We are constantly told that a shortage of developable land is a primary reason for the shortage of homes. It is the biggest part of the case, for example, for building on the green belt. But there are two things about land use, especially in London, that amaze me.
First, there seems to be a perverted principle that, while people have to be stacked on top of each other in multi-storey buildings, motor cars should have their own patch of sky above them. Secondly, that so much of our urban land is used by single-storey structures – look in particular at all of our supermarkets and business parks.
The picture below illustrates a typical scene anywhere in London or indeed any other town or city.
My first experience of a more radical use of land like this came in Tottenham in the 1970s. There, Tesco and Haringey Council came up with an intensive scheme, pictured below, which essentially had 3 layers: the shop on the ground floor, car parking above, and housing above that. These were council houses provided to local people desperate for a home, around 50 of them from memory. They were built in the form of an inward-looking pedestrianised street: it was only when looking out from a window that you would realise that you were off the ground. Access for residents was separated from access to the shop. The only specific problem I remember emerging from managing the scheme was a tenant letting their bath overflow and water seeping down into the store below – but that is a common-enough problem in any multi-storey development. Haringey was on a good run at the time: I also recall an excellent housing development above and alongside the Wood Green Shopping City, done I believe in conjunction with Metropolitan Housing Trust.
My feeling at the time was that this would become the norm for retail development in London, but it hasn’t. I know of another scheme, also Tesco, in Earls Court (also pictured) which has a brilliantly-designed Notting Hill Housing Trust development on top, with separate access from the rear. Great, intensive use of precious land in a dense urban area. I understand Sainsbury’s also have some similar schemes.
Many of the large chains of retail stores have suffered losses in recent years. Partly this is due to the general economy, partly to growing competition, but there has also been a change in shopping habits. We are now more likely to stop off at our local Tesco or Sainsbury’s each day and less likely to go to a big store in the car for a traditional weekly shop. This combination of economic pressures inevitably means that the big chains are reviewing their holdings of land and buildings. Tesco are closing stores and have abandoned plans for new large stores. Not only do they now have over 100 sites in mainly good locations at their disposal, they should also be looking at their entire holding from the perspective of South Tottenham and Earls Court.
The examples show that retailing and housing could be compatible uses of the same site, especially if the scandalous under-use of land for car parking is taken into account. I can’t see why every large company with single-story plus car park premises, from Tesco to B&Q to PC World, shouldn’t be reviewing its holdings. Personally, I think it would be great to live above one of London’s many garden centres or its car park.
The underlying point is that you can find land if you look for it. It seems not to have attracted much attention before: a search of the GLA website reveals no information at all about the conversion of free air above car parks and retail premises to housing. Maybe someone somewhere has done some research, maybe people in the big retailers are beavering away on it right now. One of the few articles on this topic – a post by Paul Wellman on the excellent ‘The Pint of Milk Test’ blog (from where I borrowed the car park photo) – suggests that the idea is gaining some traction.
Crucially, this is an opportunity where the new pro-active Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, could provide a hefty push rather than wait for the market to take its course. And there might be a strong case for a hefty tax on free-to-the-sky car parks. That might just bring a few forward for development as new homes.