Accelerated development: do Simplified Planning Zones work?

The Hillington Park SPZ has accelerated a number of developments, including a “motorbike village”.

by Donna Gardiner

A simplified planning zone (SPZ) is a designated area where the need to apply for planning permission for certain types of development is removed so long as the development complies with a range of pre-specified conditions.

Although the SPZ concept has been around since the 1970s, the idea has never really taken off, and there are very few SPZs in the UK.

However, in the last 12 months there have been some signs of renewed interest in the concept.  As part of the current review of the planning system, the Scottish Government has shown considerable enthusiasm for the potential of SPZs to address the housing crisis and support economic development.

In their most recent position statement, they state:

Zoning has potential to unlock significant areas for housing development, including by supporting alternative delivery models such as custom and self-build. This could also support wider objectives including business development and town centre renewal

Indeed, the Scottish Government recently committed £120,000 to help four local authorities develop pilot SPZs for housing development in Aberdeenshire, Argyll & Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, and North Ayrshire.

There are also plans underway for the creation of two new SPZs in Scotland.  In Aberdeenshire, councillors have agreed that planning officers should begin the statutory process for the creation of an SPZ for industrial and commercial activity in the south of Peterhead. The SPZ aims to strengthen the town’s position as a key strategic investment location, and complement work to regenerate the town centre.

At the other end of the country, in the Scottish Borders, a consultation has recently closed on the creation of an SPZ in Tweedbank – the new Central Borders Business Park.  The scheme aims to capitalise on the opportunities brought about by the Borders Railway, and is likely to receive additional funding as part of the recently agreed Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

While there is enthusiasm for the Tweedbank SPZ, East Berwickshire councillor Jim Fullerton notes: “The question of the viability of this project has to be recorded. Enthusiasm is one thing, but evidence of it being viable is the key.”

Viability

So what is the evidence on the viability of SPZ’s?  In theory, SPZs can offer a number of benefits for both the developer and the planning authority, including:

  • removal of the ‘planning hurdle’ and associated fees
  • faster decision making and accelerated development
  • greater certainty for developers and stakeholders
  • simplified planning control
  • reduces the need for repetitive planning applications
  • saves time and costs both for organisations and the local planning authority
  • offers more flexibility than a masterplan
  • attracts investment
  • can help to promote the reuse of existing space

However, while there are equivalent mechanisms in other countries, there are currently only two other operational SPZs in Scotland – Hillington Industrial Estate and Renfrew High Street.  They are widely considered a success, with Scottish Planner concluding that:

Both projects are a good example of how planning professionals, working with commercial stakeholders, can cooperate successfully in finding new ways to encourage sustainable economic growth.

Case study: Glasgow City Council and Hillington

In 2014, the first SPZ in Scotland in 20 years – the Hillington Park SPZ – was established by a partnership between Glasgow City Council and Renfrewshire Council.

The award-winning SPZ allows the landowner to increase space at the site by around 85,000 square metres, as long as proposals conform to the conditions set out in the SPZ scheme.

The SPZ is valid for 10 years.  So far, it has triggered around 20,000 square metres of development and attracted around £20 million pounds of investment.  Not only has it helped to promote the reuse of existing space, such as the obsolete Rolls Royce plant, it claims to have given the area a commercial advantage in attracting inward investment.

Jamie Cumming, the director of Hillington Park, said: “Our SPZ status means that new developments like the ‘motorbike village’ with Ducati Glasgow, Triumph Glasgow and West Coast Harley-Davidson as well as Lookers plc’s new Volvo and Jaguar showrooms and our own Evolution Court manufacturing and logistics development can be accelerated with an anticipated build time of just 10 months.”

Case study: Renfrew Town Centre

Building on the success of the SPZ at Hillington, in 2015 Renfrewshire council created the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ Scotland’s first SPZ focusing on town centres.  Renfrew is a “small, but vibrant” town centre. The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle.

According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Challenges

However, SPZs are not without their challenges.  These include the initial costs of establishing the SPZ, which can vary significantly depending on the size and complexity of the scheme.  There is also the need to ensure that the SPZ is ‘future-proofed’ – so that it is still relevant throughout the duration of its life (usually 10 years).  It is also important that those establishing an SPZ address the perception held by many that the relaxed planning rules associated with SPZs will result in poor design or compromise environmental impact.

Future directions

In addition to the pilot SPZs, the Scottish Government has commissioned Ryden (in association with Brodies) to undertake research to assess the potential for a more flexible and more widely applicable land use zoning mechanism than SPZs provide at present.  The research will inform the Government’s final proposals.

The research team at Idox will be following the revival of SPZs in Scotland with interest.

Destination stations: the role of railways in regeneration

King’s Cross Station, London © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

From Roman roads, to Victorian ‘cathedrals of steam’, transport has played a pivotal role in the development of societies and economies throughout history.

Today, rising energy prices, road congestion, and climate change, as well as reduced household sizes and an increased demand for urban living have put the potential benefits of urban transport hubs back in the spotlight.

Transit-orientated development

Transit-orientated development (TOD) is one response. An American-concept, it involves the creation of high-density mixed-use developments around a transit station or stop, such as a railway station, usually within a half-mile radius (a 10-minute walk approximately).  It may include office space, retail, leisure facilities and housing, as well as public areas and green space, and a variety of public transport options.

The aim is to create attractive, diverse, walkable places.  TOD can also help to significantly reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.

