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Home invasion: Lessons from William the Conquer

One Christmas, 20 years after arriving in England and imposing his Norman-ness on an unwilling populace, William the Conqueror realised something was missing.

The contemporary Anglo Saxon Chronicles note that the king had “deep speech with his counsellors”, which probably went something like this:

William: “Forsooth! Knowest thou who dost own what upon this sceptred isle?”

Nobles: “Well, dashed if we doth know, your highness. ‘Tis a veritable conundrum”.

The upshot was the king commissioned the Domesday Book, cataloguing just who did’st own what.

A thousand years later, London First is campaigning for a new sort of Domesday Book.

New powers for Boris

As part of our solutions to the capital’s growing housing crisis, we are calling for the mayor to have powers to act as the disposal agent for surplus public sector land in London.

So imagine our hurrahs and huzzahs – such as William might have made – when a small but very important amendment was this month made to the Infrastructure Bill currently making its way through parliament.

In simple terms, the government amendment gives the secretary of state the power to transfer surplus central government land over to the GLA to dispose of.

Prior to this amendment, the bill only referred to the Home and Communities Agency, which operates outside London.

This is a step in the right direction and we shouldn’t underestimate how important it could be as a means of cutting through red tape and getting redundant land to market.

However, the housing challenge facing London means we need to go much further.

Extension to all owners

To really make things happen, the mayor should be empowered to work with all the public sector landowners in London to proactively identify surplus sites in the capital – not just central government land – and act as the disposing agent for strategically important sites that can accommodate new homes.

He can then create a 21st century Domesday Book for housing delivery, acting as the disposing agent for these surplus sites.

To get an idea of what a change this might make: the government estimates that 40 per cent of the brownfield land suitable for development across the UK is in public sector ownership.

Then consider there are no such estimates for London. The reason for that is different parts of the public sector all have individual disposal strategies and/or lack the capability and resources to assess their holdings and bring them to market. 

This is the case for central government, the boroughs, NHS trusts, public bodies and so on.

While there is no silver bullet for the housing crisis, this would go a long way to help – and none too soon.

In our recent research, Moving Out, three-quarters of businesses said they were worried that housing shortages presented “a significant risk to the capital’s economic growth”, meaning doom (or dome, to maintain the Norman flavour) and gloom is becoming increasingly justified.

Baroness Jo Valentine is chief executive of London First

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