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Planning matters

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Sky's The Limit: Go Tall to Meet Housing Needs
Whilst the development industry remains occupied by the latest raft of proposed changes to the planning system (see my colleague, Jennie’s Baker’s succinct blog), I cannot help but feel that the persistent political meddling will result in less homes being delivered, rather than more. Whilst the Government continue to bang the drum for LPAs to prepare and maintain up-to-date Local Plans, the recent political turmoil is actually slowing down LPAs from doing this, and the proposed changes to the NPPF dilute the requirement to meet objectively assessed needs in full. This is typified by the consultation on reforms to the NPPF which propose a transitory reduction in the minimum number of years of supply that LPAs are required to maintain for housing, watering down the soundness tests insofar as needs are now met “so far as possible” with strategies no longer needing to be justified, as well as a strengthening of Green Belt protection by ruling out boundary reviews to meeting housing needs (even though the amount of green belt has actually increased over recent years!). By way of offering up some sort of solution, the Government has, however, been making positive noises around the ‘brownfield first’ approach. This isn’t anything new, far from it, and won’t deliver all of the homes we need (see my colleague, Matthew Spry’s musings on this issue), but if we are to optimise the density of brownfield sites then we need to braver and deliver an efficient use of these often sacred pieces of real estate. Whilst doing this we need to be careful not to promote development considered “out of character” with existing context, or out of line with design guides, codes, or supplementary guidance that advocate higher densities (i.e. to address proposed amendments to NPPF Para 11 (b) ii.). The indicative changes to the NPPF now specifically reference uplifts to the Standard Method figures for urban local authorities in the top 20 most populated cities and urban centres. From a London perspective, this shouldn’t be anything new since the London Plan already designates Opportunity Areas (often supported by OAPFs) and there is a requirement in Policy D9 to identify tall building zones (as was originally requested by the Secretary of State in 2020 in the interests of ‘character’ and empowering local communities). It is clear that national policy is being strengthened in this sphere, but does it go far enough on tall buildings and higher density residential? Footnote 30 to the NPPF consultation version states that ‘brownfield and other under-utilised urban sites should be prioritised, and on these sites density should be optimised to promote the most efficient use of land… This is to ensure that homes are built in the right places, to make the most of existing infrastructure, and to allow people to live near the services they rely on, making travel patterns more sustainable.’ – well that sounds simple enough, hurrah! However, having spent my professional career advising on urban development projects, in particular higher density residential schemes and tall buildings, there is usually a default position in most urban communities, local planning authorities and committee chambers that tall buildings are a bad thing, often using heritage, townscape or daylight impacts to beat down heights, or concerns around capacity of local infrastructure provision (whether that be transport, health, education or open space). Of course, our historic environment is important, and so is the ability of our community infrastructure to meet the needs of residents, but does it warrant depriving people of a place of their own whether that be owning, renting or to take them off Council waiting lists and out of emergency accommodation and into purpose built affordable homes? A balance needs to be struck between these competing issues, and we must remember that many affordable homes are brought forward as part of private sector development, including those that include tall buildings. Aside from the typical consideration of townscape and heritage impacts on listed buildings and conservation areas, one restrictive London planning policy in respect of height and density is the protection of ‘Strategically Important Landmarks’ from views identified in the London View Management Framework (LVMF). Published in 2012 as a follow-on to the 2011 London Plan, I would suggest this strategy needs a refresh to ensure it is fit-for-purpose as our Capital’s housing needs continue to go unmet. For example, the continued protection of views towards St. Paul’s Cathedral – is it still a ‘strategically important landmark’ given there