Build high or fiddle while Rome burns?

In my last Property News article I extolled the virtues of a rising London property market and the benefits to the economy of foreign investment via the ‘multiplier effect’. Some of you may be surprised to learn that I’m not a capitalist at heart, but I suppose I was just getting fed up with all of the constant talk of housing bubbles and ‘where will it all end?’. It was more a case of: there’s very little any of us can to do change it, so it may be better to embrace the positive aspects of it. But is that true and what might be the long term consequences?

Clearly, opinion will be divided based on whether you are a property owner or not. But don’t we all have a responsibility to future generations to consider the very serious situation that London and the UK finds itself in? The harsh reality is that we are not building enough homes to satisfy the ever increasing population. A mixture of red tape planning bureaucracy and policy, NIMBYism and economic conditions mean that we have very little hope of making this any better without serious reform and a change of policy and attitude.

The Barker review highlighted the severity of the situation back in 2004, and the Department for Communities and Local Government now estimates that we need to build 232,000 new homes in the UK every year between now and 2033. At the moment, only 120,000 homes are being built each year. The Greater London Authority’s 2012 Round Projections of population growth for London shows an increase of 2 million residents between now and 2034. This doesn’t account for the changing way in which we now live; more single person dwellings or for our longer life expectancy.

The numbers don’t add up and it really cannot be any surprise that we have double digit growth in the London property market. What is more concerning is that we don’t seem to have any policies that are directly addressing this problem.

The last Labour government’s response to the Barker report was to introduce a regional level of planning under which each region had to file its own plan outlining policy for development within its region. By the time the coalition government came to power, very few of these regional plans had been filed and approved and the new government decided that these only created more red tape and that the answer to our planning problems was to decentralise planning policy by empowering local communities and increasing permitted development rights.

The grand plan is to let local residents decide on what’s best for the area and to free up buildings and sites for development by removing red tape. The regional tiers were promptly abolished and the Localism Act became law in 2011.

Nick Clegg declared that the Localism Act was “a move from big government to Big Society”. He went on to say “It marks the beginning of a power shift away from central government to the people, families and communities of Britain”. Great sound bites at a time when trust in government was at such a low point.

The Localism Act allows for the creation of Neighbourhood Development Forums (NDFs) which can formulate a Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDPs) outlining policy for the designated area and identifying sites for development. The potential problem with such plans is that they must be approved by the local authority and also comply with the local authority’s planning policy and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). In London, they also have to comply with the London Plan.

It seems to me that actually nothing is being decentralised, as all plans have to comply with central policy to be approved. In fact, West Hampstead’s NDP, which was one of the first, is still awaiting final approval from Camden.

Another worrying aspect of these plans is that they cannot actually veto any planning decisions, but they do present another layer of statutory planning guidelines that developers must adhere to and that objectors can cite in any attempts to delay or block proposals.

There will also be a concern in some areas that NDFs may not be representative of the whole community, although local authorities do require evidence that significant efforts have been made to address this before granting approval.

Preservation of the look and feel of our area is also a concern for those living within it. The rows of Victorian terraced houses in West Hampstead and the red brick properties and mansion blocks of South Hampstead are prized and protected assets of our area. But how can we balance the preservation of such areas with the need for building more homes? The Camden plan for West Hampstead says it “expects development in the growth areas to be predominantly housing and seeks to encourage high density development”. By contrast, the local NDP states

Recent development in the past decade has raised a number of concerns, particularly as the population of the area grows, more new homes are built and the population density of the area increases. For many residents the height of new buildings is a key issue. In an area largely made up of houses and buildings between 2 and 5 storeys high, new developments of six storeys or higher are likely to cause strong objections.

Such opposing views must be commonplace across most of London and highlight the difficulty of building enough new homes to satisfy demand whilst preserving the local environment and feel of a community.

West Hampstead has six potential sites identified for redevelopment and arguments over the height and size are likely to be ongoing with planners and the NDF for some time.

It is surely inevitable that we will have to give up on these principles of preserving the height of buildings in London. Sci-fi movies show a vision of future cities with buildings reaching into the clouds with a mix of social and private housing. If we want to provide future generations with affordable housing in London whilst protecting our countryside should we not be considering constructing these buildings now? Such projects would also ease the burden on transport infrastructure and improve the quality of life of key workers forced to move increasingly further out due to increased property prices. Other cities in the world have already accepted the inevitability of this.

The key objective of the NPPF is to achieve sustainable development. Sustainability means building that would not be detrimental to future generations. Isn’t it time we developed our planning policies to cope with these future demands rather than fiddling while Rome burns?

Darryl Jenkins
Associate Director
Benham & Reeves
West Hampstead
020 7644 9300
Follow @BenhamReeves

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