Hugh Smith

24 year old Londoner. I graduated from a university. There was a ceremony.

November 9, 2012 at 4:57pm

Let us live in London

From the New York Times, Mayor Bloomberg wants to build:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants to overhaul these rules so that buildings in Midtown Manhattan can soar as high as those elsewhere. New towers could eventually cast shadows over landmarks across the area, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. They could rise above the 59-story MetLife Building and even the 77-story Chrysler Building.

The initiative would, in some cases, allow developers to build towers twice the size now permitted in the Grand Central area. The owner of the 19-story Roosevelt Hotel at Madison and 45th Street could replace it with a 58-story tower under the proposed rules. Current regulations permit no more than 30 floors.

There can’t be many visitors to New York City who come away with the impression that what Manhattan needs is more tall buildings, and yet that is what Manhattan is going to get if Bloomberg gets his way. Or more accurately, if the market gets its way.

The demand to live and work on the island, and in nearby spots like Brooklyn, is sky-high. The choice for the city is to either: do nothing and watch prices get even further out of reach even for people who’d be considered wealthy if they lived anywhere else; or to let those people live in the city, and make their contribution to the life and prosperity of the city. It is a choice between banishing people to the suburbs, or even to more affordable cities such as those in the Sun Belt (e.g. Houston), or making room for those people.

London faces a similar choice. Although it does not have New York City’s geographic limitations - there is no equivalent to the island of Manhattan - large areas of its inner core have long seen crazily high property prices, and more of the surrounding ‘Zone 2’ neighbourhoods are being put out of reach. Most of the property-buying happening in the city is being done by foreigners, which isn’t a bad thing in itself but becomes problematic when the supply of new housing is not even close to keeping up with demand.

London is different from New York in many ways, and in one particular way relevant to this subject: London status relative to the rest of the UK’s cities. New York may feel like the centre of the world, but it isn’t the centre of the US. It has rival centres of power and prosperity that have their own specialities and unique attractions. But Britain doesn’t have any cities that can compare to London in size and opportunity terms. It is the centre of the country. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, perhaps an unhealthy one. The issue of how other British cities can compete with the capital is for another piece. 

In the meantime London should think selfishly: it must do everything it can to continue to act as a magnet for people. This includes building homes for them to live in. At the moment, the city is miserably failing to keep up even with current demand for new housing, let alone outstrip demand to lower the barrier to entry in the property market. Combined with the post-crisis era of conservative mortgage offering, current housing policy is likely to leave greater numbers of young people off the property ladder, stuck with paying unnecessarily high rents for the foreseeable future.

London may not face much competition from other British cities at the moment, but it does have to compete with other major international cities, and it should act accordingly. At the moment every high rise development (in London terms, above 15-20 stories) is assumed to be a secret plot to destroy the city’s character, and  garners opposition from coalitions of NIMBYs with platforms on quangos, charities and local and national newspapers. To remain a relevant world city we must reverse the assumption that development is bad; a blocked or shortened skyscraper should be the exception, not the norm. The Inner London sky must be blotted out with cranes. Newspaper columnists will be assured that they can keep their gardens and garages, while the young and ambitious grab the chance to live at the centre of one of the greatest cities on earth.