Found in the suburbs

[Originally published online by the Guardian, 6 December 2017]

The London plan, the latest draft of which was published at the end of November, is the great ocean-going liner of London mayoral politics. It carries as its cargo all the mayor’s most important policies, as it sails from draft to adoption, navigating the choppy waters of public consultation and examination-in-public on its way.

As soon as the plan’s two to three-year journey is completed, it turns round to begin afresh the process of review and redrafting. It is the keystone of mayoral strategies, and one of the most powerful tools the mayor of London has to define the shape of London. It regulates the use of land – a scarce asset in a growing but constrained city – and over time all 33 London boroughs should ensure that their plans and planning decisions fall in line with its policies on what should be built where.

This concentration of mayoral powers in planning means many policies take on a spatial complexion: while the mayor cannot tax or ban unhealthy fast food shops, he can propose that they are located away from schools. He cannot license nightclubs, but he can require developers to meet the cost of soundproofing if they build alongside nightclubs. He does not manage financial services, but he can preserve land for offices in the Square Mile and Canary Wharf.

If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail; and if you are a planning document, everything looks like a land use issue.

At the heart of the latest London plan is its focus on annual new housing supply, raised from its previous target of 42,000 to 66,000, with half being affordable. It’s an ambitious target, considering that the present supply of new homes, 29,000, is less than half the new target – but the mayor argues that the capital’s crisis over a lack of affordable homes requires a big step up. Few would disagree with that.

Some of the proposed homes may be built outside London – the plan commits to working more closely with neighbouring councils, a scheme that will be considered in a forthcoming report by Centre for London and the Southern Policy Centre – but the priority will be building homes within the capital.

Alongside investment in affordable homes, which Khan says needs to be increased to £2.7bn, and land at the Olympic Park and Old Oak Common, the mayor must rely on his planning powers to achieve his target. In some cases, he will be able to intervene himself in planning decisions, but can only do so where certain conditions are met, such as schemes with more than 150 housing units or buildings over 30 metres tall.

In most cases, he will have to rely on the policies and planning decisions made by individual London boroughs and some outer London boroughs, who are being asked to double or even treble their speed of housebuilding – and who may be reluctant to do so, given the concerns of local voters.

So the plan seeks to make it easier for boroughs to grant planning permission and harder to refuse it. High density in itself, for example, can no longer be a reason to turn a scheme down – although there is sensible provision for careful scrutiny of the design of the highest density schemes.

There is also a sharper focus on smaller sites, which are expected to account for 25,000 of the 66,000 new homes a year. The plan says smaller sites should be prioritised by boroughs, with design codes drawn up to identify opportunities for new development, particularly around transport hubs, and a presumption in favour of giving planning permission.

But all this relies on developers wanting to build. For 20 years, London’s housing market has boomed, so the challenge has been how much the mayor and boroughs can secure from developers in terms of social housing and other community benefits; where permission has been refused, developers have often come back with a better offer.

At the launch of the draft plan, London’s deputy mayor, Jules Pipe, was adamant that it would not stifle development or undermine viability of schemes. But planning as a tool works better at directing development than initiating it. There is already a growing backlog of planning consents that have been given, but where houses have not been built, and without a dramatic increase in funding, the mayor has only limited powers to get homes built.

The draft plan does want to find incentives for homes to be built faster, and a switch to more rental developments and smaller sites should help, but at a time when London’s housing market is cooling, planning permission will only be half the battle.

  • This article was corrected on 12 December to clarify the mayor’s target of £2.7bn to invest in affordable homes.

He\’s Only Making Plans for London

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[Written a few weeks ago, and published on MJ website 10.11.16]

Almost drowned out by the noise over airport expansion, Sadiq Khan issued A City for All Londoners this week, the vision document that will underpin the Mayors strategies, and in particular the London Plan, the citys spatial blueprint.

What then does this tell us about what we can expect from Sadiqs mayorality? The changes are subtle many paragraphs would not look out of place in Boris Johnson’s 2008 Planning for a Better London but they do signal shifts in emphasis and focus.

There is no change in the Mayors commitment to protecting the Green Belt, but theres a strong focus on the intensification of existing development, for example, in town centre locations and around transport hubs, with a particular focus on TfL and other public sector landholdings. Big sites and opportunity areas like Barking Riverside, which has been promising to deliver 10,000 homes for the past 15 years, are still part of the story, but as Centre for Londons report Going Large emphasises, these can be challenging to deliver. Looking at existing town centres and transport hubs for new growth opportunities acknowledges the limits of a big siteapproach in a city that is growing as fast as London.

