Rebalancing the UK economy and the role of citizens’ organisations

The downsides of London’s widely heralded role as the ‘engine’ of the British economy are largely borne by citizens, but there may be signs of change in the way that community groups in the capital have begun to make themselves heard – offering experience from which all in the wider metropolitan region could learn, says Michael Edwards

[Contribution to a special issue on Planning in the London Metropolitan Region of the journal Town and Country Planning, guest-edited by Duncan Bowie. The whole issue is available from the TCPA here. ]

We have lived through the first two mayoralties of the Greater London Authority (GLA), governed by the imperative that the scale and nature of London’s growth cannot be questioned and by the fantasy that the space requirements of this growth can be met within the Greater London boundary and without attrition of the Metropolitan Green Belt.

The growth imperative remains widely unchallenged, but the palpable impossibility of the containment fantasy now seems to be accepted by professionals and by many of those in power. Housing market demand knows no bounds and spills ever further into surrounding English counties, spreading the affordability crisis far and wide. London local housing authorities, desperate to meet their homelessness and other obligations, are increasingly placing their tenants wherever they can find space cheaper than the private rented stock of London.

Within Greater London there has been a severe democratic deficit as financial, infrastructure and real-estate interests have been able to set the agenda for the planning of the city, reaping rents, capital value growth and profits from the concentration of building and civil engineering work in the capital. The conventional measures of GDP and GVA show London as a ‘success’ and feed the narrative that the city is the ‘engine’ of the British economy – this despite the omission of environmental costs from those measures, the fragility of the rentier economy being produced, and the somewhat illusory character of the growth component which comprises rents and the imputed rents from the growth of value of the owner-occupied housing stock.

The downside of London’s fabled agglomeration economies is largely borne by citizens in the form of high rents and prices for housing, high travel costs, air quality which seriously breaches the law, displacement and disruption of communities and enterprises and the dispossession of tenants and leaseholders in erstwhile social housing. It was no surprise when the Resolution Foundation analysed median household incomes in UK regions since 2007-08 and found that London is superficially a rich region with a strong post-crash recovery but that, after paying housing costs, Londoners were by no means the richest and had seen the worst real income falls in the entire UK.1

The forms of democracy we inherited have not enabled these oppressions to be voiced effectively in policy-making. But there are signs of change as the victims of Britain’s uniquely dysfunctional housing system get organised (Priced Out, Generation Rent, Renters’ Rights London, London Tenants Federation, Radical Housing Network) and broader campaigns emerge (Take Back the City, Reclaim London). On specifically planning issues, Just Space has grown to be a strong network of local and London-wide citizen organisations, supporting each other (in the absence of any public funding) to make effective use of the participation opportunities which planning, environmental and local government law provides. It has just published its proposals for the next London Plan to the new Mayor and Assembly: a big achievement for a city of 8 or 9 million Towards a community-led plan for London: policy directions and proposals. It works in effective co-operation with the long-established London Forum of Civic and Amenity Societies, finding much common ground despite a different class composition and working method.2

It has been hard enough to scale up community activism in London from its long-established neighbourhood scale to span Greater London. How might it extend even more widely in the coming years? In some ways the imperative is for citizen organisations in all the UK’s regions and countries to co-operate since —as in so many European countries— it is the widening disparities at the national scale that need to be challenged and changed. The multi-scale structure of the Social Forum movement of the early 2000s would have been an ideal framework for these grass-roots collaborations, but that whole system seems to have wilted, at least in the UK. In the world of political parties, perhaps the rejuvenated Labour Party might become helpful, as is the Green Party to some extent. The New Economics Foundation (NEF), IPPR North and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) are valuable beacons of sanity and analysis, but none of them is more than an infrastructure for social movements.

As things stand in 2016 it appears that we shall be getting officer-level and member-level collaborations between the London and nearby local authorities. Representative democracy in these Home Counties is weakened by the first past the post electoral system and, as a Londoner, I would guess that working class and low-/middle-income communities there feel even less empowered than their London counterparts. At least in London there is an element of proportional representation in the London Assembly which has made that body, while still toothless, a remarkably effective sounding board and debating site compared with most local councils. We shall see.