Stations as ‘destinations’

In Europe, TOD has yet to ‘catch on’. However, it shares many similar principles with the increasingly popular concept of developing railway stations as destinations in their own right – for shopping, working and socialising.  Railways often form an important part of a town or city centre, and the combination of transport node and central location has the potential to attract people in great numbers.

The redevelopment of London King’s Cross station and the surrounding industrial wasteland made it one of the first ‘destination stations’ in the UK.  Around the station, new homes, shops, offices, galleries, bars, restaurants, a hotel, schools and a university were created, along with 20 new streets, 10 new public parks and squares, and 26 acres of open space.  In fact, the redevelopment was on such a scale that the area now has its own postcode – N1C.

Some other key examples of newly developed ‘destination stations’ in the UK include Manchester Victoria Station and Birmingham New Street Station. Network Rail last year stated that they intend to create many more such ‘destination stations’.

Economic and social benefits

As well as environmental benefits such as reduced air pollution and traffic congestion, mixed-use developments in and around railway stations can help meet housing demand, and spur the economic and social regeneration of their surrounding communities.  Particular benefits can include:

  • Improved passenger experience/satisfaction
  • Attracting more businesses into an area
  • Improving the supply of labour for businesses
  • New job creation
  • Increased demand for food, retail and leisure facilities from greater numbers of commuters, residents and workers
  • Helping high streets to compete with online retailers and out of town developments
  • Contributing to public health goals through increased walkability of areas
  • Making good use of previously inaccessible/waste land

Government support

There is strong government support for delivering improvements around railway stations.

The recent Housing white paper recognises the regenerative potential of railway stations, viewing them as key anchors for the next generation of urban housing developments.

Two new sources of funding for railway station developments have also recently been announced: the second round of the New Stations Fund – a £20 million pot to build new stations or reopen previously closed stations; and the Station Regeneration programme – which aims to develop railway stations and surrounding land, while delivering up to 10,000 new homes.

Alongside this, there are also plans to release large amounts of unused railway land for housing – enough to build 12,000 houses across 200 sites.

Large and small

In addition to developments focused around one particular station or city, there are also a number of major railway-based infrastructure projects currently taking place.  Among these are the Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme (including recently approved plans to redevelop Glasgow Queen Street station), Great Western Electrification, Crossrail and HS2.  All of these have the potential to catalyse regeneration in their surrounding areas.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are also a number of successful smaller scale regeneration projects involving railways.

Addressing the challenges

The development of railway sites can pose a number of challenges, including contaminated land, fragmented land ownership and reconciling short-term economic development goals with the longer time scales necessary in larger infrastructure projects.

However, according to James Harris, a policy officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute, planners are ‘uniquely’ placed to work with landowners, infrastructure providers, developers and the local community to help deliver a strategic vision for these locations.

Planners should also be flexible and creative in their approach towards station redevelopments, focusing on outcomes rather than processes, says David Crook, assistant director of station regeneration at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Cities and Local Growth Unit.  In doing so, he says, planners can help make a station regeneration project ‘more than the sum of its parts’.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in our blog post ‘Reimagining travel: how can data technologies create better journeys?

Prefabs sprout: could factory-built homes tackle the housing crisis?

Long regarded as a relic of the past, prefabricated housing is now emerging as a potential solution for the UK’s chronic shortage of affordable homes.

Britain’s golden age of prefabricated housing happened after World War II, when the government authorised thousands of factory-built homes to replace housing destroyed by bombing raids. Intended to last for no more than ten years, many prefab homes were still occupied thirty years after construction.

For a period during the 1960s, prefab housing enjoyed a resurgence. One scheme was showcased at Montreal’s Expo 67 as a solution for high-quality housing in dense urban environments. But in Britain prefabs became associated with shoddy, damp and dysfunctional housing. The largest remaining post-war prefab estate, located in London is now facing demolition.

The prefab renaissance

In recent years, prefabricated housing has been rebranded and is now showing signs of making a comeback:

  • In Yorkshire, the Legal & General insurance firm has opened the world’s largest modular homes construction factory.
  • In Manchester, regeneration company Urban Splash is developing a 43-home scheme, with each house designed by the customer, then built offsite and shipped to the New Islington estate.
  • In Lewisham, south London, Rational House is working with AECOM to build “off-the-shelf” homes for young professionals struggling to get on the property ladder.

Renewed interest in prefab housing has been driven by the severe shortage of housing in the UK, along with the rising cost of traditional construction methods. At the same time, new materials and construction techniques have made prefab homes a more economic and attractive option. This week, leading engineering firm Laing O’Rourke has suggested that the acute lack of space in Britain’s cities could lead to the next generation of tower blocks being built almost entirely off-site.

In its 2017 housing white paper, the government proposed measures to stimulate the growth of the offsite construction sector and promote more factory built homes through the Accelerated Construction programme and the Home Builders’ Fund. The paper highlighted Creekside Wharf in Greenwich as a good example of prefab housing’s potential.

The benefits and challenges of prefab housing

The champions of prefab housing argue that it provides comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed much more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern prefab apartment block in half the time that it would take to build using traditional methods, which means that units for sale or rent can start making money more quickly. Proponents also argue that offsite construction generates less noise, dust and disruption for neighbours. And although offsite costs remain higher, the margin is narrowing as prefab manufacturing achieves efficiencies of scale.

