While the creation of new suburban communities could potentially deliver large numbers of new homes, the cost of introducing new infrastructure is substantial
Reinventing suburbia is the key to delivering much-needed housing and doing so soon instead of in 10 or 15 years’ time. London’s suburbs were created in post-industrial Britain and are connected to the metropolis by excellent transport links. With their established communities and infrastructure and relative affordability the suburbs of the capital and beyond now offer huge and exciting opportunities for re-invention and densification.
By proactively diversifying the housing mix in existing suburbs and introducing more affordable and smaller flats for single people, key workers or couples alongside established family housing, younger people would be encouraged into home ownership or affordable rental homes. Retirees or ‘empty nesters’ could also downsize without having to leave the communities where they have lived for decades. This would, importantly, also free up much-needed housing for the next generation of families. Aside from significantly increasing housing density there would be other positive knock-on effects: the social economic demographic of these suburban centres would be transformed and they would become richer and more diverse places to live.
While [the draft London plan] sends out all the right political messages, for the plan to be effective it needs to result in a re-thinking of local planning policy
While the creation of new suburban communities could potentially deliver large numbers of new homes as well, the delivery timescales are much slower and the cost of introducing new infrastructure is substantial. In his recent draft plan for the capital London mayor Sadiq Khan has recognised the need for densifying suburbia. While this sends out all the right political messages, for the plan to be effective it needs to result in a re-thinking of local planning policy.
Suburbia by its very nature is diverse and historically contains mixed-use development pepper-potted within primarily residential areas. Densifying suburbia will not be achieved through large-scale development but more likely through a range of interventions which, at the smaller scale, will include the high-density development of infill sites, redundant commercial premises and re-use of existing buildings. Local Development Plans are often far too broad in their zoning to accommodate innovative site-specific interventions and small or complex sites are often swept up within area-based policy that make the planning process difficult, expensive and time-consuming.
Local developers are increasingly finding that the planning process is simply too protracted difficult and expensive to engage with
An example of this is where Local Planning Authorities designate areas of (LSIS) or Locally significant industrial sites. The policy quite rightly aims to protect employment and local service provision within communities but unfortunately fails to acknowledge the inherent site specific complexity of these areas and offers little or no flexibility to allow intelligent and wholly positive development initiatives to be implemented within the LSIS.
Planners are obliged to comply as far as possible with policy but the inflexibility of the current system has impacted heavily on local development and the re-invention of suburban London. Local developers are increasingly finding that the planning process is simply too protracted difficult and expensive to engage with.
Guidance on the provision of affordable housing within smaller developments also needs urgent review. The current appraisal process is cumbersome. Intended for major development it is wholly inappropriate for smaller scale projects and adds yet another barrier to the efficient delivery of new housing.
What needs to happen is that the national government, GLA, local authorities and developers need to work together in a much more flexible and dynamic way to identify opportunities and translate these quickly into development delivery. I have long promoted the establishment of effective Local Development Forums where all parties can be represented and where individual site initiatives can be evaluated alongside local and national policy with the flexibility to challenge broader policy. Without greater collaboration the pace of change and the delivery of new high-quality housing will be impeded.
Alongside this a much simpler formula-based calculation to establish the appropriate affordable housing contribution would allow the developers to understand their exposure from day one and would considerably speed up the planning process. On site affordable provision for smaller developments is impractical both for developers and RSA’s and an acknowledgement or this and clear move to off-site contributions would also be helpful in streamlining the process.
Reinventing suburbia could easily be a missed opportunity. We need to learn from the past and understand that creating entirely new communities, while also necessary, is difficult, both socially and economically. These suburban centres that surround our city, on the other hand, are established well-connected communities where people want to live; they offer all the right ingredients for making a significant contribution to satisfying London’s urgent housing need. With high-quality design also identified in the new London Plan as critical to the success of new development, the bespoke nature of potential suburban schemes also offers interesting opportunities to smaller scale developers and architects.
With the right incentives and encouragement they could create effective longer-term relationships with local communities and deliver innovative and exciting development that will change the way we understand suburban life.
Matt Goodwin is managing director at Architecture Initiative