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Why driverless cars could ease London’s housing crisis

Written by: Tony Ward
A report from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors suggests that property will become ‘even more unaffordable’ over the coming five years, creating a critical need for a house building programme.

LSL Property Services and Acadata reported that the price increases were driven by London as values in the capital rose £24,636 in the past year – equal to 75% of an average Londoner’s salary.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the average London home now costs £495,000, 83% higher than a decade earlier. Median house price are 12 times median income. If the forecasts of a 10 million population for London are even remotely accurate, it’s reasonable to talk of a housing crisis.

Clearly prices are set to rise for some time to come with London outstripping the rest of the country. This isn’t surprising as London, for a large group of UK nationals and internationals, is the place in which to live and work.

Right under our noses?

Much has been written in the press about how to address London’s housing shortage. Columns have been devoted to utilising green belt as well as brownfield sites. There’s definitely merit in the latter approach as indicated by London’s new Land Commission compiling a list of brownfield sites on which construction can commence by the end of 2015. All well and good, but perhaps another solution could be right under our noses.

I’m talking about existing infrastructure: offices, shops, and especially garages ripe for conversion into living accommodation. The Department of Communities and Local Government recently reported a 65% increase in the number of new homes delivered by converting offices and shops. That’s a positive step but so much more could be accomplished.

But let’s focus on garages for a moment. Some 3,750 empty garages are owned by just 10 housing associations across the capital. That’s equivalent to roughly 20 football pitches. Converting some of these would provide much needed affordable space. Specifically, this proposal involves housing associations investing in their garages and assessing if they are suitable for housing. Or simply knock them down and redevelop them as housing: the space they occupy would accommodate about 400 homes.

Of course, there are instances in which this is already happening: Islington Council has converted 60 disused garages into high-spec council flats. On Holloway’s Westbourne Estate, the garages have become 15 one-bedroom flats, a four-bedroom house and a five-bedroom house. A great use of space.

Disrupting the car ownership market

The other element to factor into this equation is the impact of technology on motoring. At present, few garage owners in London are actually using their garage to house a car. The rise of car sharing schemes in London such as Zipcar and City Car Club is already reducing the need to own a vehicle. But the advent of driverless and semi-autonomous vehicles promises a revolution in car ownership and usage.

This summer, underwriters at Lloyd’s of London gathered to hear experts explain how, by 2045, it will be possible to summon a driverless car using an app on a mobile device. This type of technology will undoubtedly disrupt current models of car ownership. Why own a vehicle at all when one is available 24-hours-a-day from a pool of hundreds or thousands circulating on the local road network? The UK insurance industry’s motor research centre at Thatcham is already predicting ‘high penetration’ of fully-autonomous cars onto UK roads in 30 years.

Of course various considerations need to be taken into account – notwithstanding the costs involved, planning permissions etc – but these initiatives to convert garages, offices and shops must be encouraged.

The age of the garage in inner cities is coming to a close. Housing should always trump storage space in terms of importance, and with its fate all but sealed, the time to start converting that garage is now.

Tony Ward is CEO and president of consultancy firm, Clayton Euro Risk

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