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Town and City Centre Living  -  Environmental Challenges and Opportunities
This is the third in Lichfields’ blog series on town and city centre living. It looks at the environmental factors to be considered and addressed when promoting strategies based around the growth of residential populations in our centres.
In our last blog Ryan Barrett and Jennifer Heron looked at the demographic groups who are choosing to live in town and city centres, identifying that demand is already strong among younger age groups, and there is obvious potential for the market for city centre living to grow among older generations.
There is, however, more limited evidence of interest in city centre living among those with families – and while research in this area is quite limited, it appears that environmental factors, and concerns about what it would be like to live in town and city centres might be acting as a barrier to success in town and city centre living strategies.
The reasons why young people like to live in central areas are well known – and range from high levels of public transport accessibility and enjoying the ‘buzz’ of city centre life, through to easy access to employment, shopping, leisure and cultural facilities. But those with families and older generations have different priorities - and are often more sensitive to the environment around them, whether that be the noise environment, air quality, access to green space, access to healthcare or even real and/or perceived levels of crime.


Noise and Air Quality

Without doubt, urban centres experience higher levels of noise and air pollution than suburban and more rural locations – and this is, in large part, attributable to transportation networks (railways, roads and in larger cities/conurbations, air traffic). In this context, it is clearly important for city centre residential accommodation to be designed in a way which ‘designs out’, or at least minimises the impact of noise and air pollution upon daily life e.g. through the development of higher levels of greenspace in close proximity to residential areas, which recent research[1] confirms results in lower day-evening-night noise levels.
This is particularly important given that there is now much greater awareness of these issues than has been the case in the past and exposure to noise is now rightly recognised as a risk factor related to both physical and mental health. This is, in part at least, due to the lived experience of many people during the Covid-19 pandemic, when lockdown restrictions resulted in huge drops in noise and air pollution[2].

Access to Greenspace

The World Health Organisation states that “urban green space is a necessary component for delivering healthy, sustainable, and liveable cities. Urban green space interventions can deliver positive health, social and environmental outcomes…There are very few, if any, other public health interventions that can achieve all of this”[3].
Of course, green spaces also offer other benefits – and can help address flood risk, mitigate climate change and improve biodiversity. New green spaces for people to enjoy also benefit social and community life by providing additional places to meet and relax[4].

However, an analysis carried out by the environmental charity ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ has revealed that 70% of people who live in UK towns and cities do not have access to good quality greenspace, which rises to 75.8% in the most deprived areas30.
Poor access to greenspace, and indeed amenity / play space, is a particular issue in UK town and city centres – much more so than in many other parts of Europe – and a clear challenge for local authorities wishing to promote town and city centre living – though many authorities recognise this and are actively looking for opportunities to address this issue e.g. through the promotion of ‘pocket parks’. Indeed, although of a different scale, Lichfields has been pleased, over recent years, to support Stockton Borough Council in its promotion of a new Urban Park in the heart of Stockton Town Centre. This scheme, on the site of a former shopping centre, will create new green space within the town centre, including new play equipment and other recreational spaces, and support other initiatives aimed at diversifying the mix of uses, including new residential development, within and around the centre.[5]

Image credit: Ryder Architecture


Crime – or the perceived risk of crime of crime / threat to personal safety / security - is another environmental factor which influences public attitudes towards living in town centres, and from Lichfields’ wider experience working across town centres around the UK, we know that many people share concerns that incidence of public disorder and anti-social behaviour are much higher in town centres – and this contributes to a sense that town centres are not a safe place to live.
However, on the basis of recent analysis of UK Crime Statistics (April 2022) undertaken by Lichfields as part of an analysis of a range of large town and city centres across the North East and Yorkshire region, these concerns are not necessarily reflected in the available data on reported crime. Our analysis of 5 different centres identified that in broad terms, levels of reported crimes are very similar across both town centres and the wider local authority areas they form part of.
Levels of crime were essentially the same in town centres as elsewhere. More specifically:

  • Public Disorder: marginally higher (around 3%) in town centres than wider local authority areas;
  • Criminal Damage and Arson: marginally lower (around 3%) in town centres than wider local authority areas; and
  • Anti-social Behaviour: marginally lower (around 2%) in town centres than wider local authority areas.