But although today’s prefab homes are a world away from their post-war forerunners, critics have argued that contemporary prefab housing is no match for a traditionally-constructed home. There have also been concerns that prefab homes could be deployed as a quick fix. The Guardian’s architecture and design critic, Oliver Wainwright commented:

“If taken up as the silver bullet to endless waiting lists, there’s a very real risk it could sow the seeds for a future of cheaply built, meanly scaled, less stable housing that can be conveniently swept away at a moment’s notice.”

Some have expressed concern that factory-built homes could end up deskilling traditional building, but others believe that prefabricated housing could plug a skills gap in the construction sector after the UK leaves the European Union.  Meanwhile, lenders to developers are still cautious about financing prefab projects until their long-term durability has been tested.

Prefab present…

Despite these reservations, prefab housing is shedding its outdated image and increasingly entering the mainstream housing sector. In some areas, factory-built housing is already being deployed to help people with urgent housing needs.

The architecture firm of Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners is internationally famous for its cutting edge projects, from Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five to the National Assembly for Wales. But in 2015, the firm joined forces with the London Borough of Merton, the YMCA and Aecom to create Y:Cube. The first 24-home Y:Cube development is located at Mitcham in south-west London, and took just five months to build. Tenants come from YMCA hostels and Merton’s housing waiting list, finding the flats as welcome alternatives to hostels and B&B accommodation. A similar project is taking place to provide Y:Cube accommodation for local people with acute housing needs in the London borough of Lewisham.

Beyond the capital, further prefab housing developments are in the making:

  • Manchester City Council has been leading an offsite construction consortium of 17 housing associations with the aim of building hundreds of new homes in the north of England.
  • In December 2016, Your Housing Group announced a partnership with a Chinese construction firm to deliver 25,000 prefabricated homes over the next five years.
  • Swan Housing Association is building an 18,000 sq ft factory to deliver new homes for the regeneration of Basildon’s Craylands estate.

…and prefab future?

While prefab housing is gathering pace, one entrepreneur is taking the concept to the next level. Alastair Parvin, a graduate of Sheffield University’s school of architecture, believes that harnessing the possibilities offered by technology can make building a house more straightforward.

The idea behind Parvin’s “WikiHouse” is to enable users to draw up plans for their new home online. But instead of the house then being constructed at one offsite location, the components will be manufactured by a network of small business and community spaces – known as maker-spaces.

We’ve come a long way from the prefab housing of the post-war years, and perhaps there’s some way to go before the vision of the WikiHouse is realised. In the meantime, prefabricated housing could offer a much-needed boost to tackling the nation’s existing housing shortfall.


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in our other blog posts on suggestions for tackling the UK housing crisis:

Is it time to start building on the Green Belt?

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The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”
William Blake, 1799

The forthcoming Housing White Paper from the Department for Communities and Local Government is expected to tackle the thorny issue of the Green Belt. Initially due for publication at the end of 2016, the paper has now been delayed twice, heightening speculation about its contents.

The Telegraph has suggested that councils are likely to be encouraged to make greater use of the controversial policy of ‘green belt swaps’. Green Belt swaps allow councils to remove protections on one part of green belt in return for creating a new area of protected land elsewhere.  This may enable councils to better meet demand for housing.  Current planning legislation for Green Belt swaps already exists, but often fails to work in practice. Proposals are often rejected at the planning stage due to the newly identified land failing to meet Green Belt definitions. The Times indicates that the White Paper may contain a more aggressive approach towards the use of the Green Belt for housing.

Potential benefits

There is no denying the need for more housing.  In general, experts agree that a minimum of 200,000 new homes will be needed each year in order to keep up with demand.

Recent government statistics on Green Belt in England in 2015/16 estimated that it covered around 13% of the land area of England. It has been argued that development on just 1% of reclassified Green Belt would allow for almost half a million new homes to be built. However, building upon the Green Belt provokes much passionate debate.

Proponents of green belt flexibility argue that:

Paul Cheshire, Professor Emeritus of Economic Geography, LSE, argues that many opponents of building on the Green Belt hold a romanticised image of the nature of the land, which is not truly representative of the majority of Green Belt land.

“Of course parts of the Green Belts are real environmental and amenity treasures, such as the beautiful bits of rolling Hertfordshire, the Chilterns or the North Downs. Or rather, the beautiful bits to which there is public access. Such areas really need to be preserved against development. But almost all Green Belt land is privately owned, so the only access is if there are viable public rights of way.”

He goes on to suggest selective building on the least attractive parts of Green Belts, which are close to cities where people want to live.

A similar sentiment is found in the recent LSE report ‘A 21st Century Metropolitan Green Belt’. Dr Alan Mace, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Studies at LSE (one of the authors of the report) concludes that:

“People often look at the Green Belt and say, ‘who would want to lose this?’ but often they’re looking at land that is protected in other ways, such as Metropolitan Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and this would not change. Some parts of the Green Belt are neither aesthetically pleasing nor environmentally valuable and these are the areas that should be looked at for potential development.”

Potential limitations

However, Green Belt swaps are not without potential problems.  For example, Shelter has cautioned that Green Belt flexibility “could create a mini industry in speculative land trading in Green Belt areas, making cheap land release much harder as landowners hold out for high prices”.

There is also much opposition to building on the Green Belt among the general public and environmental groups. Paul Miner, planning campaign manager at CPRE, is concerned that the Green Belt is being chipped away, arguing that, among its benefits, the Green Belt:

“…continues to provide impetus for urban regeneration, and makes environmental and economic sense in protecting the breathing space around our towns and cities.”

