Richard Upton, Deputy CEO of U+I, discusses the launch of Town Flats last month, and what we believe needs to happen next to bring life back to hollow London.
Next time you walk through central London, look around you – not at the wonderful architecture or enticing shop fronts, but at the empty bits. The rubble-laden plot breeding buddleia encased in chain fencing, or the underused car park (who parks in central London these days?).
Chances are most of these holes will be owned by public authorities: local government, the NHS, Transport for London, even the military. What a waste, a waste of public land at a time of a severe housing crisis.
Now do the same walk another way: look up. Look at the glass towers reaching skywards, dripping with vacant luxury. Exclusive apartments tailored to the absent foreign owner, empty investment boxes for the very rich. What a waste, when so many young middle-income earners have to commute for a stressful hour or longer on a crowded train to an office that may just a stone's throw from that semi-deserted exclusivity, or that derelict no-man's land.
We call it Hollow London, and we want to do something about it.
The simple truth is that the only people who can afford to live in central London are the very wealthy, or those living in what social housing there is.
This is certainly not good for those who have to commute in to work in the city centre, but it is also not good for the city itself if its heart is being drained of life. It weakens both communities and local economies. It leads to them and us. Social cohesion is threatened.
We have thought hard about how to help. One answer, part of the solution, may lie in what we call 'town flats'. They are our vision for high-quality, low-rental and rental-only housing.
Town flats are small flats designed to extraordinarily high standards by leading architects. They are smaller than the type of apartment you typically find being built in central London. But there is more than enough space for living.
And because they are small, they become affordable for those on London's middle incomes: £30,000 to £80,000 – even in Zone 1. But they are not just flats. They are part of a building that has communal areas where you can work, or have a dinner party or relax on a roof terrace. They will provide social space to cater for the new way people lead their lives.
Most importantly, they will only ever be for rental. No-one can snap them up and make a quick buck by selling them on at a profit.
Ideally, they will be built on some of that publicly owned land you walked by this morning. It will prevent a public asset being wasted, while keeping it in public ownership. And not only does valuable land remain in public ownership, it may also generate income for hard-pressed local government coffers.
Will people want to live in them? Not all, of course, but some: probably young, single people on middle-incomes; people who cannot or do not want to buy their own property. But it will mean teachers and architects as well as lawyers and civil servants may be able to live closer to their work, at least for a period of their lives.
The concept also fits in with the changing way in which people are leading their lives. As the author of Stuffocation, James Wallman, notes: "One of the reasons why we are less bothered about owning things, is that we can now have all the benefits of access to a good, without the hassle of owning it. Spotify, for example, means you no longer need a bulky sound system or a roomful of CDs. Having a Kindle means that all your books will now fit into one small device."
So we think it would suit the tenants, but what would it do for London? We asked the leading economics consultancy Development Economics to compare the social and economic impact of town flats being built in central to that of more traditionally sized apartments. What they found was amazing.
On the basis of five town flat developments being built in each of the zone 1 London boroughs, the report suggests there would be an additional 4,770 homes housing an additional 3,555 working age adults. This would increase annual household expenditure associated with the additional residents living in these town flats by £202.5m, supporting 1,035 additional jobs.
And it would strengthen communities, bringing young people back into the heart of London, making it more diverse, more vibrant and less hollow.
We want to work with public sector bodies to make this happen. Come and join us bring life back to hollow London. It will be worth everyone's while.
Find out more about Town Flats here.
To arrange a viewing or to find out more, please contact Duncan Trench: DuncanTrench@uandiplc.com
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