NDP: Tall buildings and affordable business premises

It was a relatively small group that assembled in the creche room of Emmanuel Church last night. Thankfully a heater was blasting away (the church is apparently investing in underfloor heating at some point – very fancy), keeping the cold at bay.

Under discussion was the second draft of the Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDP), and I was pleasantly surprised that progress through the agenda points was relatively brisk.

In light of the overwhelming vote from WHGARA residents to be part of the NDP area, it was quickly decided that the boundary would match the West Hampstead and Fortune Green ward boundaries. Having cleared this hurdle, the application for formal recognition of the NDP can be submitted to Camden. There is unlikely to be any objection from Camden – planning officers have been involved with the process from the outset – so once accepted there will then be a six-week consultation process. This is all before the plan itself is finalised.

James Earl, chair of the Neighbourhood Development Forum, threw the discussion open to the floor (all 9 of us) regarding the core policies (recapped below) for comment.

Building height
One topic dominated the discussion. At the moment, the draft plan has blanks for the proposed maximum building height inside and outside the intensification area (roughly the area around the three stations).

John Eastwood, from WHGARA, put forward the idea that the maximum height should be the same across both wards, with no differentiation for the intensification area. He mooted four or five stories as the limit. This would seem to be too low to be enforceable. West End Lane already has plenty of five storey buildings and given the housing demands we face, it’s impossible to imagine that a sympathetically designed six-storey building wouldn’t be looked at favourably.

A couple of us also pointed out that developments such as the student block on Blackburn Road and indeed the Ballymore 187-199 West End Lane proposals were using the fact that the ground slopes away from the road to increase building height with less impact on the roofline. In other words, site context is an important component of determining maximum heights.

The sloping land means the Ballymore 12-storey tower block won’t have
quite as much impact as it would on West End Lane

I know that there are readers of this site who look more favourably on high rise than others. The NDF’s survey on this did, however, show a sizeable majority of residents are opposed to high-rise. Finding the right balance between housing need and height will take some careful wording of the plan. The view was put forward that the “errors of planning” that led to Ballymore’s 12-storey block, or the much older Ellerton building on Mill Lane, should not be taken as a new benchmark height for the area.

There is a secondary point here in that the NDP also takes a stance on the type of housing that is needed – specifically recommending a housing mix that includes more 3- and 4-bed flats. For developers to deliver that sort of housing profitably, they will need to build high. The plan needs to ensure it’s not pushing contradictory agendas that would allow developers to exploit loopholes.

The issue of uniformity across the ward is a more interesting debate – again, I can’t see that this would be workable. However, there is a sense among some in the south that the north of the area will feel very little of the direct impact of the growth in population and housing density, even though the rhetoric is one of a larger community that spans the two wards. It is too late to change the growth area, but those in the northern reaches may need to accept that there will be development across the wards that requires an increase in housing density along some of the side streets as well as around the stations and railway tracks. Otherwise the sense of divide between the south and north of West Hampstead is only going to intensify.

Affordable business premises
The council beats the housing drum very loudly, but economic development is also a vital part of a successful community. However, it feels as if West Hampstead is losing jobs rather than creating them – especially if the Liddell Road school is built, which will mean the loss of several businesses on that industrial estate.

One of the NDP’s draft core policies is that development should also be focused on providing new jobs and attracting new businesses. Existing businesses, and the land they occupy, should be protected and encouraged. Sounds very laudable but, as Brigid Shaughnessy pointed out in the meeting, the council has no provision for “affordable business” in the same way it does for “affordable housing.” This struck everyone as rather a good point. Planning officers can encourage developers of mixed-use developments to have smaller retail or office units, which encourages independent businesses but there’s not a lot it can do about the rents charged, even if it can offer rates holidays. It seems like a point worth exploring – if a development needs to have a certain share of affordable housing to be approved by Camden, then why not also insist on a share of affordable business premises. These would clearly need some covenants to ensure that they didn’t just mean that a national chain could operate with an even bigger profit margin.

Any other business
Aside from these two issues, a few other topics came up. Basement excavations was one (apparently there are eight happening in Kylemore Road alone), although it’s not clear what sway the NDP might have here as the issue seems to be one of Camden enforcement.

Clarity is also needed on what exactly Camden’s West Hampstead Interchange Planning Framework is going to involve. This catchy sounding concept popped up out of nowhere recently, but no-one seems to have a sense of what it is trying to achieve, how it will fit in with the NDP, or indeed whether it’s necessary in the first place given all the other planning frameworks that apply to the area.

Recap of core policies (draft)

  1. New development should be focused on providing a range of housing and housing types, including social and affordable housing and 3-4 bedroom homes for families. The vast majority of new housing and development should be located in the ‘West Hampstead growth area’.
  2. Outside the growth area, new development should be on a much smaller scale.
  3. New buildings in the growth area should be no higher than xx storeys; outside this area new buildings should be no higher than xx storeys.
  4. New developments should promote high quality design which fit in with their surroundings, especially in terms of height, appearance and design.
  5. Conservation areas should promote high design standards and have policies which are strongly enforced.
  6. Development in the Area should also be focused on providing new jobs and attracting new businesses to the Area. Existing businesses, and the land they occupy, should be protected and encouraged.
  7. There is an urgent need for ongoing improvements to public transport in the Area, particularly the three rail stations.
  8. Future development should protect, preserve and enhance existing green/open space and provide new green/open space in new developments.
  9. Provide as much space as possible for pedestrians and promote ease of movement through the Area.
  10. Protect the existing public services and community facilities in the Area and provide new services/facilities as the population of the Area grows.
  11. Provide an environment that is suitable for a mixed community, including young people, old people, families and those from a range of social backgrounds.
  12. In all developments, there should be a presumption in favour of preserving the look, feel and views of the Area.