On the other hand, some of the geographical wheeling and dealing is likely to be done by Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), even more removed from grass-roots accountability than local councils. Some older readers will remember, however, that the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986 was followed by 16 years of similar informal consultations among London boroughs in LPAC (the London Planning Advisory Committee). That system was widely expected to be an ineffectual talking shop, but it surprised everyone by building some strong consensus positions, often quite progressive, and leaning on national governments. It was democratically accountable only in the most indirect sense and scarcely engaged directly with citizens, but it did have some achievements. Could today’s informal local authority collaboration develop the strength needed to enforce planned new urbanisation on reluctant shires?

A rebalancing between UK regions would take time, and presupposes a release from the damaging orthodoxies of neo-liberalism. However, the potential for multi-scale planning of regional development in Southern England is immense, the need for it is urgent, and progress could perhaps be made. The experience of community groups in London suggests that planning should be guided by the following principles:

  • reducing the need to travel (and for road freight movement), especially by private vehicles – and doubly so for diesel vehicles;
  • meeting the backlog of unmet housing need and keeping up with the growth of need and demand, providing for more refugees and migrants; and
  • respecting environmental limits, slowing climate change (while preparing for it to accelerate), and making the most of highly valued urban and rural landscapes.

Progress on these fronts will be a major challenge. The vested interests in high and rising house prices and rents (the financial sector, landowners, and many owner-occupiers and professions) are powerful. Infrastructure builders and investors are interested in heavy radial railways to permit London’s housing deficits to be met by dormitory settlements along the lines – rather than in the less glamorous job of reducing the transport damage caused by daily life in our spaced-out polycentric city region. Thinking in London’s City Hall seems to favour shifting employment growth out to the Home Counties on the grounds that this would be politically easier than shifting housing growth out. That might be expedient, but it does not sound like a reduction of the need to travel, and it threatens to exacerbate the crisis in workspace availability within London, driven by inflated housing land prices and the dismantling of controls which have kept land use classes as separate property markets for 70 years.

We shall be regaled with pleas for a more polycentric system of settlements within and beyond London, and the heroic ‘Polynet’ research of Peter Hall and Kathy Pain will be cited in support. But their analysis drew attention to the environmentally alarming scale of travel – especially car travel – generated by our dispersed settlement system. Growth of employment and housing across the wider region will have to be very systematically modelled and managed if it is to strengthen local economies without growth of car dependence. An opportunistic splatter of new towns, new villages, urban extensions and transit-oriented developments could be the worst of worlds.

Furthermore, within London, powerful market forces driven by a financialised housing price boom have combined with de facto planning practices to create an increasingly centralised structure of employment growth, eating away at diverse local service and manufacturing economies. London’s greatest 21st century achievement of reversing the growth of car-dependence will be very hard to roll out across the wider regions, and the ambition of current policy debates does not seem adequate. It is hard to be optimistic just now.

Michael Edwards is a Teaching Fellow at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London and a co-organiser of the Just Space network. The views expressed are personal.


1 A. Corlett, D. Finch and M. Whittaker: Living Standards 2016: The Experiences of Low to Middle Income Households in Downturn and Recovery. Resolution Foundation, Feb. 2016.

2 This article draws with gratitude on the author’s very stimulating years of work with the Just Space network of London community, activist and ‘voluntary’ organisations seeking to influence planning within the GLA boundary. It is in no way written on behalf of Just Space, indeed some of the issues raised here have not yet been discussed within the network. Thanks to the TCPA for triggering these reflections, which may thus enter the network’s debates. [later note: some of the issues raised here are discussed in the Just Space Economy and Planning Group’s Commentary on the Draft Economic Evidence Base for London Planning prepared by GLA Economics. ]

Comment on Simon Jenkins

Being stuck at home in my chair, recovering from minor surgery, prompts me to comment on a piece which Simon Jenkins published in today’s Guardian. 1 October 2015

I can hardly put all this in a comment box, so here it is separately.