Perhaps Rowan Moore, writing in the Guardian, neatly describes the desire of many to protect the Green Belt when he states “The fact that it is named in the singular, although there are many green belts, indicates its status as an idea, even an ideal, as well as a place. It is part of English, if not British, national identity, protected by the shade of William Blake”.

Future policy

The government has remained tight-lipped on the contents of the White Paper, but if they do choose to include Green Belt swaps as a key feature of the paper, they will face an uphill battle in tackling public perception and reassuring environmental and conservation groups.

Reconciling these differences of opinion will not be easy.  Ensuring that there is no overall loss in the total land area and overall quality of the Green Belt will no doubt be a key step towards addressing this.


Follow us on Twitter to keep up to date with the latest news on the publication of the Housing White Paper and other planning policy developments.

Going through the roof: could building upwards address London’s housing problem?

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The Ter Meulen Building, Rotterdam: 21st century residential apartments built on top of a post-war shopping centre

The housing challenges facing London are well documented::

  • London needs around 50,000 new homes a year, but housebuilding is running at around half that.
  • Between 2005 and 2015, private rents in London rose by an average of 35%.
  • Future projections suggest there will be 9m people in London by 2020, 10m by 2030 and 11m by 2050.

There are now serious concerns that the lack of affordable housing and rising rents risk driving key workers out of London, and may cause businesses to think twice about locating in the capital. But as well as triggering dire warnings about the future of London and the UK economy, the housing crisis has also prompted increasingly creative ideas on how to solve it.

Going up

Last year, Darren Johnson, who represented the Green Party on the Greater London Assembly, proposed five ideas to secure land for affordable homes. One of his proposals was to build additional storeys on top of existing buildings.

Johnson suggested that this approach has many advantages over demolishing existing properties and building new homes, including:

  • a shorter period of disruption for residents;
  • more environmentally friendly than demolition and rebuilding
  • an opportunity to refurbish the existing homes

He offered the example of the Ducane Housing Association in Hammersmith, which built 44 new homes on top of two 1970s buildings. Based on data from London’s Borough Councils, Johnson estimated that almost 50,000 new homes could be built using Ducane’s example.

One potential stumbling block is the difficulty of getting planning permission for intensive construction projects in the heart of active communities. However, in July 2015, the Treasury signalled the government’s intent to end the need to obtain planning permission for upwards extensions in London.

Building on public buildings

Another approach, on similar lines, is the idea of building new homes on top of publically owned buildings. In 2015, WSP professional services consultants conducted a survey to gauge interest in the idea. Among their findings:

  • 61% of respondents supported the idea of allowing private developers to refurbish government buildings, allowing them to make their money back by building additional housing on top of the refurbished building, which they could sell for profit.
  • Over 60% of Londoners would happily live above a library, while 44% would be willing to live above a government administration building, and around a quarter of Londoners would be willing to live above a school or hospital.

The WSP report went on to suggest that developing all available sites by building apartments above all available public buildings in London could provide over 630,000 residential units.

“Of course we acknowledge that not every building will be able to be redeveloped in this way, but even targeting one in every two municipal buildings could go a long way in solving the housing crisis, providing 315,000 homes.”

These homes, the report argued, would be most suitable for key workers employed by these facilities, or by students, older people and young professionals. Some may even house those working in the facilities below.

One landlord is already exploring the idea with several London councils. Apex Housing Group has experience of converting airspace above properties into luxury penthouse apartments. Managing director Arshad Bhatti believes the principle could be applied to affordable homes:

“We are working with a number of local authorities across London and expect airspace development projects will help bridge the gap between demand and supply of new homes in London – crucially with minimum lead times, and offering maximum value for property owners.”

The view from overseas

The idea of building up may be relatively new to London, but other densely populated cities have already been exploring its possibilities.

  • In Rotterdam, developers have been combining ultra-lightweight materials to build apartments on top of a 1940s shopping centre.
  • In New York, a developer is planning to construct a nine-storey condominium on top of apartments dating from the 1950s.
  • In Paris, three prefab dwellings attached to the rooftops of existing buildings were completed in January 2016.

The architects of the Paris project believe it has multiple benefits:

“Building on top of the roofs is not only an ecological and economical solution, it’s working against the urban sprawl that kills the social link. It’s also a contemporary way to discover new perspectives of the city, a new Paris above the horizon.”

But not everyone is happy with the idea. Residents in the existing apartments beneath the proposed New York condominium are concerned that the wear and tear of construction could damage their properties. And they’re also worried about the stability of the columns supporting the new building.

The only way is up?

Clearly, building on existing properties is not without its problems. But as the housing crisis in London intensifies, and spreads to other parts of the UK, it’s an idea that may no longer be regarded as pie in the sky.


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in other blog posts on suggestions for tackling the UK housing crisis:

Starter Homes: affordable housing at an unaffordable cost?

By James Carson

A report from homelessness charity Shelter has suggested that one of the UK government’s key affordable homes initiatives will be out of reach for many people on average incomes.

The ‘Starter Homes’ initiative was launched in December 2014, offering first time buyers under the age of 40 in England a discount of up to 20% off the normal price of new homes built on brownfield land. During the general election campaign, David Cameron promised that by 2020 200,000 Starter Homes would be built by private builders and sold for no more than £450,000 in London and £250,000 in the rest of England.

The government has claimed that first-time buyers paying an average of £218,000 for a home would save £43,000 under the Starter Homes scheme.

