How Londoners went European

Houses are so yesterday

19th December 2018

South East London has changed enormously since I was boy, mostly for the better.

I took a trip recently to the neighbourhoods of my childhood and was left with two images of very profound change: Tall buildings and cranes.

London is traditionally a low rise city, in many ways just a much larger version of many English towns; Its suburban skyline is dominated by small houses with even smaller gardens, punctured in the middle by the city cathedrals of high finance, and around the edges with brutal tower blocks from bygone social experiments.

This picture is rapidly changing, and I was left feeling that London is starting to look much more like the Spanish cities I came to adore as a man. London is growing skywards.

So am I right to be awed?

Visualising the latest sales data shows just how much London has embraced high density building compared with other English cities:

Sales of new flats in England
Data from HM Land Registry prices paid dataset, clustered via ONS postcode lookup, visualised in

In the last 5 years Londoners bought over 69,000 newly built flats - 42% of all the new flats sold in England.

They don't come cheap either and London is the only region in England where flats are now more expensive than the average home. In 2018, the median cost of a flat in London was £499k - £15,000 more than the current average property price there.

It seems flats are no longer the preserve of the less affluent. Property marketers have cannily swapped "flats" for "apartments" in their sales pitches, and these are increasingly sold as a luxury lifestyle with price tag to match.

Dare I say flats have become cool?

Younger Londoners will have no idea why I find this such a curiosity, but the data confirms London is an outlier. Brits have resisted apartment living for a very long time, and Eurostat data shows just how much we differ from mainland Europeans:

European population living in flats
Data from Eurostat housing statistics, visualised in Tableau

So what changed? That's a whole other set of research, but I suspect the answer is relatively simple: Lack of land.

The capital seems unable to free up enough space for meaningful house building, hindered by an arbitrary green belt that rings the city like a noose. 7% of this green space is taken up by golf courses - a fraction of which might be enough to solve London's housing needs for decades.

That's a debate for another day, but it means the capital's developers must build upwards if they can't build outwards.

While the planners suck their thumbs, 9 out of 10 new home owners in London this year will be embracing apartment living:

Sales of new homes in England
Data from HM Land Registry prices paid dataset, visualised in Tableau

Ironically just as Britain is due to leave Europe, Londoners are going more European.


Photo credit: Jack B on Unsplash