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Everything in its place

Words: Simon Wicks

We know we should be building more houses, but where should we be putting them? Simon Wicks considers whether we’re putting new homes in the right place for a growing population and economy

It’s virtually a given that we need to build a very large number of houses to accommodate a growing population – far more than we are actually building at present.

Volume is essential, but is not the only consideration. Paragraphs 6-10 of the NPPF spell out the desirability of building homes in the “right places” – these being the most economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.

But are such “right places” within existing settlements or on their edges? Close to existing transport links or built on virgin land around new infrastructure? Are they in regions already thriving, or those that need an economic boost?

“If you’re creating a dormitory 20 miles away from London or any major city, is that going to be a sustainable option?” asks Steven Fidgett, head of planning at WYG. “Is it better to review green belt on the edge of that conurbation because that’s going to be more sustainable?”

He adds: “The more sustainable the location the better because we have to accept as a fact of life that people will travel.”

Transit, most seem to agree, is a key criteria determining the best location for new housing. People must be able to reach work in particular, but also places to shop and socialise. ‘Interconnectedness’ is the major theme that emerges from discussions of new locations.

For example, the creation of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is billed as an opportunity to ‘rebalance’ the UK economy. Devolution of powers to city regions, and collaboration between these empowered bodies, are seen as necessities to attract the investment, businesses and skilled employees that will fuel growth.

"Transport is absolutely essential. In the absence of better connectivity the Powerhouse would have all its objectives ended"

But, as noted by Manchester City Council chief Sir Howard Bernstein at February’s UK Northern Powerhouse conference: “Transport is absolutely essential. In the absence of better connectivity the Powerhouse would have all its objectives ended. It wouldn’t exist at all.”

Northern cities are notoriously poorly connected. This is a problem, as Pat Ritchie, chief executive of Newcastle City Council observed:“[To attract a business like] Google, they want access to high-skilled, vibrant employees who could live in any bit of the North and work in any other bit. The economy doesn’t necessarily work to local authority boundaries.”

From A to B

The critical role of commutability in decisions about new housing location is underlined in a fresh study produced by the RTPI and Bilfinger GVA. Location Of Development looks at planned housing development in 12 city regions in England, and scores each against location desirability criteria.

In particular, the report records the proximity of new planning permissions to “significant employment clusters” (locations with 10,000 jobs or more) and to rail stations. It is, the Institute says, the first study to attempt this analysis and is based on the presumption that city regions are where future growth will be incubated because they can “maximise the effects of agglomeration: the benefits to productivity, innovation and economic growth achieved by the clustering and networking of knowledge intensive industries”.

Overall, some 75 per cent of 165,000 planning permissions granted from January 2012 to September 2015, were within 10 kilometres of a major employment cluster. Fewer than half (46 per cent) were within an existing built-up area; and just 13 per cent were within easy walking distance (800m) of a rail station.

"In most cases there's a low number of houses coming through in close proximity to railway stations"

Though the report’s writers stress that the study was simply a starting point for analysis – and will be followed with others – they offer some observations on the findings. “The data itself suggests we are not doing too badly, but it’s inevitably variable – in the nature of the built-up area versus the non built-up areas, and the nature of public transport,” says Joanna Averley, a director of planning, development and regeneration at Bilfinger GVA.

“For example, [walkable] proximity to railway stations varies from 11-79 per cent. You can see some of this is a matter of history, but it does beg the question: ‘What might cities want to do to change this?’”

Co-author, the RTPI’s policy and networks manager James Harris, adds: “It’s reassuring that most of the new housing coming through is in relatively good locations regarding jobs. But in most cases there’s a low number of houses coming through in close, close proximity to railways stations. It’s therefore difficult to make commuting journeys in anything but a motor vehicle.”

This in turn appears to conflict with the NPPF’s injunction to promote walking and cycling. We are entering an age in which a greater focus on 'liveability' is influencing investment in public realm and infrastructure discouraging car use.