Theres also a welcome emphasis not just on housing numbers, but on the creation of neighbourhoods. This includes reference to mixed-use development, and a good growthstrategy that encompasses affordability, quality of place, social infrastructure and zero-carbon initiatives. The document largely steers clear of the more controversial aspects of housing policy, with no mention of estate redevelopment (as discussed in Centre for Londons recent Another Storey), 50 per cent affordable housing presented as a long-term target rather than a day one stipulation, and only a cursory reference to lack of transparencyin foreign ownership (although an investigation into the latter is planned). 

A further subtle shift can be seen in Sadiqs proposals for economic development, as the self-styled most pro-business Mayor yet”.  While maintaining the strength of the central Londons business districts, including through opposing office to residential conversions, A City for All Londoners emphasises the potential for more development, including offices and hotels, in well-connected outer London centres.

Transport and environmental issues are discussed together, confirming pledges on air quality, and setting out a vision for healthy streets(using a pedestrianized Oxford Street as an example), which enable walking and cycling. Major infrastructure schemes like Crossrail 2, East London river crossings and the Bakerloo Line extension are plugged, with an emphasis on their integration with new development, as is the takeover of suburban rail that Centre for London proposed earlier this year in Turning South London Orange. But there is also a strong focus on behaviour change to reduce car use, and deliver a feet firstplan for central London.

The document also touches on some of the less tangible aspects of urban infrastructure, social cohesion, mental health, community safety, active citizenship, and volunteering. Theres a reference to economic inequality also, including the establishment of an Economic Fairness Team to push for better workplace standards. Cultural infrastructure from theatres and galleries to skate parks and gay pubs is presented as central to Londons success, and the Mayor argues for agent of changemeasures to ensure that long-standing clubs and music venues are protected from noise complaints from new residents.

Though it has dominated public life for five months, references to Brexit are few and far between. The EU referendum result is delicately described as not what I and many London businesses had hoped for, but the Mayor is cautious in pushing for special provisions for London. Fiscal devolution the focus of the reconvened London Finance Commissionis only mentioned in passing, and immigration is set aside as a matter for government despite recent publicity for the idea of regional visas. Understandably perhaps, the Mayor is avoiding self-fulfilling prophecies of doom, or grand claims for what he can deliver – particularly where this will need government agreement, or depend on the murky ebb and flow of Brexit policy and negotiation.

Stuck inside of planning, with the new town blues again

I can see the arguments in principle for and against a new generation of new towns or garden cities, as one way to tackle our chronic housing shortage.  But in current circumstances, the discussion seems purely theoretical; I can\’t see how new towns can ever be built.

For example, just to the north of Brighton, a proposal for a new \’market town\’ of around 10,000 dwellings has been mooted.  I can see the constraints on land in the South East and the need for bold moves, but I also have some affection for the area proposed, sandwiched between areas of outstanding natural beauty and a national park, and including one of my favourite pubs.  And we need to add the potential impact of a new town on existing communities, to these more sentimental considerations.

In any case, the Mayfield Market Towns proposal appears to have stalled for the moment.  The Planning Inspector has just paused his consideration of Horsham\’s local plan, arguing that they need to be more ambitious in finding housing sites, but also rejecting the Mayfield proposal.  His arguments against it are twofold: firstly, he does not believe that such a scale of new development is needed at this stage (though he acknowledges that expansion at Gatwick Airport would force a more fundamental rethink), and he doesn\’t think a scaled down version would be viable.  Secondly, as the Inspector puts it (in a late entry for Understatement of the Year), \”the deliverability of the preferred 10,000 dwelling option…within two local authority areas without their support, and in the face of strong opposition from two local MPs, parish councils and local people, including land owners, is also an issue of concern.\”

This is why I can\’t see how any new town will become a reality.  Proposing a new 10,000 home development requires top-down planning.  It is not just a matter of responding to known and projected local demand for new homes (which will rarely if ever demand that scale of development on its own), but of considering and redefining what role a particular site might play in the economic future of its region, of the whole country.  This is a matter of creating and redirecting demand, not just responding to it.

And that would probably require pushing a scheme forward in the teeth of local opposition, especially in the areas of South East England where land supply is most constrained.  Local councils have no incentive to do that, and Government\’s \’localist\’ planning policy gives little scope for forcing their hand.  Labour\’s greater enthusiasm for \’a new Generation of Garden Cities and Garden suburbs\’, as detailed in the Lyons Review, is also tempered by insistence that their designation must be \’locally-led\’. Even where local authorities are more supportive, planning processes take years; if there is a row, we are talking generations.

