Fears mount that planning dogma and the profit motive are combining to promote one and two-bed flats over the needs of London's families

Will high-density development in London drive families out? That's the fear of housing experts, who have warned that the focus on one and two-bedroom flats over the past six years may lead to "ghettos" of small units that are suitable only for singles and couples.

The Greater London Authority is about to publish a report addressing these concerns, as well as the related question of space standards in private flats.

It is understood that the study will call for this type of accommodation to be designed to social housing space standards.

Designer Wayne Hemingway described the GLA's report as "shocking". He said: "There is a serious issue about how housing is getting too small and bedrooms are too small."

Andrew Drury, the report's author, is director of housing consultancy HACT. He said: "There need to be space standards established across the board." The study recommends a simple set of standards, similar to those that govern housing associations, enforced through the regional spatial strategy.

The GLA's report also reveals that over the past five years, the proportion of three-bed dwellings in London has fallen from 26% of total output to 11%. One and two-bed flats now account for 80% of all new homes built in the capital.

A tale of two cities: St George’s Wharf, built in 2001, has a density of 233 dwellings per hectare …

A tale of two cities: St George’s Wharf, built in 2001, has a density of 233 dwellings per hectare …

The London Housing Federation estimates that at least 45% of new housing in the capital would need three bedrooms or more to keep pace with demand.

London's rising housing density has been propelled by PPG3 and by the GLA's policy. Government figures show that the average density in London has risen from 48 dwellings per hectare in 2001 to 102 dph last year. For schemes in the pipeline the average rate is 125 dph.

There need to be space standards established across the board

Andrew Drury, report author

In the heavily built-up east London borough of Tower Hamlets the average density of planned development is 299 dph. Even in suburban Harrow, the average for housing in the planning pipeline is 93 dph.

The GLA's own London Plan monitoring report shows that 67% of developments given planning permission last year were at densities greater than the mayor's yardsticks. And where London leads, the rest of England follows. Across the country, the average density of developments has increased by more than 50% in the past four years.

Salford council has produced draft planning guidance to limit the development of apartments and concerns are being expressed about density aspirations for housing growth areas, particularly the Thames Gateway.

It is not only planning policy that drives higher density. Social landlords have been deterred from developing family homes by rules that until recently capped the amount of rent they could charge for larger units, making them less economic to build.

Housing associations have also become increasingly reliant on Section 106 agreements between private developers and local authorities to deliver social homes and, because such homes are often part of private apartment schemes, they tend to be smaller. Government policy pushed for social housing to be provided on the same sites as private developments to foster mixed communities. But some councils are trying to reverse that policy to ensure that family homes are delivered. Newham, in east London, has started allowing developers to provide family homes off-site in less expensive parts of the borough.

Private developers have turned government policy to profit by fitting more units on their sites.

… whereas  Pan Peninsula, which was granted  planning permission in 2006, has a density of 1526 dph

… whereas Pan Peninsula, which was granted planning permission in 2006, has a density of 1526 dph

Alan Cherry, chairman of Countryside Properties, said his firm's output had changed dramatically compared with 10 years ago, when it built mainly detached and semi-detached houses.

With these densities, we’re really beginning to play with fire

Patrick Clarke, planner

But Cherry is now worried the pendulum has swung too far. "To create sustainable communities, we have to create a balanced community." To achieve such a balance requires the development of larger homes that many flat buyers will need when they grow older.

The shift is illustrated in some council estate redevelopment projects, where critics say huge increases in densities are being driven by financial rather than urban planning considerations. In high-value areas, councils and the government see opportunities to fund costly estate redevelopment projects with cross-subsidies from the sale of private units.

Housing consultant Tony Bird is advising a group of former council tenants who have bought houses on Brent council's South Kilburn estate. These are due to be replaced with apartments as part of a regeneration project by developer Bellway Homes and registered social landlord Hyde Group.

Bird said: "Years ago, when you were knocking down blocks, you would provide terraced housing on a human scale. Now they want terraces demolished because they are a development opportunity."

Patrick Clarke, a planning partner at Llewelyn Davies Yeang, helped draw up the government's and GLA's density policies. He too is worried that planning ideology is masking financial calculations. "It has nothing to do with density and sustainable communities and a lot to do with our inability to fund social housing properly. With these densities, we're really beginning to play with fire."

In response the GLA proposes to increase family housing provision in its revised London Plan. The Housing Corporation has increased the proportion of homes that must be three bedrooms or more to 35% in its London development programme. "That's challenging because we have been hovering around 25-26%," says LHF policy officer Dino Patel.

Increasing the proportion of family homes could also be more difficult if the government presses ahead with its high-density policy in Planning Policy Statement 3, the final version of which is due later in the summer.

The statistics that reveal an unfolding crisis

  • The density of new London housing in 2001 (dph) - 48
  • The density of new London housing last year (dph) - 102
  • The density of planned housing in London (dph) - 125
  • Density of planned housing in Tower Hamlets (dph) - 299
  • Government guidelines on density (dph) - 30-50
  • Percentage of estates that exceed GLA density guide - 67%
  • Proportion of London schemes with three bedrooms - 11%
  • Proportion of GLA housing schemes aimed at families - 38%
  • Average housing density in England in 2001 (dph) - 25
  • Average housing density in England last year (dph) - 42
  • Number of families and pregnant women in temporary housing - 71,560
  • Homeless households that are families and pregnant women - 74%