A town surrounded by trees.

Maximising Urban Space: 3 Strategies for Solving the U.K.’s Housing Crisis

As the political debate heats up on the final approach to the U.K. general election, the housing crisis is rapidly moving up the agenda. While housing has typically been absent from the electoral debates and campaigns of the major parties, it is being increasingly recognised as central to our economic and social future.

What is so curious is that there remains very little appreciation of how much land 4.3 million homes take up. To provide this amount of housing and accommodate the 8.5 million people in need will require an extraordinary amount of land. Just the existing backlog alone is the equivalent to building eight cities the size of Birmingham, 15 cities the size of Manchester, or 18 cities the size of Bristol. If you add the projected increase in U.K. population, which the government expects to be an additional 6.6 million people over 15 years, we will need another six cities the size of Birmingham (which, at the same population density, is the equivalent of 600 square miles). What is also not understood — if we are to stand any chance of closing the gap on demand — is that we need to identify and safeguard that land now, not over the next five or 10 years.

The reason we need so much land is that the millions of people who need homes also need jobs, schools, hospitals, theatres, sports centres, shops, parks, warehouses, and power stations. They need everything a new city for 8.5 million people would require. On top of that, we must consider new rail lines, roads, airports, and ports. This is not a suburban housing estate, and it is not infilling gardens in low density areas of our cities; This is city building at a scale unseen for 100 years in the U.K.

Our prospective political leaders are realising the issue at hand; that this isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ or an aspiration, but an emergency. As the housing problem continues to get worse, it will gradually erode our health, our economy and, in turn, the stability of whole communities.

But where, in one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, can we build these cities? Here are three areas for consideration:

1. Follow the jobs and free up land.

Across the globe, where there are jobs, there is demand for housing. Conversely, if there are no jobs, housing demand begins to decline. Hence, in the U.K., the housing undersupply is most evident in London and the Greater South-East. And it is London that has exported much of its housing problem to its neighbours across the South-East. If you can fix London, this will go a long way to fixing the problem across the U.K. Simply put: build houses where there is demand and where there are jobs.

But to do this in what is already the most densely developed part of the country is not without its challenges. We will need to reorganise how we use the precious land in our existing cities. We are already seeing this happen naturally, but we still have giant pieces of infrastructure in the heart of our residential communities. London still has three airports within its boundaries and numerous port facilities, powerplants, and waste transfer stations. With the rise of automation in manufacturing, logistics, and ports, can some of these more land hungry sites be relocated to better suited land elsewhere and free up our cities for people and their daily needs?

Ultimately, even London, one of the largest cities in Western Europe, needs to be bigger. Nine million people by global standards is small compared to the fastest growing cities in the world, which are already passing well beyond the 20 million mark. Now is the time to start to review the boundaries of London, and careful consideration should be given to the further extension of London to the East — the more undeveloped areas around the Thames Estuary.

2. Create new land.

This is not a problem that is unique to the U.K. Many countries and cities around the world have resorted to creating new land at the fringes to provide essential infrastructure and even housing land. For generations, the Dutch have led the world in utilising low-lying coastal edges to allow for population expansion. Nearly all major port cities around the world have, at some point, expanded into the sea around their coastline. With the threat of global sea water change and the pressure for new land, perhaps now is the opportunity to look at this in a more strategic, planned, and coordinated way to safeguard our futures.

3. Build new cities.

Whichever approach is adopted, our current planning system of control, delay, and procrastination needs to be urgently rethought. We need to adapt the system to become the ultimate enabler, and one to incentivise change. Despite all the rhetoric, reform of our planning system will inevitably become bogged down and sidelined by the more pressing issues of the day. But there are invaluable precedents in the U.K. The Development Corporations of the 1950s and 1960s were hugely successful ways to deliver a series of New Towns around the U.K. The development corporation model was also used again with varying degrees of success in the 1980s to spearhead the transformation of former industrial land into new, employment-led developments. The opportunity now is to create a new hybrid Development Corporation and fuse this with a tailored Special Economic Zone that can create a series of strategic new cities around the country. This will be the only realistic way to deliver housing at a scale and at a speed we most urgently need.

The housing crisis is not merely a peripheral issue but a central challenge that impacts the U.K.’s economic and social stability. Addressing the problem will require a multifaceted and strategic approach, recognising the urgent need for substantial land to accommodate millions of new homes and the associated infrastructure. Rethinking and reorganising the use of existing urban spaces and creating new land through innovative engineering solutions, as seen in other countries, would provide additional space for expansion. Ultimately, though, it is the creation of new cities that will allow for the swift and large-scale development necessary to meet the housing demand. With the political will to implement these solutions, we can take significant steps towards solving the housing crisis and securing a sustainable future for the U.K.

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Ian Mulcahey
Ian is a global leader of Gensler’s Cities & Urban Design practice. He oversees projects across the U.K., Europe, and the Middle East and brings a deep understanding of the various political, commercial, and social drivers that influence planning delivery. He is based in London. Contact him at .