However, analysis of the programme by Shelter suggests that it will not help the majority of people on the new National Living Wage or average wages into home-ownership in England by 2020.

Cheaper homes but not cheap enough

Shelter looked at three typical household formations in each local authority in England earning a range of different salaries to assess whether they were likely to be able to afford to buy a Starter Home. The study found that:

  • Starter Homes for families earning average wages will be unaffordable in over half of local authorities across England in 2020.
  • Families on the National Living Wage will only be able to afford a Starter Home in 2% of local authorities.
  • Single people on low or average wages will struggle to afford a Starter Home in 2020 in the majority of local authorities.
  • London, the South East and the East have the lowest number of areas where affordable Starter Homes under the schemes threshold could be built, despite high demand in these areas.

The scheme is being funded by changes to the planning system, exempting developers from their obligations to include affordable housing in building schemes. The government says that these ‘Section 106’ obligations typically add £15,000 to the cost of each new home being built.

However, even before its latest analysis, Shelter was expressing concerns that the removal of these requirements would lead to Starter Homes ‘cannibalising’ genuinely affordable housing. There are also questions about whether the homes will come with the necessary infrastructure in place.

Government pressing ahead

Nevertheless, the government is pressing ahead with the programme and extending its scope. In August, chancellor George Osborne announced that the Starter Homes scheme would be extended to some villages as part of the government’s rural productivity plan. At the same time, some of England’s major house builders have pledged their support for the scheme, including Barratt, Cala and Taylor Wimpey.

Even if it meets the target of 200,000 new homes by 2020, the Starter Homes scheme on its own will not solve the national housing shortage. Around 250,000 homes need to be built each year to keep up with demand, but in 2014 fewer than 119,000 homes were built in England. As the Shelter report concludes, the Starter Homes programme is no silver bullet for the housing crisis:

“Starter Homes would primarily help those on very high salaries or couples without children, but they are not a good replacement for other forms of affordable housing and will not help the majority of people on average wages struggling to get an affordable, decent home. The government needs to look very closely at this policy before going down the wrong track.”


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on housing; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

The home front (interview with Brandon Lewis outlining plans for housing)

Building to order (development on brownfield sites)

A living countryside: responding to the challenges of providing affordable rural housing (CPRE Housing foresight paper no 5)

Housing summary measures analysis

Tackling our housing crisis: why building more houses will not solve the problem

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Designing for wildlife – can new housing developments support biodiversity?

Great spotted woodpecker on garden feeder. Image: Chris Johnson

Great spotted woodpecker on garden feeder. Image: Chris Johnson

By Morwen Johnson

Britain has a reputation as both a nation of wildlife lovers and garden lovers. Many native species however are under threat, so conservation groups are increasingly highlighting the positive contribution that private green space can make to providing wildlife habitats, especially in urban areas.

And with over 240,000 new homes needed each year to meet housing demand in England, the development industry currently represents both a major threat and an opportunity for the environment. That’s why a new partnership between a major housebuilder and the RSPB is being touted as a trail-blazer for wildlife-friendly housing development.

Pioneering partnership

Earlier this year, Barratt Developments and the RSPB announced a pioneering agreement to embed sustainable development and biodiversity into new housing developments. The first project to benefit from the approach, at Kingsbrook in Aylesbury Vale, is due to start construction later this year and is expected to include 2,540 new homes.

Green infrastructure will comprise about 50% of the Kingsbrook development site and will include orchards, hedgehog highways, newt ponds, tree-lined avenues, fruit trees in gardens, bat, owl and swift nest-boxes and nectar-rich planting for bees. There will also be 250 acres of wildlife-rich open space, accessible to the public.

Councillor Howard Mordue, Cabinet Member for Leisure at Aylesbury Vale District Council, said: “I see this benchmark project as the first step in developers working with nature agencies to deliver housing and also to protect the environment”. The council has been commended in the past for employing ecologists in its dedicated Green Spaces Team.

Educating and engaging residents

Integrating wildlife-friendly design elements into new housing developments seems like a step in the right direction. But the maintenance and continued existence of these elements, once houses are sold, is not inevitable.

Last month the Royal Horiticultural Society launched a campaign “Greening Grey Britain” to encourage householders not to pave over gardens. Research conducted for them suggested that three times as many front gardens are now paved over compared to ten years ago, and over five million front gardens now have no plants growing in them (that’s one in three for the UK). Four and a half million front gardens (one in four) are completely paved over. In London it’s estimated that two-thirds of gardens are already at least partially paved over.

These figures don’t necessarily mean that householders don’t want gardens – but that needs are not being met by the design of housing. The 2013 National Travel Survey found that only 14% of household vehicles are parked in a garage overnight and 25% are parked on the street. The majority are parked on private property but not garaged. A lack of living space means that many people use their garages for storage, or have converted the original garage space into living space. Floor space in the UK for new build housing is the smallest in Europe. Nowadays, most households also have more than one car.

Paving gardens doesn’t just reduce spaces for wildlife. Back in 2008, government guidance highlighted that replacing grass and plant beds with concrete and asphalt surfaces can increase flooding and pollution risks, and create unwanted urban heat island effects (when local temperatures rise).

Everyone can help biodiversity

England has populations of at least 55,000 species of animals, plants and fungi, and over a thousand are assessed as requiring special conservation attention. Familiar species which are endangered, or deemed to be of high conservation concern, include hedgehogs, red squirrels, the small tortoiseshell butterfly, and birds such as house sparrows and starlings. Wildlife-friendly gardens and green space (even when the spaces are small) are useful as they provide habitat corridors and food sources.

