Sunday, 31 October 2010

Learning from Paris.....

Behind the unfortunate language used by Boris Johnson, there is a serious debate being waged about the Coalition policy on housing. Whilst the debate specifically stems from the proposed cuts to housing benefit, the argument draws out interesting questions on what we want our cities to look like.

In cities with high rents such as London, the danger is that the poor could be pushed to the outer suburbs and beyond, creating a 'doughnut-effect'. London is rightfuly proud of its mixed-communities, which have developed more through chance than direct intervention, and it would be a mistake to ignore the role they play in social cohesion and economic diversity. Labour MP Chris Bryant is cleverly evoking the dystopian image of the 'banlieue' in Paris to warn against segregation. Reference is also being made to the block-booking of B&Bs in Hastings as a way for London councils to rid themselves of unwanted residents.

As house prices show, London operates in some-what of a bubble and it is wrong to have a standard cap on housing benefit across the country that ignores this anomaly. Whilst housing benefit has got out of hand, much to the benefit of private landlords, it serves a purpose and must support mixed communities. Areas in Hackney and Islington have gentrified over the years precisely because they are mixed communities and poorer residents should not suffer from the associated price rises. Boris has tried to make these points, but unfortunately his argument has been derailed by unhelpful language.

The argument about housing benefit cannot be decoupled from issues surrounding the ever-worsening housing shortage. House building is at a record low and with schemes on hold and significant applications being refused in light of the removal of targets, the future looks no brighter. The Coalition harks on about reforming the planning system, but the New Homes Bonus is not due until April 2011. Plus, where is the evidence that localism will change the mind-set of local Councillors who often campaign on a stance of no development? If growth is to be accepted in key areas of the country, the benefits must be better articulated.

A complete reform of the Green Belt is required to increase land supply and stimulate house-building. I am not advocating endless sprawl that is dominated by road transport, but calling for a public transport based spatial planning. Unfortunately in the rush towards localism, a gap in strategic planning has been left which we may come to regret.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Impact of the Comprehensive Spending Review

Reasons for hope
  • The Regional Growth Fund has been established with £1.4 billion set aside to stimulate economic growth in areas impacted by public sector cuts.
  • The CSR recognised the importance of infrastructure spending.
  • Crossrail has been kept.
  • The planning system is to be reformed (again) to support economic development.
Reasons to be fearful
  • CABE has been axed, leaving a large gap in design and architectural guidance to the development sector.
  • Cities with a strong dependence on public sector employment will be most impacted.
  • Local Authorities must slash budgets and will take resources away from Planning Departments, harming the potential for growth.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

The end of Hobbit Homes?

The Musing Urbanist was at City Hall last Friday to see the issue of mandatory space standards being discussed. The Mayor of London has proposed a new policy in the London Plan to require all new residential development to meet minimum space standards, starting at 50sqm for a 1-bed flat. This was being discussed as part of the wider London Plan which sets strategic planning policy for the city. With Boris being very vocal on this issue and his reference to the ‘Hobbit Homes’ of London, it was sure to be a heated discussion!

The case for Space Standards

Quality of Life. That was the phrase most often used by advocates of space standards, arguing that London needs to catch up to Europe and stop building minuscule spaces that pass as homes. I agree that the level of space can impact on quality of life, but I think there are other factors that must be considered – access to park space, the quality of the build, services and facilities, safety etc. But in the main I can’t disagree with this argument.

CABE put forward some excellent points including how the London Plan should be at the cutting edge of policy and not be afraid to drive forward new policy. The Merton Rule (10% on-site renewable energy) began life as a small policy in a London Borough and has now spread much further. So no reason why the London Plan can’t change the national picture either.

The National Housing Federation also were impressive, arguing for the increased supply of housing, but with a recognition that homes must be built to a decent standard in order to last. The speaker also recognised that housing changes tenure over its lifetime and it would be nonsensical to only adopt space standards for affordable housing – a point well made.

