Opportunity knocks for London housing and jobs

Craig McWilliam, Executive Director of Grosvenor's London estate writes about unlocking 'Opportunity Areas' for development around London. 

18th August 2015

Like a spy brought in from the cold, a prodigal son, or a former ugly duckling, brownfield land must be feeling very popular right now.

These sites – often formerly industrial or commercial land – are being courted and feted by all and sundry as a major solution to our growing housing shortage.

There was further proof of brownfield land’s ongoing journey towards ‘panacea status’ as the Government recently laid out a shake-up of planning laws. A major plank of these plans was the announcement that there could be ‘automatic permission’ for development on such land.

The Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority (GLA) are already ahead of the brownfield curve, having earmarked 38 ‘Opportunity Areas’ - the capital’s largest brownfield sites – as places that could host over 300,000 extra houses and provide half a million new jobs.

Such numbers put this policy at the heart of efforts to create new homes and work in the capital. The city’s population is at a record high - and growing fast; if London is to sustain this, it’s crucial this plan is a success.

But, as things stand, there’s no guarantee that will be the case.

London First recently released a report – aptly named Opportunity Knocks – which takes a close look at Opportunity Areas.

It concludes that by stress-testing and, where necessary, strengthening them, these Opportunity Areas have the potential to deliver a huge boost to London’s competitiveness as a global city.

So far, so good. But there are also some big hurdles we have to cross before this becomes a reality.

There are good reasons why developers haven’t flocked to these areas as they have to other parts of London over recent decades.

Low values, inadequate infrastructure, and poor transport links often come together to make them unviable – particularly since the investment required is often substantial and upfront.

The report warns that building in a good number of the Opportunity Areas remains of “marginal value to developers” and that many still fail to offer commercial viability.

Problems ranges from patchy or non-existent information about how Opportunity Areas are progressing, a lack of planning skills at borough level, and a lack of clarity in some areas about how the required transport infrastructure costs will be met.

These (and other) problems impact some Opportunity Areas more than others. In the report, Terence O’Rourke have categorised the 38 Areas by the need each has for public sector support. There is a good number where the market and normal borough policies should drive delivery, with some support from the GLA.

But 17 are classed as needing ‘significant guidance or assistance’, while two – the Upper Lea Valley and Bexley Riverside – are unlikely to deliver what’s expected of them even with such support.

Those of us who worked on Opportunity Knocks warmly welcome the Government’s recent plans to ease planning rules – indeed, this is a key recommendation of the report.

But, as this report shows, developing brownfield land is much more complicated than that.

Transforming Opportunity Areas into places that Londoners will want to live, work and visit, is a substantial task that requires vigorous action by London government, central government, and London’s businesses.

But the prize is worth it. We have the opportunity to create a generational boost to London’s competitiveness as a global city. But as we bring brownfield land back into the fold, we have to realise it is not a panacea and comes with conditions attached.

Craig McWilliam is Executive Director, London Estate at Grosvenor Britain & Ireland and Chair of the London First Opportunity Area steering group

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