So perhaps all this jostling is a matter of gesture politics (town vs country, preservation vs \’hard-working families\’ etc).  But it does risk distracting attention from more pressing issues.  If we are not going to be a little more directive and ride a little more rough-shod over local opposition, we are not going to build new towns.  And if we are not going to build new towns, or at least not in the foreseeable future, we need to stop the make-believe, and focus more sharply on how to build more houses in our existing towns and cities.

Ecraser les bourgeois?

It is commonplace to contrast the social mix of London with the segregation of Paris. This analysis characterises (caricatures?) Paris as a doughnut city: the centre is homogenously bourgeois, while the immigrants and the poor are relegated to the concrete banlieues on the other side of the Peripherique.

London by contrast is held to be a city which switches from elegant townhouse to high-rise council housing in a matter of yards, as a result of the combined efforts of the Luftwaffe and post-war planning. There are richer and poorer areas, but few districts are devoid of either social housing or a middle class enclave.

But perhaps that\’s all starting to change. Central St Giles is a garish Renzo Piano development on one of London\’s most historically ominous sites. The super dense development may tip its hat to the crowded tenements that once dominated, but there the resemblance ends. While 53 flats have been allocated to Circle Anglia for social rental and intermediate buy-rent, the others are apparently being marketed in the Far East, with prices starting at £500,000 for a studio, and £1 million for a two-bed flat.

What\’s missing is the middle – the flats that might be within the financial grasp of people on an average, or even above-average but not astronomical, salary. Central London\’s property market appears to have reached a condition where only the super-rich and key workers (the 21st Century\’s \’deserving poor\’?) can afford to get their foot on the ladder. This is a \’mixed community\’, true, but a very odd one: just how will this blend of jetsetters, jobseekers and low-paid workers actually rub along?

Perhaps the developers (Legal and General, and Mitsubishi) are agitators, working under deep cover to foment revolution, by laying bare the inequities in society. Or perhaps it\’s just another of the bizarre outcomes of London\’s soaring land values, persistent high-end demand, and reliance on developers to provide public goods.

The illiteracy of uses

Long ago, before Brick Lane became internationally-renowned home of the ironic haircut, I attended a meeting between the Mayor of London and protestors from the Spitalfields Market Under Threat (SMUT) pressure group. With the protestors, who were seeking to preserve the former wholesale market on the edge of the City of London, was florid architect Will Alsop.

They had asked Will along, they said, to demonstrate how new commercial development could co-exist with, rather than destroying, the courtyard of 19th and 20th Century buildings, by then enclosing an \’alternative\’ market, selling everything from vintage clothing, to dream-catchers, to decommissioned pub signs. With a straight face, Alsop unfurled his plans. Over the nondescript market buildings towered a monstrous blob on stilts. One of the bien-pensant SMUTters coughed nervously, and explained that this proposal wasn\’t necessarily what they were actually proposing.

Straight face aside, I wondered whether Alsop was making a wry comment about the confusion of buildings and uses in the UK planning system. What the SMUTters wanted to preserve, I sensed, was not so much the decent but nondescript market buildings, but the marginal market uses that they accommodated, a messy bulwark against bland City expansionism.

But our planning system\’s \’use classes\’ are a blunt instrument: retail is retail, and drinking establishments are drinking establishments. Planners cannot discriminate, so protestors are forced to rely on heritage arguments, in order to defend the unique and particular against the homogenous and generic. They make claims for buildings, when what they are actually talking about is character – fleeting, intangible and easly destroyed. Spitalfields Market is now redeveloped (Smithfield is the new front); while many of the market buildings were saved, and a few token market stalls remains, they feel as forlorn and denatured as in a suburban megamall.

Reading this week about the Parisian proposal to designate streets and shops for specific uses (eg, as bookshops, bakeries, butchers or tabacs), I started to wonder we could imitate the initiative. Perhaps individual shop units could be designated for \’slightly funky coffee shop not owned by Seattle-based leviathans\’, \’old-fashioned hardware store where you can buy nails by weight in paper bags\’ or \’butchers with organic meats and straw boaters\’.

This type of positive discrimination is what the great estates can do; it\’s what Howard de Walden have sought to do (with some sucess) in Marylebone High Street. But this power seems unlikely to be granted to town halls even in our brave new world. It may be irreproachably conservative, and trendily localist, but it would be a heretical denial of free market ideology.

