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London has been in the midst of an acute housing crisis for some time now. One has only to consult recent figures to grasp the situation. The housing market in the nation’s capital is amongst the most inaccessible in the world. While rents have surged over the last decade and home ownership has become increasingly unfeasible, the number of rough sleepers has hit record levels. The pressure this places on residents is considerable – the pressure this places on the environment is untenable.

And yet, there are a surprisingly large number of calls for the government to deregulate and build on the Green Belt. Not only is this unsustainable, but it falls into the same trap as previous solutions.

However, we can use this opportunity to improve our city, through building greener and in a denser, more consolidated way.

The housing crisis is symptomatic of a deeper problem that has been festering for some time. Simply put, the supply of housing has not kept up with increasing demand. Between 1991 and 2016, London’s population grew from 6.4 million to 8.8 million, an increase of 2.4 million. Over this same period, only 720,000 new homes were registered, according to the Mayor of London census.

The effects have been tangible. In 1991, the average cost of buying a property in London was £162,000 (adjusted for inflation). In 2016, that average rose to £489,000, an increase of 202%. That same year, private renters exceeded the number of property owners living in London for the first time in over a decade.

Consequently, for many, the dream of owning a home to call their own in London is unattainable, property values pushing them further afield in the pursuit of getting more bang for their buck;  for some, crushing rents mean living in Housing Cost Induced Poverty, unable to save or even to move. For an ever growing number of people, losing their job means running the risk of becoming a rough sleeper.

With the city’s population projected to grow an estimated 8.8% by 2026 and the number of new units still painfully lagging the rate of population growth, the problem will only intensify.

The issue is complex and has multiple causes. But if the cause is complex, then so too is the effect. Experts rightly seek to measure the economic and social costs to the individual, to the government, and to the economy as a whole. And it is certainly right for them to be asking how this situation came to be, holding local government to account for pandering to the politics of homeowners to the detriment of home buyers.

Yet, this extensive patchwork of analysis fails to factor in the environmental cost. In a mega-city like London, any major effort to solve the housing crisis is, by definition, an environmental issue as well. Where we build our housing and the quality of it is telling of how we view our local environment. It has significant impact on land usage, vehicle emissions, air quality, and our overall carbon footprint. Unlike our European counterparts who focused on increasing urban density, post-WWII housing policy has focused on urban sprawl. We have built terraced developments on low-cost rural land, forcing people further and further out. The outcome is a value cost to our local environment, our air quality, and our health, as well as an opportunity cost to millions of people.

The best way for London to solve its housing crisis and mitigate its environmental impact is to build high density, high quality homes that are designed to be eco-friendly and sustainable. With higher density, we allow people to live near high frequency transit or near their workplace, and incentivise increased pedestrianisation. Less land is used up, achieving both greenfield preservation and reducing the number of vehicles on the road.

There is no doubt that the climate crisis presents a challenge to all of us, and will require a comprehensive approach to resolve it. But by embedding sustainable practices in our housing and city design, it is possible to improve standards for everyone

Loïc Fremond is undertaking work experience with Bright Blue, and is currently reading Classical Archaeology & Civilisations at University College London. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.