the organisation is simply what is good for Berkeley Homes.
What is required from the Mayor is the strength of purpose to take on a small community of vested interests who have channeled vast amounts of cash into their pockets, at the expense of others.
So it is with little surprise and with great sadness that this year we have also reported that less than a year after being elected, Mr Khan abandoned two key pledges he made on housing, without even attempting to implement them. Specifically, the promise to compel developers to build 50% affordable housing on new developments, and the manifesto promise to ensure that estate regeneration plans would only go ahead with the support of residents.
The good news at least, is that both the policies on affordable housing and estate regeneration are out to consultation. There is an opportunity for the Mayor to change his mind in the new year.
What next for ourcity.london?
As we move into 2017 there is clearly a lot more work for OurCity.London to do. I already have a few really interesting (if utterly depressing) stories in the pipeline which I hope will cause a big splash. However, as the site has grown I realise that there are in fact far too many important stories than any one person can attempt to cover.
I hope that this year I will recruit more writers for the website, to give us a broader coverage and greater perspective. As part of the effort to expand the reach of the site, I am planning a change in the way the website is funded and published. More on this to come soon.
I also want this website to have a bigger impact. Where there is evidence of gross misconduct or malpractice in the industry, people should be held accountable and policies changed to stop those bad practices from happening again.
The people responsible for this are regulators and politicians. I hope that this year ourcity.london will be able to step up our engagement with these key stakeholders, and more on that will be published very soon.
So, I hope you have enjoyed reading this website this year, and I hope that together we can make London a better, more inclusive place to live in 2017.
Happy New Year.