Earls Court demolition and residents’ health

As the demolition of the iconic Earls Court exhibition centre gets underway, residents remain in the dark despite their serious concerns about potential dangers to their health.

Despite requests, neither developer Capco nor the local authority have released to the Asbestos Survey and Risk Register to local residents. Residents require transparency in order to give them confidence that hazardous substances, such as asbestos in Earls Court One, are being dealt with safely.

Residents are also worried about the impact on air quality and on noise and vibration.

Yesterday, a cross-party group of Assembly Members, including me, wrote to the Health and Safety Executive to ask that these matters of serious public health are investigated urgently. You can read the letter here: Earls Court demolition – letter from Darren Johnson Nicky Gavron and Stephen Knight

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Happy Birthday Green Belt

Green Belt policy turns 60 years old today.

London has enjoyed a formal Green Belt since 1938, but it was 3 August 1955 when Housing Minister Duncan Sandys rolled out the policy across England. You can see a copy of the original circular here.

In the past 60 years, the Green Belt has played an important role in helping to limit suburban sprawl and assisting urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land. The policy has become the planning envy of the world. It remains popular with the public; a new poll released today for the Campaign to Protect Rural England finds huge support and that only 17 per cent of respondents want to build on it.

See where Green Belt is near you on this interactive map.

Yet, in some circles, the tide is turning. There have been calls to build on Green Belt land, with some arguing that the housing crisis necessitates opening up new land to accommodate London’s rapidly growing population.

I don’t think we need to do this. London has around 4,000 hectares of brownfield land, enough for about a third of a million homes. Building on brownfield may be slightly more costly to developers, but it’s well worth it for society: it often regenerates areas and produces more sustainable development that is closer to existing infrastructure and established neighbourhoods. Those who advocate building on Green Belt rightly point out that this is not enough. But that misses the point: if Green Belt land lost its protection, developers wouldn’t build on both green and brownfield land simultaneously but would instead leapfrog over the more expensive brownfield and litter our Green Belt with unsustainable executive homes that do little to address the housing crisis.

Yet the debate continues. Green Belt policy may turn 60 years old today, but there is no guarantee that it will last another 60. That’s why I will remain a committed advocate of protecting this important planning tool, and will continue to argue for regenerating our existing urban areas before we even start to think about paving over the wonder of the planning world.

60th-anniversary-Green-Belt-poll-infographic

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Money laundering pushes up prices and makes many homes unaffordable

The Prime Minister has just given a speech promising to clamp down on foreign criminals laundering their money by buying property in the UK, much of which is in London. Last week the National Crime Agency had warned the multi-billion pound practice was pushing up house prices in the UK.

I went onto BBC London this past weekend to call on the Prime Minister and the Mayor to address the problem.

BBC London property money laundering

This is having an impact on all of us. There is a knock-on effect for ordinary Londoners, who are dealing with inflating rents and rising house prices. Already there is an overheated housing market, and this is exacerbating the situation. It has got to be stamped out.

In the past we’ve raised concerns about money laundering only to be brushed off by the Mayor. When my Labour colleague Murad Qureshi asked what actions he would take in response to a report by Transparency International, Corruption on Your Doorstep, which suggested that a flow of corrupt cash is driving up house prices in London, Boris curtly responded: “The report you mention did not state this. It asserted that it was ‘likely’ that that there was a link between ‘corrupt capital’, overseas investment and rising house prices but did not produce any evidence to suggest the nature and scale of any such relationship.”

I wonder if he’ll change his tune now that even the Prime Minister recognises there is a problem.

Publishing details of foreign companies investing in property is a good start but we also need to see increased efforts to identify and prosecute offenders as well as pressure put on estate agents to carry out more thorough checks when selling top-price homes.

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Almost 9,500 Londoners die prematurely due to toxic air new research shows

Almost 9,500 Londoners die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution in the capital new figures from Kings College London have shown. The research makes it imperative the Mayor finally get get serious”about tackling air pollution.

The Mayor needed to take tangible steps to improve London’s air quality including allowing London boroughs to opt into the new ultra-low emissions zone which will charge the worst polluting cars for entering central London from 2020.

View_from_Grange_Road_over_parts_of_SE_London_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1095564

This research demonstrates that air pollution is one of the most serious public health emergencies facing London. Despite almost 9,500 Londoners dying every year, the Mayor has dithered and delayed when it comes to tackling our toxic air.

It’s time for the Mayor to get serious about air quality, that means expanding the proposed ultra-low emissions zone and allowing London boroughs to opt in should they wish. It should be an indisputable right of Londoners to breathe clean air, not an optional extra as the Mayor is currently treating it.