Copyright lies with the Guardian and/or the author and I hope they will excuse me treating it in this way.  Jenkins in roman, me in italic.

The problem with this writer, for me, is that he has flashes of good insight and flashes of reactionary ideology, all jumbled up.  Fundamentally he is on the opposite side from me, but…

Many of my comments draw on stuff I just published in a paper commissioned as part of the Government Office for Science’s Foresight programme the Future of Cities.  You can find that paper here.


Housing is Britain’s top policy issue. It is the “crisis” of our day. London’s mayoral elections, says Labour’s Sadiq Khan, should be a “referendum on the housing crisis”. The migration crisis, the NHS crisis and the poverty crisis all pale before its awesome might. So what is the “solution”?

In a way Jenkins is right because the housing crisis is partly (only partly) a symptom – a symptom of poverty and inequality facing the rising cost of housing.

Partly wrong because there is a distinct and awful problem added by the role of land ownership and rent in exacerbating inequality.


There is no solution. As in all political crises, there are tribal myths and economic realities. When the myths win, policy degenerates into chaos and counterproductivity. First, let’s deal with the myths.


1 That there is a housing “crisis”. There is none. Too many people cannot find the house they want in London and the south-east, which is where most politicians and commentators live. This is inevitable where an economy is booming. Average prices in London may be £500,000, but in the north-west and north-east of England they are £150,000. You can get a decent home in Salford for £65,000.

Sloppy but superficially true. London and the south-east are the main pressure areas because that’s where the jobs increasingly are (and perhaps also a bit because it’s where you can participate in the fastest asset-value appreciation if you can afford the entry price).  But this spatial imbalance is itself part of the crisis because of the way it limits migration and otherwise constrains people’s development. At the poorest end (especially Northern Ireland where ‘recovery’ is slowest) I read of the poverty of households who had become owner-occupiers, come to rely on equity withdrawal for survival and now have negative equity. Extreme regional disparity is a real problem, not just something to be equilibrated through a market.  Insofar as it equilibrates it does so with great pain.


2 That an average is a minimum. It is not. Housing hysteria is based on averages. When someone asks “How can I possibly afford £500,000?”, the answer is: you cannot, but somebody presumably can. But go on Zoopla and there are houses in parts of London for £180,000. Even the poorest newcomers seem to find somewhere (usually private) to rent.

On averages: yes of course.

 On finding somewhere to rent this is the standard heartless neo-classical ‘solution’: the market will divide up the space so everyone can have what they can afford – thus beds in sheds, day tenants sharing with night tenants and so on. Not to mention the issues of quality and safety at the bottom of the rental market. The economist Alan Evans famously declared that what slum dwellers needed was MORE slums to bring the price down.  Yes, London has a “wonderfully flexible” housing market in which anyone can find a space quickly if they can afford it, and a shared shelf otherwise.

3 That there is a national “need” for 250,000 new houses a year. For decades this has been Whitehall’s meaningless concept of “household formation”, taking no account of regional preference, propensity to move home, house prices or cost of finance. Housing need implies homelessness. It should refer to the 60,000 people currently in temporary accommodation, who ought to be the chief focus of policy attention. All else is “demand”.

Matching housing output to household formation is indeed rather a crude and mechanistic idea, but if the shortfall persists for decades, as it has done, then scarcities will worsen, as they have.  Especially in London and south-east. This is just a mean paragraph.

4 That the solution to house prices lies in building more new houses. New houses are always worth building, where the infrastructure is in place. But new houses account for a mere 10th of housing transactions. The chief determinant of house prices is the state of the market in existing property and the cost of finance. During the sub-prime period, prices soared in America and Australia despite unrestricted new building. It was cheap money that did the damage. The house-builders lobby equates housing to “new build” because that is where their interest lies.

