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Everyone agrees that London property prices are rising at a ridiculous rate. However, the supposed solution – building over the green belt – is equally insane. By definition, the green belt goes around the outside of London while the property hotspots are in the middle.

The real solution, therefore, is to build where people want to live (and work). Also, it’s not just a question of where we build; what we build is also important.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the director of Create Streets, “a social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streets.” In an opinion piece for City AM, he sets out the basic challenge:

“Londoners are not getting the homes they most want – terraced houses and flats. According to research we’ve just published, London’s gold-plating of national housing standards is to blame.

“The rejection of terraced streets (as opposed to multi-story estates) in London comes despite apparent support from Boris Johnson for a ‘street-based urban arrangement’, and the fact that conventional streets are overwhelmingly popular and can reach very high densities.”

Indeed, some of the highest population densities in London are achieved not through high-rise towers, but by traditional architectural forms. Boys Smith mentions Kensington, whose residential streets are tightly-packed with Victorian apartment blocks. It is an urban environment of great beauty – and the property prices are pretty stunning too. Nevertheless, there is nothing intrinsic to its design that stops it from being replicated elsewhere.

So, why don’t we?

Obviously, someone needs to have the architectural vision – and then there’s the challenge of assembling the land packages required for large-scale developments. But before we even get to that stage there are the regulatory hurdles to overcome:

“We have identified at least 11 barriers to building terraced streets embedded in the London Housing Design Guide and the London Plan. It’s not light reading, so I’ll give you one example. London Plan Key Performance Indicator 3 is meant to ensure ‘no net loss of open space… due to new development.’ Gardens do not count as open space. But the often-wasted small spaces on housing estates do.

“This makes it hard to redevelop unpopular, low density estates into popular, high density terraces with gardens. This comes despite consistent evidence that people prefer private gardens (however small) to less usable communal space.” 

There are other well-intentioned regulations that get in the way of good design:

“Requiring lifts, wheelchair lifts and stair-lifts for every new ‘unit’ makes it more expensive to build conventional homes and flats off a vertical staircase; rules against staircases being too narrow or too steep make it harder to build tall but thin London terraced houses…”

There has to be a better way of catering for the needs of disabled residents. Blanket rules that make every new dwelling accessible in theory are useless in practice if they prevent them from actually being built.

Regulations that discourage on-street parking are also likely to backfire. If the only way of keeping your car handy is to move out of town then you’ll probably use it more often and drive longer distances.

As Nicholas Boys Smith concludes, these are all issues on which the Mayor of London could make a real difference:

“First, he must take a sharp knife to the rules wrapped around house-building in the capital… Secondly, [he] must make it easier for communities to make real decisions… Finally, Boris needs to be more ambitious.”

Indeed he does. One day he will be asked what it was he achieved during his eight years in office. Boris Bikes are all well and good, but the transformation of London “from multi-storey estates to conventional streets” would be worthy of a true leader.

21 comments for: Why can’t more of London look like Kensington?

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