While the RSPB and Barratt partnership is positive therefore, it’s disappointing that this approach should still be so unusual. Over a decade ago, consumer research by Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that purchasers of new build housing felt that builders put very little thought into the design and quality of gardens. In the worst cases, ‘gardens’ were actually just piles of builders’ rubble, while the minimal landscaping approach of just turfing the outdoor space was widespread. It seems that in the intervening period, little has changed.

Recent case studies from the Landscape Institute have shown that well-planned landscape design can transform a site with relatively modest levels of investment. Partnerships such as the one between Barratt and the RSPB show that developers are willing to create great places if they think there is a market for them.

It will be interesting however to see if the green infrastructure introduced in the Kingsbrook development is sustained over time and whether home-owners have the skills and the inclination to maintain these wildlife-friendly features.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

We’ve made some of our member briefings freely available. View a selection of our environment publications on our website.

More people, more houses, more dissatisfaction… Are we ready for higher-density living in the UK?

abstract windows in flats (Unsplash)

By Morwen Johnson

We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us (Winston Churchill)

It’s estimated that we need 240,000 to 245,000 additional homes each year in order to meet housing demand and need in England. Statistics show that we are consistently failing to meet this level of housebuilding but how we change this situation is a matter of debate. The UK Government’s recent Productivity Plan included proposals to make development on brownfield land easier as well as freeing up public sector land assets and supporting higher density housing around commuter transport hubs. Others are recommending more controversial solutions, such as increasing building within the green belt (for example see reports from London First and the Adam Smith Institute).

It seems inevitable that the future requires housing at greater density but, particularly in London, alarm is now being sounded about superdensity and potential hyperdensity developments, which have become the norm in many global cities.

What is high density development?

From a planning point of view, density is intrinsically linked with creating viable communities which have a population to make amenities and infrastructure sustainable and cost-effective. Higher density designs (in urban environments) also increase the amount of street activity and thus, the perceived safety and attractiveness of a place.

Appropriate density is of course relative to context, and guidance such as the London Plan density matrix reflects this. Although there is no hard and fast definition, within urban areas a general density of around 70 to 100 dwellings per hectare (dph) level is common. In terms of new developments in major city centres like London, superdensity has been used to describe densities over 150 dph (or 450-500 habitable rooms). Hyperdensity can mean 350 dph or more.

Higher-density living does not necessarily mean high rise buildings though – careful design can increase neighbourhood density via mixed-tenure mid-rise developments. A group of four London-based architectural practices recently published a report Superdensity which aimed to provide positive guidance on how to ‘combine ambitious densities with popular and familiar urban forms’.

Space as a luxury or a necessity

While this may at first sight appear to be a debate about the planning system, it actually raises more fundamental questions about the aspirations and expectations we have for how we live.

There is a legacy in Britain of thinking that high-density housing means tower blocks in undesirable areas. Much urban regeneration in recent years has focused on replacing high-rise buildings. Lower-rise developments can also be high-density, if well designed, so the issue is actually often about housing quality rather than increased density, and whether the housebuilding industry is delivering the types of housing that people want.

RIBA’s Future Homes Commission highlighted that a focus on number of bedrooms ignores the potential of rooms as functional spaces. Floor space in the UK for new build housing is the smallest in Europe. And research in 2012 suggested that people value natural light, space for storage and flexible spaces which allow for socialisation. There is also a general hierarchy of desirable housing which it is still often assumed that people will move through during their lifecourse, especially as they start families – i.e. starter flat, 2 bed flat, terraced house or maisonette, semi-detached house, detached house with garden – as well as a move from rented property to owner-occupier.

For many people however these aspirations are impossible. Drawing on 2001 Census data, research has shown that although social housing tenants make up only 21% of families with children, they make up 79% of those families living on the fifth floor of a building or above. In London, nearly one third (31%) of all families with children living in social housing were found to reside on the second floor or above.

Smaller dwelling sizes can also affect our health. Many people living in flats or tenements have to dry laundry inside, which has been shown in studies by the Mackintosh Environmental Architecture Research Unit and the University of Manchester to have health risks. Lack of outdoor space for children to play (whether communal or private garden space) also has negative impacts. It seems that many people have to downsize both their living space aspirations and their quality of life.

It’s hip to be dense

The fact that we pay a premium for space, just as people who can afford it can choose to pay more for housing near transport connections or in particular school catchment areas, is nothing new. But as the discussion on high-density housing and the quality of new housing shows, it can be argued that the trends of the housing market are disadvantaging a large proportion of the population, and also younger generations. Access to housing (and increasingly housing space) is becoming a highly political issue.

Public suspicion of high-density housing is being overcome through subtle rebranding – terms such as the ‘compact city’, ‘pocket housing’ and ‘micro-housing’ have a cool edge which try to appeal to young urban-living professionals. And many award-winning high-density schemes also now have a strong focus on communal gardens or space, providing elements that traditionally would be delivered in private space.

Regardless of the marketing (or policy impetus), the truth however is in the living. Do people feel they are compromising in their housing choices or is there a wider shift in aspirations? And more importantly, as space becomes a scarcer commodity, are we just introducing another marker of inequality into the mix?


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PassivHaus … a home for all seasons?

