Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets.
Tomorrow, freshly back from Birmingham, the Mayor of London will be making a decision in his role as local planning authority for the planning application at the Royal Mail Mount Pleasant Sorting Office. This is an almost unique site – 3.5 empty hectares in central London.
The current proposal would provide 681 units and a total of 83,000 square metres of development via a series of large blocks and towers. To put it as politely as possible, the scheme has not proved popular. Both local councils have rejected it. Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of the Olympic Torch and the new Routemaster Bus, described it as “empty, cynical and vacuous.” Locals hate it.
Many planning and development professionals have been incredibly rude about the proposals in private. Residents describe its ring of blocks as a “fortress” and there is enormous discontent at the proposed tower block facing a primary school. In comments left in feedback forms at the public exhibition there were over eight times as many specific concerns expressed as there were expressions of support with the proposed scheme. The main specific concern expressed (on 66 per cent of responses) was the height and density of the proposal.
The whole situation might almost be seen as a case study for neighbourhood planning versus diktat from on high.
Speaking at the LBC State of London debate over the summer, the Mayor called the proposals a “beautiful design” that would deliver “thousands of homes for Londoners” in contrast to the “thatched cottages” he claimed that local people wanted. Or put different, the Mayor is justifying his approval of the scheme on the assertion that it is the way to maximise the provision of new housing with thousands of new homes.
But this is just not correct. Putting to one side the fact that the scheme provides 681 homes not “thousands”, the current scheme does not, in fact, maximise new homes, or even value to Royal Mail or the taxpayer. The current proposal has been designed to maximise the chances of making it easily through the UK’s labyrinthine planning system while being compliant with the huge corpus of national and London building and housing standards. But in being so carefully designed to tick boxes and jump through hoops, it fails to build sufficient homes or the types of homes that most people actually want.
The situation is Kafka-esque.
In response to widespread concerns that an opportunity was being wasted and working pro bono with the local community, Create Streets developed an indicative alternative scheme (Mount Pleasant Circus and Fleet Valley Gardens). We have just published more details on this in conjunction with the Legatum Institute.
This scheme is based on a grand new central circus, Mount Pleasant Circus, and a series of radiating streets. It is designed for people not for the planning system. It actually increases the Royal Mail’s proposed housing density by between 8 to 16 per cent (from 681 units to 730 or more). It also does so in a way that would generate better links to surrounding streets, homes & shops and more value.
The influential public space analyst Space Syntax has examined the proposals and found that our designs create pedestrian routes that are 75 per cent more accessible than the Royal Mail’s scheme. This type of improved accessibility has been proven to be correlated with increased value. Create Streets have estimated that Mount Pleasant Circus would generate between 17 per cent to 30 per cent more value over 40 years than the Royal Mail scheme.
That value could represent around £80m to the taxpayer, as 33 per cent shareholder in Royal Mail. Alternatively, that could be expressed as a greater quantum of social housing.
The new scheme also puts green spaces at the heart of the community and takes account of key local features such as the presence of a primary school. Since the scheme was launched publicly the Mount Pleasant Association has run a survey of 258 local residents. The results are stark.
An almost incredible 99 per cent prefer Mount Pleasant Circus to Fortress Pleasant. When you talk to neighbours you understand why. Comments made during a public meeting included; “it’s just great”; “It’s inspirational”; “wow”; “the whole of London could fight for Mount Pleasant Circus”; “it’s great”; “I’m delighted to see the curves” and “it’s very British”.
Since then other residents and local politicians of all parties have got in touch with us:
‘The new plan is fit for human beings: it works in every practical way and it has charm and dignity.’ - Angela Barrett, local resident.
‘It is so refreshing to have this alternative vision for what is a huge site in Central London, with intelligent design and a focus on quality housing, rather than the shoddy second-rate package currently on offer from Royal Mail.’ - Julian Fulbrook, Cabinet Member for Housing, Camden.
‘London may be a piecemeal city, but its great strength is its openness. The 18th and 19th-century squares, streets and terraces, for which it is renowned, usually co-exist well with the better-built housing estates, commercial warehouses and offices. That’s why I think it’s important to support ideas like the Circus which continues that sense of civic dignity and social porosity. It adds to London’s historic mix.’ - Oliver Bennett, local resident.
100 per cent of local feedback received to date has been supportive.
Taking this alternative scheme forward would be to the benefit of the community, of London, of the Royal Mail Group and of HM Government. The residents are forming themselves into a neighbourhood forum and have won Community Right to Build funding to work up the site.
This site can provide more homes, more value, a better place and supportive neighbours. The current scheme provides insufficient new homes, a poor urban form and strong and has provoked deep local opposition.
It’s time to stop imposing unpopular housing forms from on high for short term returns. It’s time to start working with local communities for greater long term value and better development. That is neighbourhood planning. Come on, Mr Mayor. You are one of the most impressive politicians of your generation, not the prisoner of a 1940s command and control planning system. You are big enough and wise enough to make the right decision.