(Not) going down the pub

Raised on concrete stilts, the Docklands Light Railway affords a privileged view of East London to its passengers. Amidst austerely functional blocks of post-war housing, churches and pubs stand out – richly tiled and decorated relics of a Victorian past. Owned by the breweries, they (the pubs, that is) were left standing on street corners as the slums of Poplar, Shadwell and Whitechapel were demolished.

But changes in the pub trade are now conspiring with London\’s insanely effervescent property market to dismantle what the Luftwaffe and the planners left intact. The Evening Standard recently reported that around a quarter of pubs near the Olympic site in Bow are closing. It\’s unfair to blame the Olympics for this – a changing population (more muslim in East London), the smoking ban and changing attitudes to drinking all contribute – but London 2012 is accelerating the process that kills boozers.

As the market value for new-build flats goes through the roof, the new pub-owning companies – nowadays as canny as property speculators as they are at managing licensed premises – are quick to take advantage. Depending on your views, you can call this regeneration or gentrification, but the outcome is the same – a gradual retreat from the ideal of mixed-use neighbourhoods to which modern planners and developers must at least claim to aspire.

It\’s not just happening in East London. Urban 75 lists some of the shabbier (and I mean that as a compliment) drinking dens that have closed around Brixton in recent years, to be replaced by \’luxury apartments\’. Fight backs can work: the Pineapple in Kentish Town managed to see off developers a few years ago, but it\’s probably easier in NW5, where stars like Rufus Sewell will rush to your aid, than in E3 or SW9.

Councils are taking notice, and several (including Tower Hamlets) have put in place policies to protect viable pubs in residential areas, but it may already be too late. The city is zoning itself, making a mockery of mixed use. As brutal \’vertical drinking\’ districts spread like a rash, neighbourhood pubs are in retreat, before the relentless march of housing-led \’regeneration\’.

Fairways…and foul

Aside from looking as if a sporran, or some other Highlands rodent, has taken up residence on his head, there was never much to tie Donald Trump to Scotland, before his battle, reported in yesterday’s Guardian, to take over Michael Forbes’ coastal landholding 13 miles north of Aberdeen.

Mr Trump wants to build 1,000 homes, a 45-room hotel and a golf course on the site. The houses are regrettably necessary as a cross-subsidy for the nine-hole golf course, which is presented as a good thing in itself (and a saviour of the dunes, rather than, as Scottish Natural Heritage see it, a destruction of important natural heritage). Mr Trump’s sensibilities are particularly offended by the state of Michael Forbes’ property: “… the area is in total disrepair. Take a look at how badly maintained the piece of property is: it\’s disgusting. Rusty tractors, rusty oil cans.”

It sounds a mess, but the countryside isn’t neat. The countryside can be beautiful, alarming, calming and depressing. It can smell beautiful or rank, and can be muddy, sandy or soft. But it is rarely neat. Modern farmyards are some of its least appealing features: lean-to sheds, decaying farm machinery, scraps of blue plastic sacking and strange rivulets of chemicals vie to disabuse us of any pastoral fantasies. This, the shambolic yards seem to say, is a productive place, not a pretty place.

Golf courses, on the other hand, are neatness incarnate. Flying into Heathrow or Gatwick, you get a privileged, if not particularly sustainable, view of these made-up meadowlands, which pepper south-eastern England with their curiously pock-marked landscapes. Golf courses may be neat, but they are a whole barrel of ugly too: privatised green spaces, permitted within the green belt on the basis of being a \’leisure\’ use, but bearing as much relationship to the countryside as Mickey Mouse does to the rodents under my floorboards.

With the rising demand for land for housing, and insistent questioning of the sustainability of green belt policies, we might be tempted to follow the example of the Mayor of Caracas, who suggested seizing golf courses to house the city’s poor. Even at a fifth of his proposed density (5,000 people per course), we could use England’s 1,800 golf courses to house nearly two million people, which must go some way meeting the Government’s annual target of 200,000 new homes.

If that turns out to be a touch controversial – as it may – here is another modest proposal. We could simply reclassify golf-courses as previously developed ‘brown field’ land (which they surely are, given the earth moving and ersatz planting that goes into their creation), and let the housing market do the rest as land values rose.

Paddling while England sinks

The Government’s consultation on boosting housing supply could hardly have started at a worse time. With residents of west country towns looking down at filthy waters from their first floor windows, this was not the best moment to publish policy documents that emphasise the need to create more homes, even if these are to be on flood plains.

To be fair, the Green Paper on housing does acknowledge the likelihood of increased flooding in the future, and the need to ensure adequate flood defences and to avoid “inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding”. But these cautious statements sit uneasily with the desperate need for new housing reflected in the document. Can we have it both ways, or are we paddling while England sinks?

