This Campaign Platform for Housing in London Has Ideas That Could Work Anywhere

Rosalind Readhead on a bike

There are huge upfront carbon emissions from building new housing; a better approach is to be smarter about what we have.

Rosalind Readhead is an environmental activist in London; I have written about her a few times on TreeHugger, including her manifesto for cities, written as a quixotic candidate for Mayor of London. I prefaced it by calling it "pretty scary, but a great place to start a discussion" and "this is radical stuff and presented as food for thought."

Now Readhead is running for mayor again and is releasing her policy statements. I am also pleased to note that, just as I read Rosalind Readhead, she reads TreeHugger, which appears to have had some influence. Take, for example, the foundations of her housing policy:

  • We have enough housing stock, it is just unequally and unevenly distributed.
  • We cannot afford the high embedded carbon of new ‘efficient’ homes; we need to retrofit current homes.

Readhead notes, as we have many times, that there is a giant carbon burp from making new things, what some call Embodied Carbon but which I (and Readhead) call Upfront Carbon Emissions or UCE. She picks it up here:

Upfront Carbon Emissions (UCE) are released in the making of materials, moving them and turning them into stuff. It takes over 50 tonnes CO2 to build an average UK house.

Building thousands of new homes a year in London will not solve the housing crisis. And will quickly burn through our limited carbon budget. New homes are sold abroad as investments and left largely empty while fewer and fewer young people can afford to buy or rent in the city.

She also notes that housing is not being used efficiently. "Often homes that would have accommodated a whole family are now occupied by a single person."

Evidence for the Mayor’s Housing Strategy 2015 (Page 103) shows that under-occupation is far higher in private dwellings than it is in social housing. Approximately 1.2 million bedrooms are empty in London’s owner occupied housing, even allowing for a spare room....London has a total of 20,237 long-term vacant properties (2017). Many properties are bought by wealthy buyers who snap up homes as investments and leave them empty while waiting for the value to increase before selling them on. Tighter squatting laws have made it more difficult for local residents, and young people, to make use of empty properties. A friend has told me that a house next door to him in central London has been empty for over 8 years!

Readhead notes that people can halve their carbon footprint by living near where they work, which, if you don't have a lot of money, is very difficult in London. "This is why reducing under-occupation and unoccupied buildings in cities is crucial. We need key workers living near their work. Not commuting for miles to their place of employment."

The almost empty Shard in London

The almost empty Shard in London/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There is lots of new housing for the very rich being built in London, and they really don't need more of that. That's why I like these the key points of her manifesto that I think are applicable everywhere:

  • We cannot afford the high embedded carbon of new ‘efficient’ homes; we need to retrofit current homes.
  • Mobilising to insulate current homes, installing decarbonised cooling and heating systems is the priority for jobs, finance and strategy in London.
  • Pinning solar to every viable roof will give energy democracy and energy security to Londoners.
  • All housing infrastructure is embedded carbon.
  • Wasteful use of that embedded carbon is not aligned with a sustainable low-carbon future.
  • Current policy to keep building new homes is not sustainable. Upfront Carbon Emissions are too high.

We have noted previously that sometimes it makes sense to demolish the existing, such as when you are going to be increasing the density and the number of units. London is already built to a high density but, like New York, has been de-densifying as wealthy people take up more space per person. There are lots of square feet to work with, so there have to be policies that encourage downsizing, and fewer square feet per person.

  • We need to tax space in privately owned dwellings.
  • We need to apply a bedroom tax to under-occupied private dwellings.
  • We must give clear tax advantages (or even pay people) to have lodgers.
  • We must facilitate decision-making that can help the older homeowner downsize.
  • We must create squatting laws / legal communes that give people immediate access to unoccupied dwellings (in a suitable legal framework).
  • We must ban second home ownership.
  • We must fine empty home owners.
  • Keep homes for residents.
  • Encourage and reward communal living.
  • Cap rents.

People are already reacting to this, and I reiterate, things are different in London. It is already mostly flats (apartments) in row houses and apartments, and they don't really need a lot more density, but do need more efficiency. They don't need new single family houses spreading out into the greenbelt, but better use of what they have, which is all well serviced by transit and growing bike infrastructure.

What always impresses me with Readhead is she pulls no punches; she recognizes that WE ARE IN A CRISIS.

I have spent the last 12 months, reflecting on what action is appropriate. I have tested out ideas for policy with friends, family, colleagues and a wider global community on twitter. This is not what is ‘politically possible’. That framing is lazy and inappropriate to a Climate Emergency. This policy is what is needed. This is the scale of ambition required to keep us from reaching irreversible tipping points that threaten life on this planet.

She's actually right. Rosalind Readhead can be radical (you should read about her diet!) but there is lots to think about here, and lots of lessons that could apply anywhere. Read it all here.