Yet the figures suggest this is a lesser consideration in practice than 'as the crow flies' closeness. “[Car dependency] increases congestion, and means you may not be using land efficiently,” notes Averley. “You may not be putting development into a framework that’s as environmentally friendly, or being smart on using expensive infrastructure.

“A good plan will link housing, access to jobs and community and social infrastructure and environment. You cannot do that in a piecemeal way.”

Virgin land vs densification

With more than half of permissions being granted outside of what the authors define as a “built-up area”, the study also raises questions about land use, designation and densification.

Fidgett, for example, argues that periodic reviews of green belt should be a requirement within the planning system in order to ensure land is used sustainably. Such a pragmatic approach attracts broad support within the property industries – and, indeed, Location Of Development’s maps show some green belt development around its 12 city regions.

But there are those who argue that a 'brownfield first policy and densification within existing settlements can meet our housing requirements. Speaking at a recent All Party Parliamentary Group meeting on London’s built environment, for example, architect Richard Hyams of Astudio, said more use should be made of publicly owned land. Riette Ooosthuizen of HTA Design presented the idea that homeowners in suburban areas could be offered incentives to build an additional house on their existing garden plot.

Regeneration expert Professor Anne Power, of the London School of Economics, was most adamantly opposed to green belt development, arguing that the low density in outer London boroughs and most British cities actually mitigated against efficient public transport.

In her view, the solution to the housing shortage was more likely to lie in infill development and densification of estates, rather than incursion into virgin land. This in turn could create the density required to drive mass transit systems and underpin greater ‘sustainability’ in urban areas.

What Power touched on is the reversal of a historic trend to move out of cities and into suburbia. We are collectively rediscovering cities as places to live. But maintaining a healthy balance of living, social and employment spaces in these changing conurbations is a considerable challenge for planners – not least with the additional element of policies such as permitted development.

"As a country we have realised that we need to put the infrastructure first and the rest will follow"

Organisations such as Create Streets are laying out blueprints for denser urban development at a ‘human’ scale that encourages street-level activity. Investment in cycling infrastructure is opening access to areas previously off-limits because of poor transport connections.

Developers such as Urban Splash are exploring new forms within environments where space is at a premium.

Fit for purpose?

We are also entering an age of fresh investment in large infrastructure, much of it transport-related. This prompts a 'chicken and egg' question – what comes first, the housing or the infrastructure?

“I think with initiatives [like the Northern Powerhouse], as a country we have realised that we need to put the infrastructure first and the rest will follow,” says WYG’s Fidgett. “This follows the examples in London where we’ve seen investment in public infrastructure now leading to development – Crossrail and the Olympic Park have stimulated major regeneration initiatives. Now with the National Infrastructure Commission and commitments to some big infrastructure projects, the government is investing in future growth and development.”

Debates will go on about where and how best to build new housing, but the dominant themes are taking shape: devolution; transport; densification; regeneration; infrastructure; green belt review.

There is also planning itself. Is it fit for purpose? Fidgett and Averley both argue that the planning system can be slow to respond to changes in demand. “We still have lots of authorities that haven’t delivered on local plans, and a lot of out-of-date, pre-NPPF data,” notes Fidgett.

He goes on: “The development industry likes certainty. The planning system by definition limits the supply of land because the state has held back the ability to build wherever. That rationing creates a market and the market will go where they can invest their money and get a return. If you have an authoritywith a positive attitude and a viable market, development will probably progress more quickly.”

What’s the solution? A common observation from across the property industry is that the planning system needs to be more generously resourced. There are also plenty of voices calling for a revival of local authority housebuilding.

The RTPI and GVA conclude: “[…] the spatial dimensions of sustainability are complex, and cannot be neatly captured by any single method of analysis. This research should therefore be viewed as a stepping stone towards a broader and more informed debate on the effectiveness of planning policy, and the spatial dimensions of growth in England.”

Averley herself adds: “There’s a very simple message here, which is the power of a map. This report is full of maps showing what’s come forward in the last two of three years... That’s really important information.” 

Steven Fidgett and Joanna Averley will both be speaking at this year’s RTPI Planning Convention on 28 June, where the theme is Better Planning Solutions – The Challenge of Growth.