17 March 2016

How we ban the creation of more of the most loved bits of London

By Nicholas Boys-Smith

Much of the right of centre public conversation about the impact of ‘planning’ on the UK housing market misses much of the point particularly for cities. We don’t just constrain land supply. We also control the nature of what is built, its ‘typology’ (detached homes or flats), its urban form (width of streets), its style. And this matters. A lot.

Take London where the problem’s particularly acute due to the interaction of more layers of rules than in the most of the country (the GLA as well as boroughs), more gold-plating of statute and the sheer demand for homes leading to sky-high land prices and the need for spatially and economically efficient land-use.

For most people in the city the most popular form of high density city-living are terraced streets of houses or medium-rise flats. Build well-connected walkable streets nearly always at human scale, with green space interleaved throughout, with variety within a pattern and normally with at least a good proportion of the architecture feeling like it ‘belongs’ locally (people like a ‘sense of place’) and you’ll probably have a winner of an urban development on your hands. In their historic form, such streets could reach incredibly efficient densities of anything up to about 250 homes per hectare (that’s a lot) but without feeling massive and inhuman.

Polling and pricing data over many years consistently shows the appeal of this human-scale urban form to the human animal which has, despite everything, remained pretty much the same size for millennia. For example in London, pre-1919 homes have gone up in value twice as much as 1960s homes over 30 years. Most of the most valuable parts of most cities are in the historically set-out street grids. And academic research consistently correlates well-connected conventional streets patterns in non-modernist designs with greater value, greater resident wellbeing and (in some new research we will be publishing shortly) even with greater longevity.

The problem is that it’s now almost impossible to build such streets with anything like the same spatial efficiency or charm. ‘It’s actually quite difficult to design streets which are streets in the sense that citizens will recognise’ as one experienced architect put it. And this is where the building codes, housing codes, London plan and local plans come in – together with their over-interpretation and the architect and developer’s understandable inclination to ‘play it safe’ when it comes to getting permission to build.

To take just a few examples. Almost any pre-1930s historic terraced street would fail modern light standards. But why? The denizens or Earls Court or Islington are clearly not all suffering from rickets. The London mews form (built for horses, loved by humans) fails minimum distances requirements in most boroughs. Highways engineers typically insist on wider turning circles for fire engines or bin lorries. But these take up hugely more space and clearly historic Pimlico or Notting Hill cope with the fire risk (and why not have smaller fire engines for heaven’s sake?) It goes on. We know from research that far more people want to live in houses than flats and that immediately accessible green space (a.k.a a private garden) has the most positive wellbeing impact – above all on families. Flats seem to work best, the data implies, when in more modest buildings nearer the ground and with greater ready access to well-overlooked green space.

The most effective way historically to achieve this in high value areas has been the tall thin house and the mansion block flat. However London over-interpretation of national rules will soon ban flats entered from the first floor or above unless they have a lift. Lifts cost money to build and maintain and this is pushing for bigger, higher buildings. A range of rules (level access, staircase width and depth, corridor widths, rules on loos and light rules) all tend to push to shallower, wider terraced houses. Fine but that means you build fewer of them and are thus more likely to build flats in the first place. Which fewer people want.

I could go on but won’t. Some of these rules (for example level access) are inviolable. Others can be argued round. But often specialist consultants don’t explain this detail to architects or developers. Or don’t know. And in any case why propose a plan that is ‘pushing water uphill’ from the start? Time costs money and getting permission and building consent is best done quickly.

The net effect of all these rules (and many others) is that we just can’t build human-scale, terraced streets with historic efficiency. New streets and buildings tend to end up bigger, higher and ‘blockier’ – spaced out to get light, bulked up to justify the cost of lifts.

And this matters because most people don’t like it. Sure, some people like the super-sized and the Brobdignagian in their urban form or the Bond baddie look in their styling. And that market should be catered for. And is. But actually most people, whisper it quietly, are fairly small-c conservative in their urban preferences. We know from our polling with MORI (as well as from our work with community groups across London) that one of the most remarkably easy ways to win popular local support for a development is to propose something that people like. Funny that. For example, at the Mount Pleasant site in central London our proposed urban form is actually denser than the consented proposal but gets between 95 and 99% local support because it ‘fits in’ with narrow urban streets and a small central circus. Tellingly one developer said of our initial plans, “Very beautiful, you’ll never get planning permission.”

We face a housing crisis and should build with as much popular consent as possible. Surely if there is to be a democratically-controlled planning system at all it should be mediating between what the ‘pure’ market would build and what most residents want to see built. Otherwise, what purpose does it serve? As we’ve argued in our recently published manifesto, it is time for a Direct Planning revolution so that local preferences for form, style and typology can trump what our masters think we should prefer.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets which has recently published their London manifesto, A Direct Planning Revolution for London?