The Only Way Is Up! But Planning Changes Fall Flat.
The Government's move to incorporate support for more upward development into national planning policy is welcome - but needs to go much further if it is to make any difference to housing supply.
The Housing Secretary has finally confirmed that the next update of national policy (due Spring 2018) will enshrine in-principle support for upward extensions to existing residential and commercial premises - one full year after responding to consultation feedback on the proposals (as set out in the Housing White Paper).
What does this mean for developers?
Not a lot. On the face of it, this is likely to be more ineffectual tinkering. The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government statement begins underwhelmingly by describing a "new generation of town houses" as a "shake up of city living". In a 'city' (dense by definition) a 'town house' should hardly be a revolutionary concept. Then follows proposed policy wording which is at best a re-statement of the status quo:
"For example, an additional 2 levels could be added to a property – provided it was in keeping with the roofline of other buildings in the area.
It will ensure councils can protect valuable open space in inner city areas, maintain the character of residential areas, safeguard people’s privacy and stop unwanted garden grabbing. These developments must remain in keeping with the character of the local area, including the preservation of listed buildings and conservation areas."
It is difficult to see how opportunities to maximise use of airspace in areas that are well suited to higher-rise development, such as near existing transport infrastructure, can be realised if development can go no higher than existing rooflines. Surely the whole point is to go beyond existing rooflines?
Further, existing national planning policy already allows for development on the terms quoted above. Provided an application for an upward extension complies with policy requirements, including those for good design and heritage protection, there is no reason why it should not be granted under the current regime anyway.
So what is changing?
Not much. You will still need to submit a full planning application for an upward extension. The final wording of the policy changes remain to be seen, however unless there is clearer and less equivocal policy support, an application may still become fatally bogged down by objections, local politics and your NIMBY neighbours.
What about new tall buildings in London?
The draft New London Plan (currently out for consultation) is similarly uninspiring. The Tall Buildings Policy is heavily (and possibly prohibitively) prescriptive, and requires a 'plan-led' approach by local authorities to the location of tall buildings. This drastically curtails the opportunity for innovative developer-led, data-driven solutions such as Knight Frank's SKYWARD tool.
Under the policy, referability to the Mayor kicks in at 150m in the City (or 25m in the Thames Policy Area) and 30m elsewhere in London. For a city the size of London, with so little greenfield land and a projected population of 10.8 million by 2041 it is baffling that the opportunities to re-generate upward are not being fully grasped and encouraged.
According to www.skyscrapercenter.com London ranks #54 in the world for buildings over 150m, with 17 completed and 14 under construction. To put that into context, my hometown of Brisbane in Australia, one of the largest in the world by land area but with a population of just 2.4 million, ranks not far behind at #68, with 13 completed and 3 under construction. Brisbane's latest strategic plan does not contain any height restrictions at all for city-centre buildings.
It is probably true to say that London has more heritage assets in its skyline than Brisbane which are worthy of sightline protection. However the point remains that commonly-cited problem issues such as rights of light, landscape and visual impact and heritage protection are all commonplace planning matters the world over which can, in the vast majority of cases, be mitigated satisfactorily by good location, design and planning conditions.
There is Only One Way To Go
Building 'up' (beyond existing rooflines) instead of 'out' is an inevitable reality for any urban area. London is no exception and nor should its inhabitants expect otherwise. This is particularly the case given the unwillingness of successive governments at every level to undertake meaningful and long-overdue reform of green belt policy.
There is also more potential than ever before for innovative and future-proof high-density expansion - by harnessing the power of London's world-leading Proptech sector, and adopting new technologies like modular housing, micro-apartments and flexible co-working spaces.
What is the planning system for if not facilitating orderly and sustainable growth? Its very purpose is to manage - not stifle - development. But rather than looking up and seeing the great potential in our skies, the planning system still has its head firmly buried in the sand.