Shopping Cart

Your cart is empty!


Duncan Bowie explains that there are plenty of intelligent ways to meet housing targets without building tower blocks

This article first appeared in the Journal of The London Society 468 (Autumn/Winter 2015) 

London and the wider South East face a significant challenge in terms of a higher rate of population growth than previously anticipated. Put in crude terms, London needs more than 60,000 new homes a year or more than one million more homes over the next 20 years.

The 2010 estimate that the South East region required between 32,000 and 40,000 new homes a year needs to be revisited in the light of the 2011 census estimates and most recent population growth projections. London and the Greater South East also need space for new jobs, new transport, utilities and social infrastructure such as schools, health and leisure facilities.

The current capacity-based targets in London and the South East are 42,000 and 32,700 respectively, though the South East target lapsed with the revocation of the South East England Regional Plan, with many districts within the region revising their own housing targets downwards.

The adopted strategic plan for London, the London Plan, published in 2004 by London’s first mayor, Ken Livingstone, with a version adopted by his successor, Boris Johnson, in 2011, is based on the compact city principle.

The original plan set as a key objective that the challenges of population growth be met within the existing London boundary. is was justified primarily on environmental grounds — the case for protecting existing open space. e plan also assumed that focusing employment growth within the existing commercial areas, including Canary Wharf, meant that the London and UK would bene t from the agglomeration effects of concentrating economic activity within a limited geographical area. There was also a belief that by concentrating residential and employment growth, the need to travel significant distances to work would be contained, thus reducing transport infrastructure investment costs and pollution.

The 2015 London Plan housing capacity target of 42,000 homes a year was derived from the 2014 Strategic Housing Land Assessment and based on the assumption that developments on consented and allocated sites would proceed on the basis of the capacity consented. A number of masterplans for new opportunity areas, such as Nine Elms/Battersea, Earls Court, Park Royal, White City, and Central Croydon have proposed high-density development.

I have previously demonstrated the extent to which the development programme has failed to meet housing needs-based targets. (Bowie 2010). Output fell after the 2008, though is now climbing again. There has not, however, been a shift either towards more affordable homes or more family sized homes – in fact recent and planned developments are even less affordable, with even fewer family sized homes.

The most recent monitoring data shows that average development density remains at 140–150 dwellings per hectare, with some 50–60 per cent of schemes being developed at densities above the ranges specified in the London Plan, with densities of over 2,000 dwellings per hectare on some individual schemes, as compared to the London Plan maximum of 435. As the prime London housing market has moved back into boom mode, fuelled by international investment, we have seen a return to hyperdense and high-rise developments of flats targeted at the international market at prices far beyond the reach of middle-income households.

There is a clear need to examine a range of different options for meeting the challenges of growth in London and the wider South East. The key options are as follows:

  • Expanding London’s high-density core to include city fringe sites (such as opportunity areas) and major suburban centres. This is in effect the position taken in the 2011 and 2015 London Plans. However, a reliance on high density market-led development will not provide the full range of homes London needs, and is primarily aimed at the investment market, including a growing international investment one.
  • Suburban intensification. is is, however, generally not supported by suburban planning authorities or existing suburban residents.
  • Dispersal of residents to the Greater South East on the basis of improved transport infrastructure to ensure access to employment opportunities. is proposal is not generally supported by the planning authorities in the Greater South East.
  • Dispersal of residents from the Greater South East to other regions with more affordable housing markets and/or spare development capacity. This is problematic given the lack of ability to direct jobs to such areas. An alternative perspective proposes dispersal of economically inactive residents to lower value/lower cost areas to reduce government expenditure.
  • Major new settlements either in the form of new standalone towns or cities or extensions to existing urban centres.

Given that the current focus on hyperdense developments will not deliver the range of new homes London needs, we need to be building medium density homes on infill sites in the suburbs as well as mixed tenure low to medium density developments as urban extensions. This will include sites formally designated as green belt — both on the edge of London and on the edge of county towns — that do not meet any green-belt objectives and where there is good public transport access and where sustainable new communities are possible. Building at lower densities than the current development programme means we need more land, but there is lots of underused land in suburban London. Infill development in the larger private gardens in the lowest density suburbs could provide up to a million new homes over time, while still allowing for a garden-to-building footprint of 3:1. Surely this is a better option than trying to stack more and more people into tower blocks.

Current governance arrangements are inadequate. With no structure of regional planning beyond the Greater London Authority (GLA) boundary, there is no organisational basis for the review of the growth demands of the Greater South East and the capacity to meet them. There is evidence already of home-counties districts failing to collaborate on the politically sensitive issue of balancing demand and capacity at sub-regional level. Communities and Local Government (CLG) has no will to intervene, and while the Mayor of London, following his recent consultation paper on inter-authority cooperation, may initiate a preliminary wider discussion, there is neither a sense of urgency, nor a mechanism for the comprehensive review required. We need to start longer-term planning now.


Bowie, D (2010) Politics, planning and homes in a world city (London: Routledge); Communities and Local Government (2012) e National Planning Policy Framework; Bowie, D. A balanced approach to London’s Housing Growth, Manns, J. (ed.) Kaleidoscope City: Re ections on Planning & London, Birdcage Print: London (2014).

Duncan Bowie is senior lecturer in spatial planning at the University of Westminster.