Yes.  Here he is right.  Or at least he’s right to dismiss the argument that building more houses is the solution.  Building a lot more dwellings, especially if they were available cheaply and were in places where needed, would eventually tend to bring general prices down in the second-hand market which, as he says, is where price levels are mainly determined.  But it would take a long time.

 In the mean time, as he says, we would have to stop chucking credit at the housing market.

But it’s a crude statement because it misses the tax incentives and pension-failure problems which further pump up the demand side, and the floods of demand coming from abroad. It also misses the terrible shrinkage of the social housing stock through RtB.

5 That the solution lies in the green belt. This is an anti-ruralist’s version of myth four. Even were the green belt obsolete, which few accept, or partly so (which I accept), it will not dent the pressure of overall demand. Nor is sprawl remotely “sustainable” development. It requires new infrastructure and puts more pressure on roads and commuting. It is bad planning.

Mostly I agree, certainly on the inevitable car-dependence of sprawl permitted at the urban edge.  I’d favour some GB developments round London but only if and where they could be integrated in the full public transport network of London – not just on radial railways.  The Thames Gateway of Prescott and Co could have been rather good if tackled with gusto and public land ownership.  But the Paul Cheshire etc de-regulation version I do not favour, though the latest versions do acknowledge that some planning would be needed.

6 That high buildings are the answer. They are inefficient as the higher you build the more is spent on servicing. London’s most popular and economic housing is “high density/low rise”. Towers have supplied mostly empty pads for the rich, housing no one.

There are lots of environmental objections to very high buildings, yes, though many who live up high love their views.

 On the “mostly empty” I am getting fed up with people (professors as well as journalists and politicians) throwing this assumption around.  Where is the serious evidence?  Measurement very difficult and prediction even harder.

7 That the answer lies in new social housing. Security of tenure and low turnover – not to mention right to buy – renders the fixed stock of public housing inflexible and immobile. Increasingly it has become a generous donation by the taxpayer to a fortunate few, for life. It is largely irrelevant to acute homelessness.

Wrong.  You imply that the security of tenure should be leveled DOWN across sectors.  Why not up?  If renters’ security in the PRS were as good as in many European countries the security enjoyed by Council tenants would not seem so profligate as it clearly is for you.  Why should owner-occupiers be the only people with security of tenure?

Low turnover is surely a by-product of the differences in security. Some council tenants naturally cling on.  If there were affordable secure alternatives fewer would do so.

8 That people have a “right” to live where they or their parents lived before. Localities benefit from stable populations, but conferring and bequeathing such a right to discriminatory subsidy is in no book of rights.

Rights are struggled for, not accorded by ‘books’.  Why should poor people and their communities not be able to stay in their neighbourhoods just because the properties around them have seen their prices driven up by the financialised housing boom?  I’m happy to struggle for these ‘rights’.

In my view you misuse the word “subsidy” in this context. Council tenants have been paying for their flats through their rent, with many local authorities banking surpluses in many periods. I could dig out some authoritative literature on this.  To describe council rents as ‘subsidised’ simply because the surrounding market has risen is an abuse of language – though common among neo-classically trained economists.

(Housing Benefit is a subsidy – probably to employers or to landlords or both – but that’s not what you are complaining about, I think.)

9 That there is also a “right” to home ownership. The state has a housing obligation for those who need help. Home ownership is capital accumulation, developed out of the Tories’ mortgage tax relief as a form of saving for old age and to endow offspring. It promotes inequality and cannot be termed a right.

Yes.  It would be good to establish a right to housing at an EU or global level. But a “right” to owner-occupation UK-style with all its privileged capital gains (if you play it right) no.  The fetish surrounding it, fostered by governments since Richard Crossman was Minister in the late 60s and boosted so much by Thatcher, then inflated by the lunatic financial system, has been a disaster.

