Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets, a new social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streets not multi-storey buildings.
Earlier this month Create Streets published a report explaining how London’s gold-plating of national housing standards is stopping Londoners getting the homes they most want – streets of houses and flats. We identified at least eleven barriers to building terraced streets in London embedded in the London Housing Design Guide and the London Plan.
These included requiring lifts, wheelchair lifts and stair-lifts for every new ‘unit’ (which make it more expensive to build conventional homes and flats off a vertical staircase); rules against staircases being too narrow or too steep (which make it harder to build the conventional tall but thin London terraced houses); super-high density targets (unchanged from Ken’s targets and which make achieving planning agreement to build normal terraced houses & low-rise flats hard in some areas); a bias against on-street parking (justifies complex, unpopular, off-street arrangements); and requiring bathrooms on every bedroom level (makes building conventional high-density terraced streets just much harder). And so on. And so on.
89 per cent of us strongly prefer houses and low rise flats on streets and are happier when we live this way. This is above all true for families. Never forget that while 21 per cent of all families with children are in social tenancies, 79 per cent of all families living on or above the fifth floor are in social tenancies. Those who can afford to choose, choose streets.
Such streets can be very high density. And yet London’s rules make that very hard to achieve. It is absurd. And it perverse as Boris Johnson has given strong verbal support for a ‘street-based urban arrangement.’
Today, I’d like to suggest what Boris should so do about it if he wants to create the right (and popular) built legacy for London.
First, and put bluntly, Boris needs to get a grip and take a long sharp knife to the rules wrapped around house-building in the capital. The plethora of gold-plating of national standards on access, stair-cases, lifts, entrances needs to go and it needs to go fast. In real planning decisions yesterday, today, tomorrow these rules are being used to ensure that far too many developments proposed in London are large multi-storey buildings of the type in which most of us simply don’t want to live in. Most-shockingly London’s targets for the density of development are unchanged since Ken Livingstone’s targets. This can make it almost impossible in some parts of London to build normal streets instead of large multi-storey blocks. That’s got to change.
As currently used on the ground, London Plan Key Performance Indicator 3 essentially bans regenerating unpopular, low density estates into more popular streets of houses, low rise flats and small private gardens. This is despite consistent evidence that, given the choice, most people (and pretty much all families) would rather private gardens. Boris should therefore rewrite London Plan key performance indicator 3 to permit the recycling of open land into streets or gardens when the plan is approved by a local community via a neighbourhood plan referendum. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to put back together the failed housing estates of the 1960s as simple and normal streets.
Secondly, Boris needs to make it far easier for communities to make real decisions. To be fair, there is some scope for flexibility. The Housing Supplementary Planning Guidance (don’t you love these snappy titles?) which embeds the standards does make this clear. However, we failed to find a single developer or professional advisor who thought that in practice they would ever attempt to win this flexibility if they wanted to secure consent.
Boris can be much more radical and should trust people not planners. The whole system of housing delivery needs a rethink. Local communities should be given more explicit and well-signalled power to choose if they wish to opt-out of or enhance standards via neighbourhood plans.
Third, Boris needs to be far more ambitious. Next year, Create Streets will be launching a major review of what parts of London could be regenerated from multi-storey estates to conventional streets, what it would cost, what it could look like, what local people would think and how many additional homes could be provided (between 20 and 60 per cent more depending on site we think).
We hope that this will build a ground sell of support for regeneration and help break, in London, the uniquely negative cycle opposed to new building in this country. We will be working with teams of residents and experts. We would love the right people from the GLA to work with us. Will they ?
Boris and his team have made some excellent progress. They assure us that the London Housing Design Guide has simplified the system and reduced the number of standards from about 280 to 70. This is great. There are some excellent standards in the code and the Mayor is right that a code with design and space standards can have a crucial part to play in ensuring quality. No one wants ‘hobbit-homes.’ However, the current system is still too complicated. And it is still too difficult to get local flexibility.
Without building the type of homes people really want we cannot increase the number of homes to solve London’s housing crisis.
For the prize is great. We could be building ‘Boris Homes’ for the next 300 years. ‘Boris bikes and Boris buses would be ephemeral wisps in comparison.
Instead we are simply repeating many of the design flaws of the 1960s and 70s. It is deeply depressing. Boris needs to tackle red tape, raise his ambition for regeneration and give people more power if he wishes to see his vision of better quality housing realised. London has a great architectural legacy. The London street is a core part of that legacy. Let’s build them again. Boris could use his star quality to build a new generation of homes fit for centuries. The cry should be for Boris Homes in London not more multi-storey blocks that could be anywhere from Seattle to Shanghai.