Passivhaus

Image by Pichler Haus, released under a standard Creative Commons Licence

By James Carson

This week, eight contenders are waiting expectantly for the results of the 2015 UK PassivHaus Awards. The awards celebrate sustainability and good building design, with the focus on the PassivHaus concept.

What is PassivHaus?

PassivHaus is an approach to building that is designed to eliminate the need for traditional central heating systems by combining:

  • excellent levels of insulation
  • passive solar gains and internal heat sources
  • excellent level of airtightness
  • good indoor air quality, provided by a whole house mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Since its small beginnings as a German-Swedish collaboration in the 1980s, over 30,000 buildings around the world have been built using the PassivHaus approach.

The benefits of PassivHaus

Energy efficiency lies at the heart of a PassivHaus building. The PassivHaus Institut, which plays a leading role in promoting the concept, has claimed that these buildings can achieve energy savings of up to 75% compared to average new builds.  PassivHaus proponents also claim that the buildings have significantly better levels of air quality, and greatly reduce carbon emissions.

Practical issues

While the long-term energy savings are impressive, PassivHaus buildings are not without their critics. Among their concerns:

  • Cost: The higher standards of PassivHaus buildings, including triple-glazed windows, mechanical ventilation systems and vacuum insulation, all add to the costs of PassivHaus construction. The consensus seems to be that PassivHaus will increase build costs by 15% to 25%, and it’s believed that the higher costs have limited the concept’s application to a handful of private housing developments in the UK.
  • Construction time: Because of the optimum performance demanded of them, PassivHaus buildings can take longer to install. In the Republic of Ireland, concerns about slower construction times during a serious housing shortage has prompted the government to oppose plans by local authorities in Dublin to make the PassivHaus standard mandatory for new homes.  PassivHaus proponents in Ireland have condemned the moves as short-sighted, and claim that PassivHauses won’t slow down construction.
  • Adaptability: Another criticism of the PassivHaus concept is that it’s not readily adaptable, and that structural alterations may interfere with the integrity of a PassivHaus building.

A building or a lifestyle?

There have also been claims that residents may themselves have to adapt to PassivHaus living.

“Building a house to this standard means agreeing to live a certain lifestyle, which if lived to the book can work very well, and has been proven to do so time and time again. You must appreciate, however, that building such a home is a lot of trouble to go to if ultimately you do not want to live the PassivHaus lifestyle.” (The Green Home)

However, PassivHaus supporters dismiss the idea that these buildings are too complicated to maintain:

“The ventilation system, not common in conventional buildings, is user-friendly and easy to operate with fewer controls than a normal television.” 

PassivHaus in the UK

The PassivHaus concept was slow to take off in Britain, but more and more UK architects have become interested in PassivHaus since 2013, when the government committed to implementing zero carbon homes from 2016. The zero carbon homes standard will require house builders to decrease all carbon emissions from energy arising from fixed heating and lighting, hot water and other fixed building services, such as ventilation, in new homes. It’s worth noting, however, that the zero carbon standard is less strict than PassivHaus.

The PassivHaus approach is not limited to residential properties. Among the buildings shortlisted for the UK PassivHaus awards this year are a primary school, an office and an education centre.

Elsewhere, the University of Leicester’s Centre for Medicine is currently under construction, and is set to be the UK’s largest PassivHaus building. It’s estimated that the high levels of insulation and a state-of-the-art heating, cooling and ventilation system will reduce the university’s energy bill for its new teaching and research facility by 80%, compared to the previous building.

PassivHaus may also be able to contribute to alleviating Britain’s housing crisis. A social housing project currently under construction in Rainham, east London, aims to demonstrate that PassivHaus is a commercially viable solution to the UK’s shortage of affordable homes. The builders of the 51-home project claim that this will be the first PassivHaus development to be let entirely at affordable rents.

Future prospects

Inadequate heating, poor insulation and high energy costs have become significant factors in the rise of fuel poverty among households in the UK. At the same time, there is a pressing need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. So, it may be that the buildings being showcased at this year’s PassivHaus awards may come to be seen as ahead of their time.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on housing; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

 Footprint: three Passivhaus projects, IN Architects’ Journal

Lancaster co-housing (a Passivhaus development), IN Products in Practice

First look: only way is social for Essex Passivhaus homes (energy efficient social housing), IN Property Week

Keeping cosy in Rainham (affordable housing scheme built to Passivhaus standards), IN RIBA Journal

Lessons from Germany’s Passivhaus experience 

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Devolved governance – what role for planning?

government

by Alan Gillies

Last week the RTPI sent us a copy of a collection of papers it had just published, based on a symposium held at UCL in April 2015, on the topic “Critical Perspectives on Devolved Models of Governance”.

The issues covered, devolution, decentralisation, localism, are highly topical and a glance down the list of contributors – all well-known academics and thinkers – convinced me that the collection was worth a close read during my morning and evening commutes. So, a few train journeys later, here’s what I learned from each paper.

‘Critical perspectives on devolved governance – lessons from housing policy in England’

Miguel Coelho, from the Institute for Government, argues that any arrangements for devolved governance need to address housing supply constraints created by failures in the governance of land and construction property rights in England, which tend to favour the interests of current homeowners.

His analysis of the housing supply problem identifies three issues:

  • planning decisions made at local level may not allow for the full range of interests affected, especially in the absence of effective city/regional planning coordination
  • local communities’ attitudes to housebuilding in their area are sensitive to temporary disruption and house price impacts
  • a highly centralised fiscal system gives little power to councils to allow them to avoid/compensate for these problems and facilitate development.

