London’s rapidly increasing population will soon outstrip its historic peak of 8.61 million in 1939. It is anticipated that by 2036, the population could reach 10 million. The associated difficulty of building enough homes to accommodate another 1.5 million people is a well-recognised and rehearsed rhetoric and is set to be one of the key battlegrounds of London’s impending Mayoral Election in May 2016.The Mayor’s Design Advisory Group (MDAG) recently launched ‘Growing London’, the first of four strategic papers comprising its ‘Good Growth Agenda’. This paper seeks to address the question of what shape a future London will take, where people will live, and how we can balance high densities with good quality design.
A key recommendation is the importance of planning to absorb the majority of growth within London’s boundaries, constrained within the parameters set by an extensive Green Belt. The need to develop more densely, within the context of the existing urban fabric, is emphasised.
At the heart of this approach is the London Plan’s density matrix. As outlined by my colleague Malcolm Hockaday, this sets out indicative density ranges according to public transport infrastructure (PTAL) and setting (‘suburban’, ‘urban’, or ‘central’). Whilst a useful tool for planners when assessing particular schemes, it can be argued that the density matrix provides a limited understanding of a place’s capacity for a particular density; PTAL alone is a relatively crude measure and setting categories are inherently subjective. As such, ‘Growing London’ suggests other, more nuanced measures should be introduced to reflect the complexities of London.The GLA has previously indicated that its density guidance is intended to be interpreted with flexibility rather than mechanistically and should not represent an artificial upper limit inhibiting otherwise acceptable development. To this end, ‘Growing London’ recognises that nearly half of all development proposed last year and over a quarter of London’s development pipeline is above the thresholds set out in the matrix. MDAG therefore recommends that policies are updated and research undertaken to better understand the challenges and opportunities of building at densities higher than the top range of 405 units per hectare.It is clear from the above comment that delivering large numbers of new homes with more limited land availability is resulting in a new generation of high density developments. One example is the new masterplan for the Greenwich Peninsula, which NLP secured planning permission for in September 2015. 12,678 residential units are to be delivered on this 80 hectare site, with an average density of 425 units per hectare; the proposal for residential intensification was strongly supported by the GLA.The City and the area surrounding Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park are also undergoing considerable regeneration, with a number of tall buildings emerging. Goodmans Fields, Turnberry Quay, 150 High Street and Icona are all NLP projects that we helped to secure planning permission for.Yet, when put into context with historic densities and with other global cities, London’s density remains comparatively low. London’s peak residential density of 271 people per hectare is less than a third of that in New York and less than one sixth of Hong Kong’s. The average density in Paris, which is perhaps a better comparator for London, stands at 21,500 people per km², which is higher than the peak measured for London of 17,324.This is not an argument in itself that London should become denser. However, it is clear that development is spreading upwards rather than outwards as there is increasingly nowhere else for it to go; Green Belt and high land values are, at least in part, forcing our hand. Planning has a crucial role to play in balancing the need to support higher densities in appropriate locations to deliver more and better homes against the need to protect people and places from over development and urban sprawl. Should the new Mayor wish to expedite a review of the London Plan, this will provide a window to draw upon the recommendations of the ‘Good Growth Agenda’. It will be interesting to see the extent to which, if at all, the current and arguably limiting and simplistic density policies and density matrix are reformed.
As set out in one of the recent series of NLP blogs covering DCLG’s “Housing and Planning Bill Update: technical consultation on implementation of planning changes (and some other measures)”, the government is currently consulting on development management changes that largely relate to the content of secondary legislation for implementing the planning clauses in the Housing and Planning Bill.One measure proposed is that, in addition to the ‘local financial considerations’ currently taken into account in decision-taking, an officer’s report to committee must estimate the amounts accruing to any local authority via, inter alia, Council Tax, New Homes Bonus, Business Rate revenue, and Section 106, if a development were to proceed.Despite changes to Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) to make clear that local finance considerations may be cited in planning committee reports, DCLG remains concerned that potential financial benefits are not being fully set out publicly in planning committee reports. The consultation highlights that:
“The potential financial benefits of planning applications are not always set out fully in public during the course of the decision making process, particularly for larger, more significant or controversial applications…This has a negative impact on local transparency and prevents local communities from both understanding the full benefits that development can bring...” (Paragraph 9.1)
In response, The Housing and Planning Bill proposes to place a duty on local planning authorities to ensure that planning reports record details of financial benefits that are likely to accrue to an area as a result of a proposed development.This reflects the NPPF which is clear that supporting economic growth is a fundamental priority for central government and local authorities.With this in mind, using NLP’s eVALUATE framework for assessing the economic benefits of development, we have reviewed the key economic benefits that will result from the 17,000 new homes that NLP secured planning permission for in 2015.
The social benefits of delivering much needed housing are clear and widely publicised. However new housing also delivers significant economic benefits including jobs, additional spending in the local economy and an increase to local authority revenue. It is only right that these are properly considered in the planning balance by the decision-maker.NLP’s eVALUATE model accurately calculates and effectively articulates the economic benefits of new development and is an essential tool for fulfilling the Government’s intention of helping communities to understand the full benefits of new development.