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.
Is there anything more romantic than building your own home? DCLG certainly didn’t miss the opportunity to promote this concept on Valentine’s Day, by reminding aspiring self and custom housebuilders of new rules coming into force and recently published draft planning guidance taking effect on 1 April 2016, which will see the launch of various measures (including new registers) to support prospective self-builders looking for plots – supposedly making it easier for them to get their dream home underway.I’m currently working on a scheme in County Durham for 14 self-build plots. Shortly after distributing invitations to a consultation event we received four enquiries from local residents who were determined to buy a plot. It’s clear to me that there is a strong demand for self-build.The statutory duties under the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 require local planning authorities (LPAs) to keep a register of self and custom-builders for their area from 1 April 2016. Local people will be able to add their names to the register to make it clear they are seeking to acquire a serviced plot of land in order to build their own home.The draft guidance (that will be added to the national Planning Practice Guidance – ‘the PPG’ – on 1 April) states that, "registers that relate to their [LPA] area may be a material consideration in decision-taking" and that LPAs with plan-making functions, "should use their evidence on demand for this form of housing from the registers that relate to their area in developing their local plan and associated documents”.In light of recent research showing that more than half the population would like to build their own home at some stage in their lives and that 1 million people are currently taking action to build their home in the next 12 months, Housing Minister Brandon Lewis’ ambitious target to build 20,000 self and custom-built homes a year by 2020 appears all the more achievable. But how will this demand translate into delivery on the ground, especially when viewed in the context of easing the country's housing shortage?Paragraph 159 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) requires LPAs to prepare a Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) to assess their full housing needs, including inter alia, catering for housing demand and the scale of housing supply necessary to meet this demand. The new draft guidance encourages LPAs to feed the demand data from the self-build and custom housebuilding registers in their area into their SHMA and consider future need for these types of housing when developing their local plans.However, it could be argued that the registers will create a false impression of demand because theoretically, anyone could apply to be on a register even if they have no realistic means to build their own home. In response, the draft guidance encourages relevant authorities to request additional information from applicants to support a better and more accurate understanding of the nature of demand in their areas, but applicants have no obligation to provide this information. As long as the applicant meets the eligibility criteria – any European Economic Area citizen aged over 18 seeking to acquire a serviced plot of land for a house that would be their sole or main residence – they have to be accounted for on the register, even if they have no interest in providing additional information to facilitate the LPA’s understanding of demand.In addition, some have called for a small application fee to be required, for entry onto the register to help cover the administration costs incurred by LPAs and as a means of ‘filtering out’ those not committed to building their own home. However, this measure has not been included in the Act.
In light of the above, we are expecting to see large numbers of local people adding their names to registers up and down the country. This could illustrate huge demand for self-build and custom housebuilding influencing both plan-making and the decision-taking functions of LPAs. However, due to the relatively relaxed eligibility criteria and the absence of any test to determine whether people actually have the means to build their home, it will be difficult to accurately quantify the nature of demand and future potential for self-build and custom housebuilding.In principle, the inclusion of registers will be a useful mechanism for gauging local demand for self-build and custom housebuilding. However, on the basis of the above coupled with the lack of measures to prevent people from signing up to registers in numerous authorities – invariably inflating demand further – LPAs should err on the side of caution when using the demand data to inform their SHMAs.Ultimately, it will be interesting to see whether the registers capture ‘new’ demand which was previously unaccounted for or will they largely represent alternative demand which already exists for housebuilder products?...
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