 You are wrong about Tory mortgage tax relief, surely.  It was started by Roy Jenkins (then Labour), and abolished by Gordon Brown. Countries which still have it, like the Netherlands, will live to regret it.

10 That renting is stupid. Renting is buying a service. About 60% of Germans rent. They do not think of buying until their 40s. Booming Berlin has 90% of its population renting. Renting aids labour mobility and channels savings into productive investment. As a result, Germany has little house price inflation and no “ladder” advantage to owning not renting.

Correct, but you are having Germany both ways. They have had very good (fairly good) security of tenure in private renting (though it’s being weakened now) which you so dislike when UK council tenants enjoy it.

 Renting only channels savings into productive investment if rents are low. KPMG in their UK report with Shelter cite evidence that many UK private tenants are paying so much rent that they can’t save or contribute to pensions.

 There are inter-dependencies here: controlled rents and secure leases in Germany combine with the lack of a primate city to produce low price inflation and land values.  However major cities even there are now suffering problems as financialisation becomes more ‘British’.

11 That buy to let is evil. The poorest people rent from the private sector. The more houses are available to rent, the more flexible is the housing stock and the lower are rents for those who do not buy. Whether buyers-to-let should enjoy tax breaks and whether rents should be regulated are quite different matters.

In my view it tends to be bad in the current UK (or at least London / SE) form: it creates power relations between landlord and tenant which can be highly exploitative.  Certainly we need more houses to rent, but we must have them in non-market, non-commodity form.  We know how to do that well and there is no sign that anyone is going to civilise the PRS. The banks probably wouldn’t permit it.

Facing these myths stand a few realities.

1 There is no “need” to build on rural land outside cities. Jobs, leisure and infrastructure are available in cities. We should not aid hypermobility with sprawl. Every city, in de-industrialising, leaves empty sites stuck in planning arguments or delayed decontamination. The London agents Stirling Ackroyd have identified sites for 500,000 houses in London without touching the green belt. People may like houses in the countryside, but that is preference not need.

You can’t generalise across places like this.  These estimates of London’s “Brownfield” tend to assume we can gobble/destroy council estates and/or displace the workshops and offices where people work and exchange services. I’m open minded on this (need for green field development) issue.  Proper large new towns/cities could be tremendously innovative as part of the mix…

2 The one massive reservoir of vacant residential property in Britain is under-occupied property and underdeveloped city land. London is awash with small houses and empty rooms, its residential density the lowest of any big city in Europe. Detached houses, spare rooms and gardens are the nation’s luxury. Britons had 1.5 rooms per person in 1981 and have 2.5 today, even as new housebuilding is declining. Freeing up this capacity should be the overwhelming goal of policy.

Yes on the under-occupied O-O property. Reducing the incentive to hold so much space involves things to do with tax, inheritance, CGT, SDLT and also the production of a lot more housing which would entice ageing people like me and the droves of divorcees who contribute to the under-occupation to downsize.  Could and should be done.

3 Tax makes it worse, not better. VAT discriminates in favour of new building and against the conversion of existing properties. Stamp duty is a tax on transactions, and thus on downsizing and more efficient use of space. Council tax is wildly regressive, promoting wasted space. Inheritance tax relief rewards hoarding.

Yes. Land Value Tax probably best to replace the whole lot.

4 Planning control is too strict. Permitting an extra storey, apartment or back extension on every existing property would drastically increase density and capacity. London can grow higher without growing high.

Haven’t the Tories already given a blanket permission for that?

5 The most effective way to relieve housing poverty is through housing benefit, at present chaotically administered.

What’s wrong with the admin?  The admin isn’t the problem anyway. The problem with HB is that it has to fill a widening gap between low pay and high rents.  Raising pay would be the best strategy. Lowering rents good too. It’s a class battle either way.

Cash payments are more flexible and fit for purpose.

What does this mean?  You prefer the HB money to be paid to tenants, not to landlords?  That just turned out to make it even harder for HB recipients to find flats because landlords discriminated…

They should extend to a new “public sector Airbnb”, geared to bringing vacancies to market.

