Future Watch – Embracing density

James Parker looks at how the new London Plan could transform the capital, as it puts high-density housing high on the agenda.

London’s planning decisions, is still in draft form. When finally published next year it could have big repercussions for the shape of London’s housing. However, many believe that this is not coming soon enough, to tackle the triple threat of London’s crisis of affordability, the stigma attached to high-density housing, and the stranglehold of planning which has historically prevented more effective alternatives flourishing.

London now contains 8.7 million people, and forecasts of 11 million by 2050 are not fanciful. The Mayor has responded by increasing housebuilding targets to 65,000 homes per year, but estate agents have predicted that only half that will be built in reality.

The yawning gap between supply and demand, particularly in affordable homes, is well known. What is less widely discussed is how building at greater density could both help to close the gap in numbers terms, but also amplify the benefits of city living for residents, bringing infrastructure closer to homes and reducing car use. Upping density has traditionally been associated with tower blocks, but Victorian terraces and mid-rise mansion blocks can in some cases offer greater density, and much better amenity.

According to Tim Burgess, director of CoveBurgess architects, increasing density is “undoubtedly the most effective solution to the housing crisis.” He adds: “The idea that we continue to build houses away from where people work couldn’t be more misguided for a sustainable future.”

He explains further : “Density determines footfall on the streets and footfall is the key that unlocks city life. If you are fortunate enough to live on Manhattan Island, you need not leave your city block to get all that you need, from cafes to culture.”

Removing density limits

Khan’s team at the GLA, led by dynamic deputy mayor Jules Pipe, have made a major intervention in order to try and push the density of future development, as part of the revision of the London Plan last December. The launch of the draft plan came with the headline that Khan has “ripped up planning rules,” – partly based around his team having removed the upper limit for density.

They key aspects underpinning the new London Plan when it comes to density are as follows:
• A new concept of ‘making the best use of land’, as an overarching holistic objective feeding many of the policy areas, superseding previous requirements to “maximise” or “optimise” the use of land`
• Linking greater density with higher design quality
• Abolish the ‘Density Matrix’ previously used by GLA to set a limit for each Borough (based on number of habitable rooms, and dwellings per hectare)
• Borough councils to work with developers to establish the correct density on site by site basis, (key factors being transport connectivity and infrastructure)
• Presumption in favour of ‘small sites’ of 25 homes of fewer, supported by targets for each Borough.

Car trouble

Previously the GLA permitted higher density in areas with a high Public Transport Access Level (PTAL) score, in the belief that a greater number of homes could be supported because of good access to public transport. Avoiding the need to prioritise car use in developments, this remains a key driver for the GLA as the Mayor looks to reduce emissions across the capital.

This is one reason why, as a recent blog by consultant Deloitte pointed out, what “constitutes the ‘best use of land’ is likely to cause plenty of debate.” In ending the previous cap, the new Plan theoretically makes it possible to build high-density housing where deemed appropriate, and this will be controversial in many cases.

At the 22 January meeting of the London Assembly Planning Committee, GLA Conservative member Tony Arbour complained that because it was proposed that new residential development over 800 m2 would not need off street parking, the new London Plan would create “inconvenience in suburbs,” and that there “wasn’t a proper realisation that there are very many Londons, and in outer

London the requirement for a car is very different to inner London.” Jules Pipe responded by admitting there was a direct policy intention to de-incentivise car use, saying “there has to be behaviour change around cars, we can’t design for potential car use.”

Design issues

A range of views were expressed at the London Assembly meeting regarding the merits of a more coordinated approach to increasing density, although there were concerns over whether a removal of the upper limit was the best way to do this.

Architect Sunand Prasad of Penoyre and Prasad commended what he saw as a “move from developer-led to plan-led” approach at the GLA, as “fantastic in theory.” However he added a major caveat that to do so was “very complicated” and the current
Plan seemed “half-baked” in simply removing a limit on density in one fell swoop. Prasad added: “There’s no transition, you are potentially removing all prescription.”

Jules Pipe responded to dissenters on whether the matrix could have been retained with a lower and upper limit, saying that
local Boroughs could set size mixes, including the proportion of affordable rented housing. He admitted however that “there is a capacity issue at local authorities”.

He insisted that the GLA “haven’t abandoned the principles of the density matrix” and confirmed that PTAL would remain the key means for working out the correct density. This is despite the fact the measure has been criticised because they present an “effectively binary choice” between PTAL categories 1-3 and 4-6 “which can virtually double the acceptable density,” according to a blog by legal firm Lichfields.

Local planning authorities are “all too often placed under pressure by objectors if considering schemes at above the maximum density,” said Lichfields. However it added that this could again be avoided if they “accepted a little more subtlety in interpretation

Developers will be encouraged to build affordable housing by the fact that schemes with 35 per cent or more affordable housing can benefit from fast track planning. Also, the GLA has promised new housing design guidance to support the new London Plan. This may give some hints as to what it means by developers offering “range” and “variety” to homeowners or renters, in the form of a greater mix of typologies on these denser future developments.

