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.

Can the NPPF be used to encourage better design? A look at a recent High Court decision…

by Laura Dobie

A recent High Court decision has significant implications for interpreting the design policies in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPG).

Handing down the decision in Horsham District Council v. Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (1), Barratt Southern Counties Limited (2) on 23rd January 2015, Mr Justice Lindblom stated “It is not a general principle in planning law that an acceptable proposal for development should be turned away because a better one might be put forward instead”, dismissing the notion that this principle had not persisted with the introduction of the NPPF.

The case revolved around the question of whether an inspector had failed to take account of whether a better designed scheme could be conceived for a development site.

The Court dismissed an application under section 288 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 by Horsham District Council for an order to quash the decision of the inspector – appointed by the first defendant, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government –  to allow the appeal of the second defendant, Barratt Southern Counties Limited (“Barratt”), against refusal of planning permission for a development of 160 dwellings on land to the north of West End Lane in Henfield, West Sussex.

The Council had contested the grant of planning permission. During an inquiry the council submitted that the proposed development was a poor design which obscured views of the landscape, that a well-designed scheme should contain view corridors to retain these important views, and that it was fundamental to the principles in the NPPF regarding good design and the need to incorporate development into the character of the area, that such a scheme should preserve these views.

The inspector concluded that the likely “adverse environmental effects” of the proposed development were “limited” and did not outweigh “the considerable social and economic benefits” with respect to the early provision of new homes in circumstances of a local shortfall. He considered that policy in the NPPF did not indicate that the development should be restricted, and that the development would therefore be “sustainable”, and “the presumption in favour of such development should be applied”.

The Council argued that the inspector was not entitled to grant planning permission for Barratt’s proposal while it was still possible for a scheme to come forward in which long views from the site would be better protected, in light of policy set out in paragraph 64 of the NPPF that “permission should be refused for development of poor design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area and the way it functions.”

In his ruling, Mr Justice Lindblom stated that the NPPF does not say that a proposal which does not take every conceivable opportunity to enhance the character and quality of an area, or which does not deliver as well in this respect as a different proposal might have done, must therefore automatically be rejected.

He noted that the inspector focused on the policy in paragraph 64, as well as the wider policies on the design of development within which that paragraph is set, and that he exercised his own judgment on the issues relating to “good design” and “poor design” in light of these policies, concluded firmly that the proposal was not of “poor design”, and brought that conclusion into the comprehensive assessment of the planning merits on which he based his decision.

Referring to the decision in First Secretary of State and West End Green (Properties) Ltd. v Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd., Mr Justice Lindblom stated that in this case, the fact that an alternative approach could have been adopted in the design of the development, and that this could have maintained some views from the site which would have been obscured by Barratt’s development, did not mean that the design of the proposal the inspector was considering contravened government policy in the NPPF.

The judge went on to state that the inspector was entitled, and in fact, required, to exercise his own judgment on whether the scheme constituted poor design under the NPPF, and that he did so in an entirely lawful manner, applying NPPF policy appropriately. He noted that, “It may be that the council disagrees with him, but such disagreement is not ammunition for a legal challenge.”

The Court also reiterated the principle that an application under section 288 of the 1990 Act does not afford “an opportunity for a review of the planning merits” of an inspector’s decision.

This case indicates that an acceptable scheme cannot be rejected to encourage an improved scheme, given the design policies of the NPPF and the NPPG.

Full details of the final judgement are available here.

Garden cities – back to the future?

Ebenezer Howard

Image by Monty Trent on Flickr via a Creative Commons License

By Dorothy Laing

Today’s announcement that Bicester is to be the second new garden city with 13,000 new homes, is a reminder that the UK’s housing shortage requires large-scale solutions. According to the Town and Country Planning Association’s estimates, between 240,000 and 245,000 new homes are needed each year up to 2031 to meet the needs of our growing population. This demand can only be met by building new settlements including schools, transport links, infrastructure and community facilities. Continue reading

Loosening the belt: the debate over building on green belt land

By James Carson

“The green belt has been exalted as sacrosanct in a way in which almost no other policy area has been indulged, and any attempts to have a serious conversation about its development have been swiftly stifled with the same kind of force as would usually be reserved for suggestions to entirely dismantle the NHS.”

