Will the London Mayor’s promise to tear up planning help tackle the housing crisis and what does this mean for population density? James Parker investigates.
At the end of 2017, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced he was “ripping up planning rules” in order to tackle the housing crisis in the capital. And this move was met with a lot of interest, with this being the area of the UK where the issues of finding appropriate sites to develop affordable homes are most acute.
As London’s prosperity has burgeoned over the past few decades driven by a variety of factors, pressure on land and prices has gone through the roof. It remains to be seen whether the recent dip in house prices will lead to a greater rebalancing of value and opportunity. In the meantime, Khan’s move, enshrined in the London Plan, saw the GLA asking housing developers to build out sites at much higher densities to “substantially increase capacity in the capital”.
The emphasis is firmly on affordable housing, as you might expect, with the ‘New’ London Plan promising new development will be 50 per cent affordable housing. In addition, small sites would be in focus, although the GLA said it still wished to protect the green belt while developing more public land. Many have commented however that building on the green belt is the taboo that needs to be broken in order to develop homes where they are needed.
And recently, Khan announced he would be spending £1bn on 11,000 new council homes for ‘social rent’, no doubt spurred by the Chancellor finally removing the cap on council borrowing, plus 3,750 further homes to help alleviate the crisis for buyers.
The big issue here, is what greater density means in practice. While it is laudable and probably essential to use sites more efficiently and even in some cases cram on far more homes than would have been seen, the results may challenge traditional homeowner expectations of what a home looks like. Low-rise blocks may become the norm in suburbs traditionally used to serried ranks of semi-detacheds, though if done properly, in the right places eg for transport links, perhaps this could be a far better model in terms of meeting all the goals. Much of western Europe uses this model for recent urban housing, and at the right quality it works well.
In the past, for example in the Georgian town-housing London is famous for, the urban blocks created actually had fairly high density levels. However the developments since the 1960s which provide similar levels have a stigma attached due to varying factors from build quality to the resulting social challenges of estates whose masterplans had been poorly thought through.
There are further challenges on density where people are living much closer together, that if the build fabric doesn’t provide adequate quality levels, particularly when it comes to noise from neighbours’ homes. This can be psychologically damaging, and certainly impact on the wellness of residents on a daily basis. Modern HVAC systems for example can help by being specified as low noise, or attenuating noise to try and combat this. However focusing on a higher general specification than traditional volume housing needs to be at the top of the agenda to avoid having to retrogressively address a sub-standard fabric.
As so often, the strength of Building Regulations as the minimum bar that people will use, will be the factor that dictates quality, as we are not talking about the premium end of the market. The question is, are Regs robust enough? This is an even bigger issue arguably when it comes to converting houses into flats, which is presumably a favoured option if higher density is the goal.
The London Plan includes new expectation levels on design quality, particularly on space standards, to avoid the temptation among housebuilders to see ‘higher density’ as ‘smaller’. The GLA “expects councils to refuse any applications that come forward with homes that do not meet his new standards”.
London’s population is growing by 70,000 a year. Although an Englishman’s home was once his castle, maybe we now need to accept that we can share a castle with a number of others, in order to have sustainable development that the country can afford.