Providing enough new homes for London is proving an intractable problem. Densification strategies designed to protect the Green Belt around London have long struggled to deliver – residents of existing homes have resisted redevelopment as they value community over renewal, neighbours and conservationists object to high rise towers, viability conflicts with affordability. Frankly, it’s no surprise the London Plan fell far short of projected need, and even now looks dubiously deliverable.
The post coronavirus era is making that look a whole lot harder, and the strategy a whole lot less aligned with what people actually want from a home and a neighbourhood. Strategies of densification that deliver little private or public outside space look ‘so last year’. Already I am aware of permitted and proposed tower schemes where the promoters are looking to lower the height.
In any case, was this ever the right strategy? Tower block homes are notoriously expensive to maintain – which is why many post war towers decayed into slum-like residual accommodation. I suspect too often we have been planning the slums of the future.
Rural Planning Review
For a city like London, famous for village-like neighbourhoods; rich heritage; and suburbs designed on Garden City principles; was this ever a sensible strategy of placemaking? Did it actually respect what makes London special? And whilst some demographics certainly appreciate inner urban living in tall flats, my friends found themselves priced out of London when babies came and the flat no longer suited a growing family. Of my NCT group of 12 families, only two remain in London for want of affordable family homes (with gardens) – the flats they had simply unfit for families.
Back in 2008 when I conducted the rural planning review ‘Living Working Countryside’, it was obvious to me that one key reason for rural undersupply of homes was that ringing every market town and village with unattractive, poor quality housing estates was driving local authorities to under-deliver homes – because this was inevitably unpopular.
I looked back to the authors of the 1940s’ Planning Acts who sought to prevent unplanned urban sprawl, creating new planning powers to enable people to regenerate towns and cities from the blitz and slums and smokestack industries through planned well served regeneration schemes and urban extensions. But they recognised that, in protecting the urban edges from unplanned poor development, something more would be needed – new settlements in the form of New Towns. And whether regenerating urban areas, extending them, or creating new communities, they sought to provide larger homes with private and public outside space, in well served neighbourhoods with the facilities people needed.
Looking at the present, I argued to return to the past. Only by adding new settlements to the mix of options again, alongside urban regeneration and urban extensions, would we enable the supply of homes to meet needs and deliver quality places – and so more chance of political support. This was the birth of the Garden Communities programme.
Translate this to London, and I fear the same issue has arisen – we are planning to deliver what people dislike, and this will simply stoke opposition to new homes. Don’t put all the eggs in the densification basket. Gentler density, with more private and public space, will make regeneration more popular and better serve people’s needs. We have re-learnt to value space and neighbourhood these last 18 months. But of course, that will mean that as things stand, we won’t deliver enough homes – but I don’t believe the strategy would have anyway.
A more intelligent and attractive regeneration strategy will get more permissions because it is less antagonistic to local communities, who like the human scale of London. But yes, it won’t deliver enough homes. So just as I argued, to deliver for rural communities we needed to think what had become unthinkable and return to delivering new towns and villages in the spirit of Ebenezer Howard.
‘Grace and Space’
To London I say stop pretending the ‘Green Belt’ edge is always beautiful or useful. Urban regeneration can be great – look at Elephant Park and Kings Cross. But if we focus on doing it well, with grace and space, there won’t be enough. Yet there are plenty of sites on the edge of London where mid-rise and low rise homes, alongside new public green space and mixed use and great services, would be a material enhancement. These also often give people access to new green public spaces alongside new homes, instead of derelict and private land that is often the reality of the Green Belt edge (I am working on just such a case at Hook, in Kingston).
If Coronavirus has taught us the importance of space and neighbourhood, let’s not forget to apply that thinking to planning for London.