So said Andrew Carter, the Acting Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, writing on the Conservative Home website earlier this month. It’s true that green belts have long been regarded as untouchable. But there are signs that the bulletproof shield protecting them could be breaking down.

In September, the Wolfson Economics Prize went to regeneration consultancy Urbed for its proposal to create a city of 400,000 people by doubling the size of an existing town and building on the surrounding green belt. The following month, Rowan Moore, The Observer’s architecture critic, considered the arguments for and against green belts and concluded:

“…it is no longer good enough to insist that green belts must, at all costs, never change.”

Meanwhile, defenders of green belts have been voicing their concerns. “A weakening of protection for green belts would lead to urban sprawl over precious countryside and farmland,” said the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), launching its campaign for a stronger commitment from government to review the latest threats to the green belt. And after the Wolfson prize winner was announced, architect Richard Rogers spoke out against Urbed’s proposal to take a bite out of the green belt, calling it “a ridiculous concept.”

The idea of curbing urbanisation is not new. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a three-mile wide belt around London was proposed in order to stop the spread of the plague. More recently, the garden city movement’s ideas about urban and rural areas, led to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which allowed local authorities to include green belts in their town plans.

Today, there are 14 green belts in England, 10 in Scotland, 30 in Northern Ireland and one in Wales. They exist as buffers between towns and countryside, and successive governments have ensured that they are maintained. The UK government’s latest National Planning Policy Framework sets out the green belt’s five purposes:

  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  • to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  • to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

Historically, green belts have been regarded as one of Britain’s great planning successes. But there has been growing criticism of the costs of the green belt, typified by Rowan Moore’s observation:

“It stops cities expanding, which had previously done so for centuries. It contributes to the scarcity and cost of decent homes in large parts of the country. It encourages bizarre and wasteful patterns of commuting. It often fails in its original aim of providing accessible recreational space for city dwellers. It is enforced with a rigidity that makes little sense, except as a sign of mistrust.”

Britain’s housing crisis has amplified calls for the green belt to be breached.  Government projections suggest that the UK needs six million new homes in the next 30 years. Proponents of building on green land contend that existing urban and brownfield areas alone cannot cater for the housing demand, an argument underlined by Urbed in its submission to the Wolfson competition.

Centre for Cities has claimed that building on 5.2% of green belt land within and around Britain’s least affordable cities would deliver 1.4 million new homes.

Their opponents disagree. This month, the CPRE reported that a minimum of 976,000 new homes could be built on identified brownfield sites in England, and that the supply of these sites is steadily increasing. The organisation has also suggested that housebuilders are “sitting on huge areas of land with planning permission which could provide over 280,000 new homes.”

With a general election on the horizon, the main political parties have been drawing up their battle lines. The Labour Party is showing signs of greater flexibility on the green belt issue. In October, Sir Michael Lyons published the final report of his independent review of housing for the Labour Party. One of his recommendations included allowing more homes to be built on parts of the protected green belt if the land has little “environmental or amenity value”. In response, the Conservative Party has reiterated its commitment to protecting the green belt.

Perhaps most interestingly, it’s at the local level that changing policies on green belts can be most clearly seen. Councils in England are responding to the housing crisis by using localism powers granted to them by the coalition government to de-designate or swap greenbelt land in the context of making a local plan. Figures published in August by Glenigan planning and construction consultants revealed that 5,600 new homes were approved to be built on green belt land last year, a 148% increase on the 2,260 green belt homes in 2009/10.

The debate now seems to be moving towards a recognition that some infringement of green belt land is inevitable, which is perhaps why a recent commentary on the subject by an academic from the London School of Economics was not titled, “Why should we build on the green belt?” Instead, it was headlined: “Where should we build on the green belt?”.


Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on planning. Items we’ve recently summarised for our database include:

Delivering change: building homes where we need them

Utopias that work: how to create tomorrow’s garden city

Removing obstacles to brownfield development: how government can work with communities to facilitate the re-use of previously developed land (Foresight paper no 2)

Uxcester garden city (second stage submission for the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014)

Greenbelt under development: special report

Green belts: a local way forward for the twenty first century

N.B. Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.