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We Must Begin a More Open, Honest Debate on Housing

11/09/2014 09:54 BST | Updated 10/11/2014 10:59 GMT

The Wolfson Economic Prize was awarded last week and this year the question put to entrants was "How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?" As a result participants put together proposals in response to a question on one aspect of the most important issue facing our capital and our country: housing. The question makes sense considering a survey commissioned by the Wolfson Economics Prize found that 72% of the British public believed there was a serious shortage of housing in the UK and that garden cities were a popular policy response.

While garden cities are not the sole solution to our housing crisis they are a significant part of the required response and a policy area that merits the scrutiny and rigour afforded it by the various entrants to the contest. Great congratulations should go to the winner, David Rudlin of URBED, who argued for the near-doubling of existing large towns across the country in line with garden city principles, to provide 86,000 new homes for 150,000 people built over 30-35 years.

The winner well deserved the £250,000 prize money. But the runner up in the contest - a proposal by Shelter, the UK's leading housing and homelessness charity - also caught my eye. Shelter proposed a new garden city on the Hoo Peninsula in Medway, Kent. Commencing with a settlement of 15,000 homes (36,000 people - about the size of Letchworth Garden City) built over 15 years. The comprehensive and innovative proposal for a new garden city in the Thames Estuary is not only a fascinating 360 degree proposal for a new garden city that could ease pressure on our capital but also shows Boris what a real plan for the Thames Estuary looks like. Here's a clue - the Shelter proposal doesn't involve a runway.

It is, however, well worth a look for anyone interested in the future of housing in our capital.

The Shelter proposal should be commended initially for broadening the debate on garden cities around London in an accessible way and being a significant contribution in policy terms. Last week I launched a housing report in which I put forward a set of proposals across the whole housing sector, of which garden cities were but one part. My objective in publishing the report was to begin a more open and honest debate on housing. The Shelter proposal is an important example of a piece of work that appears to have a similar aspiration: to shift the debate from hand wringing to house building.

Another important aspect of Shelter's submission is that it is no pie in the sky proposal. Toby Lloyd, head of policy at Shelter, led a team that collaborated with architects PRP, with advice from KPMG LLP, Laing O'Rourke plc and Legal & General. These are serious organisations representing parts of the sector that must be at the table when discussing any serious solutions. Similarly, I felt it was key to ensure any proposals I made were informed by discussion involving interests from the construction, planning, social housing and private rented sectors.

There is a huge amount of interesting work in the Shelter proposal - too much to go into here - on land sale incentive structures, keeping garden cities sustainable and verdant and the importance of considering transport infrastructure. But perhaps most interesting and applicable across the housing debate was the emphasis on engagement with local people. In the proposal Shelter dedicates significant time and resources to engaging directly with the people of Medway including commissioning polling, focus groups and a full day 'Citizens Jury'. They established there was already a majority in support of a new garden city (54% support/33% oppose) and established major concerns of local people relating to flood risk and the benefits from new homes, jobs and services.

Placing people at the centre of proposals to deal with the housing crisis is key. In my report I propose that a long overdue rethink on the greenbelt should be part of the conversation and put forward a proposal for a Greenbelt Land Use Review Process based on a similar process in New York. By appointing a dedicated ombudsman to review submissions by stakeholders, including the council and the local community, on existing greenbelt site uses, the aim would be to establish which greenbelt sites simply don't live up to the name: most Londoners I speak to are pretty shocked that there are car parks and waste land on greenbelt that are being protected.

The key, though, is ensuring that Londoners, or any community affected by development and change, are part of the debate and treated like grown ups. People are capable of understanding the trade offs and difficult decisions that need to be made to tackle the housing crisis - but too often politicians aren't being straight with the public on housing. If we are to make serious progress toward solving the housing crisis in London, proposals like Shelter should be required reading.