are many other buildings in the Capital that allow a viewer to orientate themselves within the City, and it could be said that its setting has already been compromised in medium and longer range views. Just imagine how many additional homes could be provided in some of its viewing corridors! The Mayor’s office don’t seem shy when it comes to preparing new guidance, so I’d suggest a refresh of the LVMF might be a worthwhile exercise. Gentle densification, mansion block typologies and even mansard roof extensions (which have for some reason slipped into the NPPF consultation!) are all ways to deliver beautiful new development in urban areas, but the reality is that tall buildings offer much quicker wins to deliver the market and affordable homes that our communities need, at scale. Comparatively, London is not a tall building city compared to many others around the globe, and our Capital stands out against our regional cities which have few *very* tall buildings, save for a couple of recent developments in Birmingham or Manchester. I was lucky enough to spend 2019 travelling the globe and to my surprise I saw that the rest of the world has made far greater progress on delivering new homes in many a tall building, located conveniently near transport hubs, health and education services, and open spaces for residents to enjoy. You only need to scan some of the world’s leading cities to see that we are lagging behind when it comes to optimising site capacity through the use of tall buildings. Of course, many of our Asian counterparts have higher population densities that dictate such building typologies, and there are some examples of unnecessarily elaborate tall buildings in Middle Eastern cities that were more about architectural statement and status than residential needs, but we could certainly catch-up if the political will was there to support a new-age of ‘beautiful’ tall buildings, designed to achieve the highest sustainability standards to combat the effects of climate change. There has rarely been much concern about going bigger in North America, whether that be your fast-food meal or the tall buildings of New York – in Manhattan alone there have been three very tall residential buildings completed since 2015 which rise in excess of 425 metres. In comparison, London’s tallest buildings are sub-300m, and are often non-residential office uses (see the City of London cluster) or indeed mixed-use (the Shard being the most obvious example). Tall building developments are not straightforward, and there are a myriad of planning matters to consider (viability, design, heritage, fire safety, aviation, wind microclimate, daylight/sunlight and overshadowing let alone how to deliver high performing buildings in carbon terms to combat the climate emergency), but they will certainly help us reduce pressure on green belt and green fields, providing liveable new communities in close proximity to the services that people need. If our elected politicians are going to deliver the homes we need on brownfield land, then they need to introduce specific national policy support for tall buildings within urban areas, in particular the top 20 most populated areas, taking a lead from the London Plan’s approach to strategically planning tall building areas, and winning the hearts and minds of local communities in these areas who could all see the benefit of such development. Perhaps it might be too late for the incumbent Government, but it could be possible for a future Labour administration to put cranes in the air given their typically strong mandates in urban areas – the sky’s the limit when it comes to meeting our housing needs. Lichfields’ has a demonstrable track record advising on some of London’s tallest residential buildings. We are currently advising on the Borough Triangle development in Southwark, a residential-led tall building scheme comprising 838 new homes in buildings up to 46 storeys, a new public piazza, retention and refurbishment of two local heritage buildings, and new commercial space. The proposal is designed by RIBA Stirling Prize winning architects Maccreanor Lavington. The scheme’s two tall buildings will enable the delivery of high quality new homes in an accessible location that has been identified for high density in an adopted Local Plan, coupled with delivery of new public open space and amenity areas, urban greening and other benefits to the local community that will help to reinforce and enhance its opportunity area character. I sincerely hope that more high quality schemes like this will be brought forward to deliver the homes we urgently need in London and urban areas across the country. Image Credit: Maccreanor Lavington, Cityscape, Berkeley Homes (South East London) Limited


London’s First Homes – left out in the cold?