This leads Coelho to the conclusion that proper governance of land and construction is not just about decentralising planning decisions to local level. All interests should be taken into account, not just current local homeowners, so some form of supra-local planning coordination is needed.

‘Assessing the impact of decentralisation’

Professor John Tomaney, from Bartlett School of Planning UCL, considers the benefits of decentralisation, based on a study of international experience.

He suggests that the UK government “has embarked on a radical policy of decentralisation in England, which it calls ‘localism’.” This particular form of decentralisation, different from the kinds tried in other countries, makes it difficult to assess the effects. However, in general Tomaney gives a positive message that high degrees of decentralisation are associated with higher levels of subjective well-being. Interestingly the suggestion seems to be that fiscal decentralisation seems to be more relevant, in this regard, than political decentralisation.

‘Planning, place governance and the challenges of devolution’

Patsy Healey, Emeritus Professor at Newcastle University, emphasises the importance of place and argues that decentralisation needs to connect to what people care about and encourage broadly-based public debate about these concerns.

She argues that over-centralisation represses the capacity for innovation in the planning field and undermines its ability to create and sustain place-focused development strategies.  However she warns that we can’t be naïve about the benefits of localism – decentralisation should not just be handing tasks down to lower levels of government. Wider levels of government are needed to provide oversight and promote strategies and values which affect people’s attachments at a broader scale.

Healey’s hope is for the slow replacement of top-down governance, dominated by experts, with “multiple, non-hierarchical overlapping but interacting forms of ‘network governance’.”

‘Making strategic planning work’

Nicholas Falk, of the Urbed consultancy, stresses that planning is not a science through which problems can be resolved by bringing enough data together. Political choices have to be made, requiring leadership at local, as well as regional and national levels.

Like Tomaney, he looks overseas for lessons, particularly France. He proposes an ‘ABC’ of the requirements for placemaking leadership: Ambition to create better places; Brokerage to put deals together and win support for change; and Continuity, giving enough time to turn vision into reality.

He argues that we need to mobilise private investment behind housebuilding and local infrastructure rather than sustaining inflated house prices. He also makes the point that current regional boundaries are no longer appropriate and that instead we need to empower both city regions and dynamic counties.

The contribution of planning to England’s devolutionary journey

Janice Morphet, Visting Professor at the Bartlett School of Planning, looks at devolution as a process not an event.

She suggests that planning can contribute to devolution in the following ways: 1) it can capture the vision for the whole place; 2) it can set this vision in the context of the nation and its surrounding neighbours. Of course this has to be undertaken with partners and stakeholders in the wider governance framework, but decisions have to be taken by the ‘government of the place’ – which she suggests is likely to be through a combined authority.

Morphet concludes that planning has a major contribution to make, through its map making, visioning and prioritisation in order to develop ‘city and sub-regional hearts’.

‘Place-based leadership and social innovation’

Professor Robin Hambleton, of the University of the West of England, looks at the role leadership has to play in fostering social innovation.

He criticises the over-centralisation of government in Britain and calls devolution deals for selected parts of the country (such as city regions or combined authorities) a ‘devolution deception’ as they are expected to be “mere servants of Whitehall”.

Hambleton sets out three pointers to renewing local democracy:

1) recognise that the current over-centralised system holds back the innovative capacity of the people and set up a constitutional convention to create a new local/central settlement;

2) learn from abroad, where local authorities often have far more political power and responsibility for local taxation, allowing local leaders to respond to local challenges;

3) people living in particular localities need to have much more say in what happens to quality of life in their area, though with limits to tackle issues of self-interest and exclusion.

‘Collaborative innovation: the argument’

Finally Professor Jacob Torfing, of Roskilde University, Denmark, argues for the bringing together of public and private actors in processes of collaborative innovation.

He points out that the idea of co-creation of innovative solutions to policy issues is of growing interest, but argues that a new form of public leadership is needed for it to happen.

Interestingly, Torfing warns that we need to recognise that there is no guarantee that innovation leads to improvement, so the definition of innovation should not include reference to successful outcomes. Drawing on the research literature he points out that of the three types of strategies for developing public policy innovation – authoritative, competitive and collaborative – collaborative is the best for creative problem solving.

He argues that public leaders need to involve the private sector in developing innovative strategies, in order to benefit from this collaborative approach.

Final reflections

The overall messages that can be drawn from the papers include:

  • Over-centralisation limits the ability of local areas to develop their own solutions to local problems, whether in the planning field or other sectors, but simply devolving decisions to the local level is not the answer.
  • Local communities should have a say in decisions that affect the area where they live, and the evidence is that decentralisation is good for well-being, however a broader ‘supra-local’ level of governance is needed.
  • Fiscal devolution gives local and regional bodies the means to implement the solutions they identify
  • Devolution offers a real opportunity for encouraging innovation in developing solutions to policy problems…
  • … but this requires new leadership skills for the public sector to take the risks involved in innovation, and to coordinate the range of interests involved
  • As Torfing describes it, this would mean “a new type of public leadership that is more proactive, horizontal and integrative and that recasts public leaders as conveners, facilitators and catalysts of collaborative innovation”.

You can read the full collection of papers, published by the RTPI, on their website.

The Idox Information Service has introduced an exclusive offer for RTPI members to help them with their evidence needs.

This year Idox is also sponsoring the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence, recognising and promoting high quality spatial planning research.