Planning matters

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Campaigning for the London Mayoral election is well under way and it’s fair to say that the issue of housing has never been higher on the candidates’ agenda, as made evident by Labour candidate Sadiq Khan’s description of the mayoral race as a ‘referendum’ on Tory housing policy.The focus on housing is unsurprising given the huge electoral potential it offers, cutting through all demographics and areas of the capital. As electioneering reaches fever pitch, what are the Mayoral candidates’ approaches to solving the housing crisis? Building New Homes Four of the candidates, Zac Goldsmith (Conservative), Sadiq Khan (Labour), Caroline Pidgeon (Liberal Democrats) and Sian Berry (Greens) have each pledged to build 50,000 new homes or more per annum. Concurrently, each has - somewhat predictably - promised to protect the Green Belt from development. As such, there’s been plenty of theoretical discussion about better exploiting publicly-owned brownfield land; Goldsmith and Khan promise to build on Greater London Authority land, and in particular on land in Transport for London’s (TfL) ownership. And Goldsmith has stated he will lobby the Government to release public land and will require public sector bodies to keep a register of the land they own – no great commitment as both are steps the Government is taking anyway. However, the extent to which this brownfield land can help accommodate the ambitious housing targets is questionable; as shown in NLP’s economic outlook, brownfield land doesn’t seem an effective long-term solution to meeting housing need. Another government pledge to support the increase in housing supply relates to its estate regeneration programme. On this, Khan and Goldsmith both state, unsurprisingly, that they will advocate estate regeneration only where there is resident support, while Berry outlines a presumption against estate demolition.An obvious answer to enable more homes to be built is to build higher. However, tall buildings are politically unpopular. Indeed, Pidgeon pledges to introduce special planning guidance for their regulation. Affordable Homes Another key focus is affordable homes.Khan targets 50% of new homes “being genuinely affordable to rent or buy”. He will support councils to enforce new rules to maximise affordable housing in new developments, including through greater transparency around viability assessments. Khan also seeks to double the construction pipeline of housing associations.Goldsmith criticises Khan’s affordable housing target as “impossible to deliver”. He focuses on providing homes for those on “average salaries” and encourages “mixed communities”. Other suggestions include publishing a league table with the affordable housing delivered by developers, and requiring viability assessments to be publically available ahead of planning decisions.Pidgeon pledges to create a ‘People’s Housing Precept’ to fund affordable homes for first time buyers and defines affordable housing as that which does not cost more than a renter’s or buyer’s income can realistically support. Private Renting The candidates’ emphasis on the private rented sector is unsurprising, as ‘Generation Rent’ is typically faced with high and rising rents, insecure tenancies, rogue landlords and poor conditions.Goldsmith states that he would make it compulsory for letting agents to comply with the Mayor’s London Rental Standard, with the requirement to offer tenancies of between three and five years and with future rent increases agreed from the outset. Goldsmith also promises to build houses specifically for rent, and for them to be considered favourably in planning decisions.Khan’s ‘London Living Rent’ will have a regulated rate, based on one-third of average local wages. He proposes to set up a not-for-profit lettings agency, promote landlord licensing schemes to improve standards, and name and shame rogue landlords.Berry offers a unique approach by suggesting a London Renters Union, to help organise tenants to rein in private rents and expose poor letting agents.Finally, Pidgeon would like all London landlords registered, more support for councils to enforce standards and tighter controls on letting agent fees. Londoners First Goldsmith, Khan and Peter Whittle (Ukip) have promised to give Londoners first ‘dibs’ for new homes. This is clearly an easy political win and perhaps reflects the familiar rhetoric of absentee home owners, typically wealthy foreign investors, being blamed for pushing up London property prices.The candidates vary slightly in their definition of a ‘Londoner’ and whether those buying or renting will be prioritised: Goldsmith suggests the first chance to buy new homes should be given to those who have lived or worked in the capital for a minimum of 3 years and who do not already own a home. Khan pledges that Londoners who have been renting for over five years, especially in outer London, will be offered part-buy, part-rent properties built on Mayoral land. He also proposes to give Londoners the first opportunity to buy new homes built on brownfield public land; Whittle will prioritise those who have lived in London for a minimum of 5 years. Planning Unique measures to facilitate and monitor the planning process include Goldsmith’s ‘flying planners’ which would provide expert support to councils, to interrogate major planning applications. Goldsmith also proposes to introduce a traffic light system to track the progress of GLA-referable applications and will hold LPAs that fail to build to account by publishing their planning approval rates.Khan on the other hand will create a new team at City Hall, bringing together housing, planning, funding, and land owners to raise investment and assemble land. He will set clear guidelines on the call-in process and will focus on developments where planning has stalled and opportunities for affordable homes are missed.All the candidates promise to enforce a tougher stance on land banking. Conclusion It is extremely difficult to estimate the likely impact of the plethora of proposed policies[1] as there are many, often competing, issues that the incoming Mayor must attempt to overcome to even come close to delivering some of the promises being made. Nonetheless, the clear focus on housing within all of the Mayoral candidates’ campaigns will be welcomed by many, as it suggests that they at least recognise the widespread barriers many Londoners face when both renting and buying homes in the city. [1] As discussed by NLP’s Joe Sarling in A Tangled Web.  

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Moving Towards a Denser London?

Moving Towards a Denser London?

Katy Mourant 29 Feb 2016
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.

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