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Reducing car dependency by converting car parks into homes seems like an obvious solution to the housing crisis. Yet the Mayor of London is struggling to secure planning for suburban development, accused of waging a "war on the suburbs" by opponents, who claim that suburban car parks provide a vital service for commuters and visitors heading into town from outlying areas. This London Society discussion brought together Helen Jenkins, Lime Tranport; Anya Martin, PricedOut; and Rob White of Hands Off Finchley Central to debate the issues and was chaired by Russell Curtis, RCKa. Josh Fenton reports.

The evening opened with a question. Where does TfL land sit within the context of; changing travel patterns, the housing crisis and the financial crisis faced by councils and TfL themselves? Despite the pressure to create more housing and alleviate the lack of affordable housing, we see housing being used as a political lever and a profiteer's purse at the same time. How do we proceed, asked Chair, Russell Curtis of RCKa?

Helen Jenkins a Transport Planner with years of experience working for London councils highlighted the fact that there are several changes afoot, increased homeworking, more housing being built, sustainability becoming increasingly critical, and a shift in attitudes towards cars and possessions. 

Even before the pandemic cycling was increasing and car journeys becoming less frequent. There's less business travel, more public transport options and increased urban living all of which means that technically, we don't need to travel (as much) by car anymore. Helen dropped the horrific statistic that cars sit idle for 95% of their lifespan, yet car led landscapes still feel ‘normal’.

The money we spend on car parking facilities can be spent better elsewhere; improving the public realm, subsidising fares or helping public and private organisations step towards mobility as a service. Helen wants to see us all move towards more efficient and productive use of all forms of transportation.

Anya Martin of Priced Out introduced her presentation with a tale of two cities: those who know what it means to live stably with manageable rent or mortgage costs and those who do not. In areas where comfort prevails, who would want to change the status quo?

Rents and sale prices have both increased, with sharp increases in London property prices, far above the rises seen in other major cities. The knock-on effects are varied, some people may end up living in concealed housing (overcrowded accommodation), others make the difficult decision to put off having families or find themselves unable to save for the future.

For Anya there are a couple of answers to current housing pressures: we could look to new regulations to disincentivise under occupation and we could increase capacity within the social housing sector by building up or out. Anya is part of a network of campaigners that are lobbyists but the question of where and how to build new homes remains. Accessing greenbelt land is notoriously much more challenging to develop than brownfield land, therefore where we see underused car parks, Anya suggests that land is reallocated for housing. Her view is that housing need has to outweigh our desire to ‘store’ our cars somewhere, after all when all the amenities we want are close by do we really need a car?

Rob White of Hands Off Finchley Central (HOFC) started his presentation by immediately addressing Anya’s point. In areas like Finchley, where there are poor lateral connections so many people are reliant on having their own transport: like key-workers, tradespeople and the elderly. Rob’s argument is that removing car parks, replacing them with housing or anything else is only going to make journeys difficult for whole communities en-masse.

Beyond that, Rob wanted the audience to reflect on the intensity of the developments that tend to spring up on car park sites. Plans for the sites surrounding Finchley Central, being developed by TfL and Taylor Wimpey were shown. At 20, 14 and 7-storeys, it was clear that these new homes would dramatically change the urban grain of the area, but surely worth it, if it meant alleviating the housing shortages? Rob thought perhaps not, that the density of the developments would strain local services and transport infrastructure. Not only that but for him, there was a question about the quality of life the future residents would have with 24/7 train noise, dirt and pollution.

HOFC are not completely opposed to development, there have been developments elsewhere that they see as the benchmark such as Colindale and Woodside Square. These are developments which increase density and housing provision without dominating the landscape and eroding the local sense of place.

Russell Curtis sought to pull the strands together; transport and housing. Helen emphasised that though we want the transition to reduced car dependency to be easy, it won’t be! Local councils and businesses that provide services need to be patient; induced demand is real and when people see that there are more services available they will use them. Anya argued for changes in the planning system to better suit digital natives and younger renters. According to her, we need new forms of consultation events and digital information distribution to appeal to those with transient local interests.

 There was an avid interest from the audience who had thoughts on everything from the need to pursue autonomous vehicle solutions to more low-tech options like car clubs. Peter Murray, wanted to question whether the push against long-distance commuting could work in practicality. Can London be a 15-minute city, or is it the case that we need a central hub for lots of different interests to pool together? One audience member sought to provoke out of the box thinking. Why should we have the forced density in London, when other cities in the North are crying out for growth that would contribute to better economic outcomes? The idea that jobs and university talent should be relocated to ‘The North’ was perhaps the most radical idea of the evening, more radical even than building on a station car park in Finchley