Seeing your home flood must be vile for the victims. Viler still must be the knowledge that, as the brown water inexorably rises, your next months will be spent squabbling with insurers, throwing out ruined carpets and furniture, chipping off sodden and contaminated plaster, just to make your home habitable again. Maybe the Environment Agency can be blamed for delayed warnings and late arrival of flood defence barriers, but these would only have bought time as rivers swelled to 36 feet above their normal level.

What is to be done? We could continue to build flood defences higher and higher, until the rivers that give many of our towns and cities their beauty are hidden from view by huge levees. Or we could turn the problem around, creating open space that can act as flood storage, and building homes that can quickly recover from flooding. The Dutch, whose country is one big flood plain, have already started to build amphibious houses on hollow concrete bases, which can rise four metres when rivers flood.

But we don’t need to go that far. Government and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) have both published guidance on flood resilience, for new build and existing houses respectively. Gypsum-based plaster can be replaced with more water-resistant materials, ground floor rooms can be used as service space, electrical sockets can be put halfway up walls and non-return valves can be fitted to drains.

Flood resilience measures might not be pretty – plastic kitchen units and concrete floors, anyone? – and leaving the ground floor to services and car parking conflicts with everything that urban designers learn about ‘animated street fronts’. But the ABI calculates that spending an extra £34,000 on making repairs to a three-bedroom house more resilient could save £37,000 on repair costs next time that the waters rise (let alone several times that in anguish).

One in ten UK homes is already at risk from flooding, and we can only expect that proportion – and the frequency and severity of floods – to increase. Instead of demanding ever higher, more intrusive and more expensive defences, like some latter-day Cnuts, we could accept flooding as a fact of life, which careful planning and design can turn from a cataclysm to an inconvenience.


The capital city of the nation of shopkeepers is getting worried. Is London beginning to face the same pressures that have stripped many other town and city centres of their life?

Over the next few years, central London\’s shops will face a bit of a rocky road, with growing competition from what might be called \’out-of-town-in-town\’ retail malls: at White City to the west, at Stratford to the East and at the expanded Brent Cross/Cricklewood scheme to the north. Combined with congestion charging, and the homogenisation of retail through \’clone town\’ encroachment by large chains, the threat is particularly acute for smaller and independent shops.

Kensington and Chelsea recently established an independent commission to look at the future of retail within the borough and their report (here) makes some interesting proposals: how can you preserve retail diversity, and the character of neighbourhoods that this creates?

Some of the changes they recommend relate to planning policy, and in particular use classes. If your boredom threshold is low, you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph. Land and building uses are categorised by Government, and local authorities uise them to define what activities are allowed on a particular site: retail, offices, housing, industrial uses, etc. \’Retail\’ includes sub-classes for shops, financial and professional services (ie, banks, estate agents and bookies), restaurants and cafes, drinking establishments and hot food takeaways. In general, changes within a particular use class are permitted, but changes between use classes require planning permission.

The K&C Commission suggested putting small shops into a new category, and making mergers of smaller units a matter for planning consideration. They also proposed creating a new class for coffee shops, to prevent local retail being \’Starbucked\’. The report also suggests letting councils take over large shops\’ car parks, to remove their unfair advantage, and even toys with the idea of creating special \’retail conservation areas\’.

Why is this interesting? Firstly, because retail conservation areas could be seen as the next step in the heritage movement. Since the mid 1960s, we have woken up to the value of the every day buildings that surround us (of which more in another post soon), but have paid little attention to their use. A listed factory building or church can be changed into housing as long as it looks the same. Protecting the use of a building, as well its looks, is a pretty radical move, more reminiscent of the way we approach farmland, than buildings in the centre of a city.

It\’s a pretty conservative move too, though not one that would seem strange in New York or Paris. The leadership of Kensington and Chelsea is Conservative, but this feels like a far cry from the laissez-faire world of the market, seeking to protect shops like Rough Trade (a collectivist record shop) from the depradations of capitalism.

Thirdly, like most people, I am deeply hypocritical about shopping. I love smaller shops in theory, but the half-stale produce and limited range soon sends me scuttling to Sainsburys. Perhaps the streets where I live are slightly less replete with specialist sourdough bakeries than the streets of Notting Hill are. Not every small shop is worth saving.

Similarly, when I work in poorer parts of London, they don\’t tend to worry about small retailers. They feel they have too many of them already. They want Starbucks. They want Tescos. They want that holy grail of upwards mobility, Pizza Express. Keeeping good small shops afloat is important, but should we really rely on planning to save us from our own actions?