Devolution revolution

GLA members present at the meeting confirmed that the density level could be different on every site, and that they were “trying to get back to Boroughs looking at the capacity of each site”. With decision-making devolved, comes the question of whether it will be more accountable to local residents. One contributor at the GLA meeting warned, however, that as a result of removing the limit on density, “there are going to be a lot of developments that communities are going to feel uncomfortable with, because they weren’t involved, and because of what it is”.

One organisation is trying to counter the assumption that residents automatically recoil at the idea of more homes being added to their site footprint, making the case for both how density can enhance streets and add value, and for much greater community involvement in decision-making.

London YIMBY emulates the US-based Yes in My Back Yard movement which campaigns for development in areas where rental costs have escalated far beyond affordable levels for most residents.

Its director John Myers told ADF that increasing density is the way forward: “Done well it can be a great way to get better places and do more with the land we have”.

He is aiming to harness political support, encouraged by the California YIMBY movement having achieved three state laws to get more homes built, and a proposal to allow buildings of up to 80 feet in height anywhere within walking distance of public transport.

Myers believes firmly that better spaces are possible via denser housing: “We have plenty of room to build attractive, dense housing that will make better, more walkable and liveable places.” He thinks that the London Plan “is looking in the right direction, although the way they’ve drafted the small sites policy is very controversial in some areas.

The London YIMBY project (www.londonyimby.org) also looks to devolve decision-making down to community level. In its 2017 report ‘Yes in My Back Yard – How to end the housing crisis, boost the economy and win more votes,’ one of the “most popular options” described, says Myers, is the idea of letting residents allocate themselves planning permission on a street-by-street basis. They can then extend upwards or replace, thus increase density in a way that suits them, using a design code they have drawn up. According to the report, surveys carried out in 2016 and 2017 showed “up to 53 per cent” of residents in favour of the idea.

Tim Burgess of CoveBurgess praises the YIMBY report’s ideas
as “effective because they attack the root of the problem, that is ‘top-down’ planning policy. National policy is a blunt instrument that is interpreted differently by different councils, and leads to endless bureaucracy, rather than imaginative solutions.” He adds: “The report creates a new structure of ‘grass roots up’, that allow cities to be intensified in a much more granular and particular way, without losing the grain, or pattern, of a place.”

Myers cites a successful project that increased density in Primrose Hill, north London by HTA Design, where two rows of Victorian houses added mansard roof extensions to increase living space for growing families, or facilitate division into flats. The Fitzroof project, despite “unanimous support from residents” took two years to get planning. Says Myers, “Many planners want more well-planned density, but they are sensitive to reactions from local voters and councillors. The system was never really designed to allow a lot of densification.” He adds: “The GLA’s new draft London Plan is pushing for more density, and we are starting to see a backlash from some Boroughs.”

Patrik Schumacher, principal at ZHA Architects, is a proponent of the benefits of urban density, but also has controversial views on the merits of letting the market dictate planning rather than politics. He says he supports the idea of residents being able to grant themselves rights to develop, seeing this as an example of where the market can dictate the best density for its own needs. “It will tease out where these densifications would be most value enhancing. This would not only increase the beauty and liveability of these areas as many new urban amenities would come in the wake of this densification, but contribute to overall prosperity as this would convert millions of commuting hours to potentially productive working and networking hours.”

Schumacher believes that decision-making on housing should be liberated from planning departments: “Arbitrary, politically imposed density and land use restrictions – and especially arbitrary space standards – have to be abolished. Entrepreneurial creativity must be allowed to tailor solutions to various lifestyles and income groups.”

He cites the example of The Collective, a ‘co-living’ rental-based scheme in Old Oak, Hammersmith which features substantial shared space such as gyms, pools, gaming rooms, co-working space and a restaurant, but compact 10 m2 apartments. “It is a great, truly affordable offer, delivered by an entrepreneur unleashed from the standards that now freeze all spatial innovation.”

Future questions

The big problem might turn out to be that as the new London Plan takes effect in coming years, and density increases in inner London sites (to the benefit of many communities ready to take on such vibrancy which others might read as crowdedness), that the suburbs remain largely untouched when it comes to higher density development. What of the vast swathes of land outside the North Circular, where more savvy design-led planning could mean more efficient and sustainable, denser communities with good public transport rather than the traditional miles of semi-detacheds? The Mayor expects the suburbs to produce 250,000 homes over the next decade so brave new thinking, with place-making at the core, is needed.

Interestingly, London’s population density is relatively high but in terms of land use its density is thirteenth out of 15 ‘world cities’, well below Tokyo and New York. This means that there is great untapped potential to increase density across the capital, and that architectural judgement will need to be brought to bear in order to get it right.