London is not a ‘land bank’, nor is it a museum: it’s for the people of London. We are facing a severe housing crisis, and we need more and better homes, but the planning system needs to work first.
More Homes for Camden
Branch Hill Estate, by Benson and Forsyth for Camden Council
We believe in higher density, but not higher rise - our planning system should encourage clever architectural solutions to increase the number of homes in our neighbourhoods without introducing inefficient, tall buildings that are so alien to our streetscapes. Camden Council was once famous for its groundbreaking architecture and we should be encouraged to do that again. Housing like Branch Hill Estate in Frognal and Fitzjohns show that we can offer higher density and higher quality homes in low rise buildings, creating a genuine neighbourhood: everyone has a front door on their street and it creates livelier streets where children can play.
The planning system is so complex that it benefits larger developers and often the council has little resources or expertise to negotiate with them well, often leading to affordable housing provision being chipped away, rendering our targets meaningless. However, council own substantial amounts of land, and when you look all around Camden, there are plenty of underused small spaces with huge potential: from infill sites, garages, to storage sheds and leftover open spaces around estates, Camden can build a huge number affordable homes, working with smaller developers, community builders, and budding architects to liven up our neighbourhoods through piecemeal densification - creating truly beautiful, innovative and unique living spaces that our grounded in our existing neighbourhoods, instead of replacing them with identical, characterless blocks. Camden council should also be playing an active role in building homes: we need a Camden-owned development company, similar to ideas trialled successfully by Croydon council, who compete with private developers and challenge them they tell us they can’t meet Camdens requests of affordable housing on new developments. Instead of bulldozing entire neighbourhoods overnight, we can transform our neighbourhoods bit by bit, and build our city hand in hand with our local communities.
It would take pressure off of the housing situation if we would manage voids in council housing better. In average we find 800 voids in Camden’s council flats, each on average 110 days empty. If we would run that just a 50 % more efficient it would have the effect of 120 additional flats. This would be an equivalent of an massive estate for free. This means saving us £25 millions in building costs, and generate £ 700.000 per year more rental income. With this we can fund more and better housing, more police, more youth projects, make more of Camden accessible and step free and much more.
Keeping Camden's Heritage Alive
Camden is home to a wealth of heritage buildings, from our listed gems to our historic neighbourhood Conservation Areas. But London is not a museum, and these buildings cannot continue their long lives if they are left rotting and empty. We need to keep our heritage alive.
We need to ensure the qualities of the architecture is protected, but that is not to say that through thoughtful architecture, we can make sensitive restorations, additions, and infill insertions so that more people can enjoy these buildings in more ways.
But conservation is not just about the architecture, but how these buildings sit in their environment and the landscape too - they are fundamental to the character of a place. We should be protecting biodiversity and ecology of our historic grounds, gardens, trees and hedgerows, and promote sustainable urban drainage to sensitively manage surface water. Mega-basements which have far-ranging impacts on the water table, underground rivers and the structural stability of our streets should not be allowed.
When existing buildings are left empty, in anticipation for demolition or conversion, sometimes for months or even years, we should make it mandatory as condition for planning for developers to have a plan for meanwhile uses of all appropriate empty buildings and sites: from pop-up markets to temporary workspaces and artists studios, we should not let a gap in our street become a gap in our neighbourhood life, when instead it can be offering affordable spaces for people of Camden to work, create and innovate.
Our planning system, once designed for a shrinking London and designed to discourage development, needs to be updated for our current needs. With the decision-makers so remote and having their attention so spread thinly, how should they know what is best for our neighbourhoods? Empowerment should return to the local community on the decision making processes; some of the best cities in the world are created by local communities having agency over their own neighborhoods, over how they are grown or run. Camden is full of talented people and we can do the same.