The case against Space Standards

The Home Builders Federation were champing at the bit to bring down this policy and duly reeled off a detailed critique of town and country planning!! The HBF argued that if developers were required to build larger units, viability would be impacted and affordability would skyrocket (even further). They argued that planning has acted as a constraint on housebuilding for too long and has left millions unable to afford a home. Playing to the galleries somewhat they made a pitch to the younger audience and the need to avoid young adults living at home ala Italy!

The viability argument was also backed up by London First and a number of interested developers. They repeatedly made the point that housing must be provided to meet all financial requirements. By reducing the number of units on a site the build costs would increase and the individual cost of units would begin to exceed those at the bottom of the market.

View of the Musing Urbanist

Space standards are no different to any other planning ideal – excellent design, access to parks, and protection of neighbour’s amenity. Just because UK planning has behind the curve on this issue doesn’t make it less important. It must be considered on a level par with these other issues. If anything it is more important than some others that already form London Plan and national policy. Fingers crossed the Panel see it this way and keep the space standards in the London Plan.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Debate Review - Is London Growing Too Big Too Fast?

The Musing Urbanist attended a debate on Tuesday evening at the British Library as part of the Story of London festival. The talk was part of the Future City lecture series and entitled ‘Is London Growing Too Big Too Fast?’ The debate was chaired by the excellent Austin Williams and panel members included:
  • Peter Bishop (Director of Development at the LDA)

With a title this broad it was unsurprising that the discussion cut across many themes, including: immigration, density, planning, infrastructure and housing. After a few days to digest the event I can add the following musings:

1. There is a world outside London!

I was left more than frustrated by James Heartfield’s blinkered view that housing growth must take place in the South East and for London to keep sprawling out towards Southampton, Southend and Sussex. It would be na├»ve to doubt the economic strengths of the South East region and the global appeal of London, but support for London should not be to the detriment of the rest of the UK. An economic strategy of supporting the city-regions of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds would not necessarily harm the capital. It would raise competition, take pressure of London’s infrastructure and allow a mixed national economy. Whilst the regional policy of New Labour did have weaknesses, I can see the benefits of supporting urban areas outside of London and now worry about the current vogue towards localism which could reduce strategic thinking. For me, the major boost will come with High Speed 2, which thankfully had a recent funding commitment from the Coalition Government. But it also shows the requirement for a National Planning Framework, something the RTPI has rightly championed (for once!). A National Planning Framework could foster a network approach to UK urbanism and avoid regional cities suffering in the shadow of London and the South East.

2. Planning’s bad reputation

It became clearly evident in the Q&A session that planning was taking the brunt of most people's frustration. Very few seemed to deny that London needed to grow, but many (including the speakers) felt that the planning system was acting as a barrier. Heartfield put it best when he stated that planning must be the only discipline that sets out a vision for the future then actively does its best to stop this from happening. Putting the strengths and (many) weaknesses of planning to one side, it is obvious that the profession has a serious reputation problem. The public hates it. I've always thought that the general public see planning as embodying the worst aspects of petty Council bureaucracy.....and the debate only reaffirmed this view. Any planning reforms must tackle why the public views the profession in this negative manner. Apparently in some countries planning is seen as a trendy profession! Perhaps a radical break with a system that dates back to 1947 may help the UK and London?!

3. The never-ending Thames Gateway

I won't hark on too much about this here as it will be subject to a forthcoming Musing Urbanist article, but the Thames Gateway beggars belief. The growth of London cannot be discussed without mentioning 'Europe's biggest regeneration project'. Judged as a floodplain by planners but a solution to the country's housing shortage by politicians, the TG stumbles from one shambles to the other. Now the London TG Development Corporation is to be scrapped as part of Eric Pickles' 'bonfire of the quangos'. The TG was meant to be the centrepiece of London's future, but unfortunately it got less than 30 seconds mention in the debate!