Access to Health and Education Facilities

Those who don’t currently live within town or city centres often have concerns that, if they were to live in a more central location, they would have reduced access to health and / or education facilities. However, such concerns are not necessarily borne out in reality.
In terms of the population as a whole, 94% of people residing in urban centres areas live within a 20-minute walk of a General Practice (GP). This compares with rural areas, where just 19% of people live within a 20-minute walk of a GP surgery[6].
In relation to access to educational facilities, colleges and universities are often located in urban centres, while the high levels of public transport accessibility in town and city centres mean that, certainly, in terms of secondary education, schools are typically quite accessible. Access to primary education can be more problematic as few primary schools are located in centres – but generally educational facilities are accessible from town and city centres – and more accessible than rural areas.


City Centre Living in Practice

Many larger urban authorities in the UK have started to develop strategies aimed at promoting city centre living in recent years – and while each local authority takes a slightly different approach, they all generally highlight the importance of the wider environment. Glasgow City Council first developed its City Centre Living Strategy in 2014 and the strategy was updated in 2020 to see the city through to 2035 with an aim to double the population living in the city centre. The Glasgow approach seeks to identify different character areas within the different parts of the city, and then set out specific recommendations on the approach to be taken to promote residential development / communities in each area – ranging from dealing with vacant commercial floorspace to wider place-making and environmental improvement strategies.
Smaller towns are also getting in on the act. Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council launched its Development Framework for Town Centre Living in 2018 and provides a clear understanding of what needs to change in order to create the right conditions to promote residential development in the town centre and it clearly identifies the need for improved access to amenity space / greenspace to support town centre living, whilst also highlighting that this can have implications for development viability.


Challenges and Opportunities

It’s clear therefore that environmental conditions are important in shaping people’s views on living in town and city centres – and consideration of the wider environment is key when developing residential uses in central areas and strategies aimed at promoting town / city centre living.
Factors such as noise, air quality and access to greenspace are all significant challenges but are all issues that can be addressed through good planning and design. In other respects, town and city centre environments offer distinct advantages – not least by being well connected and offering convenient access to health and education facilities, as well as shops, services, arts and cultural events – and can often support a high quality of life. Furthermore, at least at a statistical level, crime is no more of an issue in town and city centres than elsewhere – though public perception of crime is probably still an underlying concern for some.
Our experience at Lichfields over recent years is that where the environment is right – or at least there is a plan in place to create an environment where people want to live – there is commercial interest from the development sector in promoting city centre living. Our challenge as planners – both through development management and plan preparation is to make the most of this opportunity by creating environments where people choose to live.
In our next and final blog in this series – to be published next week - Isaac Vango will explore the economic benefits that town and city centre living can unlock.