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The vacant building credit just doesn’t work in London

Yesterday’s meeting of the Planning Committee heard that the vacant building credit won’t just result in less affordable housing for London but could actually make it more difficult to bring forward development.

The much-derided policy, introduced by the Government late last year, applies to any vacant building brought back into any lawful use, or demolished to be replaced by a new building. The developer is offered a financial ‘credit’ equivalent to the existing gross floor space of vacant buildings when the local planning authority calculates affordable housing contributions.

We heard that it could provide a perverse incentive for unscrupulous landlords and developers to evict existing tenants and could result in the loss of billions of pounds’ worth of affordable housing investment from developers. We were warned that the Mayor needs to stand up for London and work to get the policy cancelled.

Following the discussion I appeared on London Live to discuss the issue. You can watch it here: http://www.londonlive.co.uk/news/2015-07-17/vacant-builidng-credit-raises-concerns

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Child poverty on the rise thanks to high cost of housing

Runaway housing costs in the capital are massively pushing up the number of children living in poverty official statistics showed recently.

Official measurements of child poverty, which exclude housing costs, suggest that in London some 300,000 children live in poverty. When you add in housing costs however the number rockets by 400,000 – meaning almost three quarters of a million children in London condemned to live in poverty.

Over the last four years the typical rent in London rose by 17%, in real money that’s about £2,500 extra people have to shell out every year and a major cause of the problem.

In 1999 the Government set itself the challenge of eradicating child poverty by 2020. The sad reality is that child poverty remains far from extinct, particularly in London where housing costs are spiralling. It’s clear that by not taking housing costs into account, the official child poverty figures show only the tip of the iceberg.

What we need is real action to tackle the housing crisis in London – including better regulations of private landlords, a massive drive to increase house building and investing more in affordable housing. Otherwise, as the child poverty figures show, it’s not just those struggling to get on the housing ladder that will suffer.

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Note to Sajid Javid: planning permissions aren’t homes

Following my statement on Friday in response to the Government’s planning changes for the capital, I have published a piece on Left Foot Forward.

You can read it here, or see the full article reproduced below.

Note to Sajid Javid: planning permissions aren’t homes

In London, there are already planning permissions for over 260,000 homes that are not getting built

Housing new

Friday’s announcement on planning changes was billed as a bold move to get house building going in the capital and across the country.

A quick look at the details, however, reveals that the proposals are little more than a rehash of old policies that tinker at the edge of what we need.

There will be a new zonal system, which will effectively give automatic planning permission on suitable brownfield sites. In London we have had housing zones opening up brownfield land for over a year – they are nothing new.

The key difference though, is that in London the mayor has to work collaboratively with boroughs, something which is working relatively well thus far.

By contrast, the new proposals take planning decisions entirely out of the hands of local authorities, depriving them of any means to provide checks on quality and design. Most importantly, locking out local authorities could block them from forcing developers to include higher levels of affordable housing on brownfield sites.

Other changes are meant to make it easier to get planning permission. There will be a fast-track process and councils which fail to decide half of all applications in a set time could find decisions taken out of their hands and made instead by central government.

It all sounds like the death knell for the government’s half-hearted commitment to localism.

In a further blow for councils in London, the mayor will now be able to call in any application with 50 homes or more. This should be a great worry, given the mayor’s record of nodding through developments with far lower affordable housing levels than the council were pushing for.

Most recently we’ve actually seen developers pro-actively lobbying the mayor to step in and lower their affordable housing obligations – something he’s been only too happy to do.

For those who already own their homes, Friday’s announcement also included steps to allow them to build upwards – adding extra storeys to the height of a neighbouring building without the need for planning permission.

Cue a rush from developers to find buildings next to tall properties which they can upscale.

All of this is designed to increase planning permissions. But planning permission isn’t the issue – the issue is actually getting those homes built. In London, there are already planning permissions for over 260,000 homes that are not getting built.

In his speech announcing the changes Sajid Javid admitted the ‘UK has long been incapable of building enough homes to keep up with growing demand’.

He’s right – but planning permissions aren’t homes. Permissions must be supported with financing from government, particularly on brownfield sites that require significant decontamination to be habitable.

If the chancellor was serious about tackling London’s housing crisis he would reverse his deep cuts to affordable house building grants, lift the borrowing cap that is preventing councils from building and stop developers pushing the value up by sitting on land for years without building

Without those real reforms, the government’s tinkering will be little more than a pathetic fig leaf for their shameful refusal to face up to the challenge of tackling Britain’s acute and growing housing crisis.

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