First Homes, introduced by the Government into the Planning Practice Guidance in May this year, is a new type of discounted market sale housing – importantly, First Homes are classified as ‘affordable housing’ for planning purposes. This new tenure must be discounted by a minimum of 30% against market value and be sold to first time buyers based on specific eligibility criteria. The discount is retained in perpetuity, but the first sale price must be no more than £420,000 in London after the initial discount has been applied. First Homes are the Government’s preferred discounted market tenure and should account for at least 25% of all affordable housing units delivered through planning obligations. Whilst First Homes are now a material consideration when determining planning applications, the transitional arrangements set out in Christopher Pincher’s Written Statement mean that their inclusion is not mandatory until after 28 March 2022. On that basis, the statutory Development Plan remains the first port of call, and for London that means the newly adopted London Plan (2021) and the relevant Borough’s own Local Plan. The transitional arrangements dictate that Borough’s who have advanced the preparation of a new Local Plan do not have to incorporate the First Homes requirement (at least until an Inspector asks them to at Examination, or as part of a subsequent Local Plan Review). The new First Homes policy may seriously hinder Sadiq Khan’s commitment to boosting the provision of low-cost rented housing in London. In seeking to head this off at the pass, the Greater London Authority published a Practice Note in July 2021 setting out their position on the Government’s new First Homes affordable housing product – it includes a number of considerations that decision makers should bear in mind when determining planning applications in London. With a new mandate, the Mayor’s Practice Note has made clear that he will continue to favour the provision of other tenures of affordable housing, principally Social and London Affordable Rent, as well as London Living Rent.   According to Lichfields analysis, there are as many as 8 Borough’s in London that have sufficiently advanced draft Local Plans to mean they may not be required to consider First Homes until they are up for review in 5 years’ time. Of the Borough’s that haven’t sufficiently advanced preparation of a new Local Plan, 17 are Labour-led and could seek to avoid First Homes by relying on policies in the Mayor’s new London Plan, or even by seeking his intervention on strategic scale applications that are referable to City Hall. Financial viability remains an important planning consideration in London and this new tenure product could result in further downward pressure on the amount of affordable housing that schemes can viably deliver. The GLA Practice Note states that “in many cases, properties discounted by 30 per cent from market value are likely to exceed the £420,000 cap [in London]”. It goes on to say that “In many cases a discount to market value in excess of 30 per cent would be required to ensure that the cap was not exceeded. This would have a detrimental impact on development viability and the provision of other affordable tenures, particularly Social Rent and London Affordable Rent for which there is greatest need.” Given the London Plan’s evidence base [1]reports a need for 47% of new homes to be provided for low-cost rent tenure, and just 18% as intermediate products, the First Homes policy may seriously hinder the Mayor’s ability to deliver on his commitment to boost the provision of low-cost rented housing in London. The Practice Note advises that when giving weight to relevant Development Plan policies, First Homes and other material considerations, the decision makers should have regard to: “Affordable housing needs at a local and strategic level; The delivery of affordable housing by tenure against local and strategic targets; The deliverability and affordability of First Homes in a local and strategic context; The discount to market value required to enable First Homes to be provided at or below the £420,000 cap and the relevance of this to scheme deliverability and the provision of other affordable housing tenures; and All other relevant national and Mayoral requirements, including eligibility criteria, for First Homes and intermediate housing.” Clearly the Mayor’s relationship with Government is already strained, so whilst the Practice Note doesn’t rule out a role for First Homes in London, the content and tone both suggest that City Hall are attempting to kick it into the long grass, at least for now. With First Homes commanding a minimum 30% discount to market, and with the value cap set at £420k in London (after discount), delivering this new tenure could create significant viability problems for developers as they continue to balance other planning obligations and the costs of developing previously developed sites – it is a risk that the Mayor probably doesn’t want to run. That said, some developers may be starting to consider whether they can include First Homes as the entire intermediate element of their affordable housing quota as it might be marginally more viable in some locations. If developers are able to deliver policy-compliant quantum’s of affordable rented homes, then a case could be made for the intermediate element to be wholly First Homes – that strategy would rely on gaining local Borough support, demonstrating there is a need in that specific local context, as well as ensuring the product is ‘genuinely affordable’. This might be a strategy that is better received in Tory-led Boroughs too (albeit there are relatively few), and perhaps with smaller applications that are not referable to the Mayor. There is little evidence so far to indicate how First Homes will be received by London Borough’s and their communities on the ground, but we should start to learn more as they begin to be reflected in planning application submissions. In the meantime it may pay to look at how First Homes is working outside the capital – after all the pilot scheme was launched over the Summer by Robert Jenrick in Shirebrook, Bolsover  (remember him?!). Of course all of this conjecture assumes that First Homes survives longer than its predecessor, the failed ‘Starter Homes’ debacle, whilst our new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, has not yet made any reference to First Homes in his new role – make of that what you will. Either way, my gut feeling is that First Homes are going to be left out in the cold by the Mayor, but watch this space.   [1] SHMA, 2017 Image credit: GRID Architects