The big squeeze: Reading Local Plan partial update

The big squeeze: Reading Local Plan partial update

Florence Leung & Sarah Moorhouse 28 Nov 2023
Reading Borough Council strategic environment, planning and transport committee resolved to approve the ‘Local Plan partial update consultation on scope and content’ for consultation on November 15. The consultation process has commenced and will run until January 2024. 
Although not (yet) a city, Reading has been named one of the best places to live in the South East and over the past decade has experienced population growth of nearly 12 per cent – much higher than the average for the South East (7.5 per cent) and England (6.6 per cent).
Reading Borough Council (RBC) adopted its current Local Plan in 2019 and is currently undertaking a partial update to address future growth.  This includes reviewing policies on housing and employment as well as current -and potential future- site allocations.
Reading is one of the 20 largest urban centres in England where a 35 per cent uplift to the housing need figure calculated using standard method is applied.  This uplift, dating back to the aftermath of the 2020 White Paper is a uniform percentage increase based solely on the identified housing needs of the 20 largest towns and cities, rather than their abilities to meet such needs.
RBC states that, based on most recent figures, there is therefore a need for 877 homes per year in Reading up to 2041, a substantial increase from the existing plan figure of 689 per year.
RBC has commissioned its own evidence to understand what the need for homes would be using an alternative methodology, rooted in local need, so this matter may be revisited further down the line.
Where shall we live?
As set out in our ‘Your Official Top 20’ blog, Reading has already built up to its boundaries with some other development needs already being met on adjacent land in neighbouring authorities.
RBC acknowledges this in the consultation document, recognising that future development proposals will rely almost wholly on previously developed land and that the spatial strategy is to a large extent dictated by where sites are available.
Further to this, RBC also acknowledges that there is a general expectation that figures for housing provision are likely to increase whilst needs for commercial forms of development are not expected to significantly increase. Therefore, they anticipate that housing needs will become more dominant than employment needs in the borough over the coming years.
How shall we live?
In addition to overall levels of housing need, RBC is also looking at the different types of housing need, including affordable and family-sized housing, and the needs of other specific groups.
Existing policy places an emphasis on delivering family housing of three or more bedrooms but, as noted in the consultation document, this is difficult due to the emphasis on high density town centre sites and therefore current family housing needs are not being met.
Notwithstanding this recognition of the current constraints, changes to policy being explored include an increase in the policy requirement for three or more bedroom dwellings in town centre proposals from five to 10 or even 15 per cent.
This is alongside the suggestion that policy should explicitly state that in the event of conflict between meeting minimum densities and delivery of family housing, family housing will take priority. On sites outside centres RBC is proposing increasing the requirement for family housing from 50 per cent to 67 per cent.
The consultation document highlights that Build to Rent (BtR) will continue to have a role to play in housing development in Reading and proposes no change to the policy guiding the provision of student housing.
It also introduces the option of a new policy on co-living. As set out in our co-living blog, this is a type of community housing in which residents share facilities such as kitchens, bathrooms and living rooms which has emerged in recent years – primarily to date within Greater London.
RBC notes that ‘we have not yet dealt with any applications for co-living in Reading but . . . we expect to see proposals in Reading within the plan period’.
The council goes on to note a number of matters they anticipate will need to be addressed with this new form of housing including differentiating co-living from more traditional HMOs and student accommodation, such proposals competing with general residential schemes for sites and the relationship between them and affordable housing provision.
The big squeeze?   
So, how does RBC intend to deal with its rising housing need, given the spatial constraints and widening range of housing needs?
The consultation document states that RBC proposes to place ‘an even stronger focus on Central Reading’ with the proportion of new homes to be delivered in the town centre anticipated to increase from around 50 per cent to 60 per cent through the Local Plan review.    There are two elements outlined in the document to achieve this:
  • Higher density in the town centre – including setting a minimum density for development in the town centre at 200 dwellings per hectare (dph) – doubling from the indicative density of above 100 dph in the adopted Local Plan; and
  • Assessing a number of potential sites in Central Reading for consideration as additional housing/mixed use allocations.
But will this be enough to meet the required housing provision for the plan period?
A number of options are set out in the consultation document for each of the potential additional site allocations including the density and use of each site (the analysis for which is at an early stage).
Higher density development is often associated with taller buildings and to achieve the highest housing density options on the additional allocations, in many instances, there will be a need to build tall buildings on the sites.
However, the adopted Local Plan restricts the construction of tall buildings to three specific cluster areas in Central Reading and only one of the potential additional site allocations is within one of these clusters.
The consultation document states that the adopted tall buildings policy is up-to-date and it is not currently part of the partial review.
The council meeting on November 15 is the next step in a long road towards the adoption of the Local Plan partial update, with further evidence still to be prepared, responses to the consultation process to be reviewed, possible changes to Central Government policy to address and ultimately a key role for the Local Plan inspector.
Can this partial review of the Local Plan address Reading’s housing requirements, meet the needs of a widening range of housing types and achieve higher density in the town centre without placing an increased reliance on tall buildings?
The emerging Local Plan process will be the forum for this debate.