Sounds good.  Some universities do it.  Every council could.

6 The only way to force down rents and house prices in the south is to strain every policy sinew to make London poorer and the regions richer. That seems too radical for anyone.

Well I would favour discouraging the (British and foreign) global super-rich from buying so much of our stock. That would bring the average down.

 Strong regional re-balancing is a very high priority, yes.

 A final comment: you and I are facing the same evidence, the same experience.  My take on it has some overlaps with yours but is fundamentally different.  This is the last few paragraphs from my report:


  • How can it be that, on the one hand, we have an extremely ‘high-value’ built environment and its value has mushroomed in recent decades, generating massive profits and capital gains (rents) amplifying inequality while many of us are inadequately housed, space standards are low, value for money poor, funds for social and physical infrastructure and services can’t be found and the environmental performance of the resulting settlement pattern is substandard?  It is a dreadful paradox, a severe contradiction.
  • Put like this, however, it is clear that the problem could be solved.  There is lots of money being spent on housing and more of it could go on what we need — good quality, well-designed, affordable housing with good services, environments and workplaces — less being distributed as profits and capital gains/rents.
  • It is as though there were two kinds of tax in the society: one paid to the state and local authorities for public services, the other paid as rent to landlords, financial institutions and established owner-occupiers.
  • The future has to be different from the past. How it could be done is the subject of the report.


Planners Network UK – People’s Plans

[This document was formerly on the wikispaces site which has now lapsed. Fortunately Robin Brown of Just Space had saved a copy, so here it is. August 2015 ]

Compilation from various authors.

Planning is usually seen as the domain of governments, private consultancies and even developers. It tends to wrap itself up in claims about expertise, technical competence and professionalism. Yet planning is a potentially far more democratic, radically democratic, activity than this. And that’s because it offers all of us, as citizens of our neighbourhoods, the opportunity to think and act creatively about the future of the places we live in, to creative alternative visions.

There are many examples of community led plans and campaigns which have succeeded in stopping public and private sector development proposals and realising alternative community inspired visions in their place. Continue reading “Planners Network UK – People’s Plans”

Reply to Dave Hill

Only on saturday did I come across a monday article by Dave Hill, the Guardian‘s London correspondent/columnist whose work is often good and frequently the only attention given by the entire mainstream media to radical politics in the Capital. I never agree with him entirely and he tends to ‘balance’ his articles as though he were the (former) BBC in one person, but I avoid being aggressive with him when I disagree. He’s precious.

However this article Love to hate luxury property in London? This is why you’re wrong makes me fume and I would have commented in situ it had I not come so late to the piece that comments were already closed. So here is a comment. Continue reading “Reply to Dave Hill”

My report on housing, land and rent out now

[updated 7 July] A year ago I was commissioned to contribute a report on housing to the Government Office for Science’s Foresight programme on the future of cities in the UK.  I did it, referees commented, I revised it, then it was (along with other papers in the series) held over until after the UK parliamentary election. Now the GOScience has released it and you can download it and read more on

King's Cross: the dark side

This post would have been on the web site of the King’s Cross Railway Lands Group but that group wound itself up a couple of years ago (and its web site is archived at the BL) so the post appears here for convenience. M.E. 19 April 2015

Thanks to William McClennan, a vigilant journalist on the (exemplary) Camden New Journal, we learned that Argent had sought to reduce the number of social housing and “Intermediate” units which had been agreed in their S106 Agreement of 2006. This variation in the contract was sought because the reduction in government grants for social housing now meant that the ‘viability’ of the scheme would, allegedly, be undermined. His article appeared on 9 April:’s-cross-social-homes-developer-bids-build-more-luxury-flats

A number of those people who had been involved in the decades of earlier struggles to secure more social housing got in touch with each other and decided to put together a protest in the hope of persuading Camden to take a tougher line or persuading Argent to honour their original commitments. Continue reading “King's Cross: the dark side”