For the second year the London Society has run its 'Planning School', a linked series of five talks from planning experts on different aspects of the process and investigating just what it is that planners are trying to achieve and the obstacles that they are attempting to overcome.
The first of the 2018 series had Dr David Knight (DK - CM) and Guy Rochez (Senior Project Officer, London Borough of Croydon) speaking. Barry Coidan reports.
We know what we think about the planning laws don’t we? That extension - looks oversized to me - did they seek planning permission? That new block of flats - NIMBY!!
Dr David Knight unpacked our planning laws and in doing so showed what a Pandora’s Box we’d created...and how we can put it back in the box mixing my metaphors.
It all started off so well. The 1947 Planning Act a piece of post war legislation designed to bring order, logic, communal well being, houses, jobs, health and balancing individual rights and those of the wider community. Sweeping away the blight of developers, who previously had been buying up farmland etc and building pall mall with no transport links and no services. No planning other than to make money!
Yet from ad hoc developments could emerge quite interesting buildings. Bungalow Town in Shoreham by Sea in West Sussex is case in point. A 1930’s take on the hippy commune with artists, actors and creative sorts doing their own thing. The irony was that the first test of the “47 Act” was to sweep away this “harmless” experiment and impose a standardise format. It wasn’t the Shorehams that were worrying post war planners but the unbridled ribbon development of speculative builders on the outskirts of London and other major towns.
The trouble is planning is seen to be pretty distant from people’s lives. There are Council Planning Committees - an elite ( politicians and professionals) saying what good and allowable and what's not. But it’s not meant to be like that. Planning is “obviously” about people - where they work, live, and recreate; that’s what was originally envisaged in the 1947 Act. People and professionals working together - reaching a happy symbiose.
Now we have Planning protesters. Proposed development in Landywood Lane is challenged, but it goes ahead. Is the planning system benefiting the society or the developers? I mean Landywood has loads of new homes.
As an individual, my home’s my castle. As a planner or architect I build a row of bungalows with a unity of form and design. That’s what the planning laws aim to achieve - good design. Yet our planning law are now confused, inconsistent and downright Byzantine - think Gormenghast and then some. Take “A Guide to Permitted Development 2009 - Development within the Curtilage of a dwelling house.” You want to add an extension to your property - why wouldn’t you? It is a minefield. The law is complex, and in some cases badly drafted which leads to ambiguities which in turn leads to a nightmare for the poor neighbour or neighbourhood.
David provided a series of examples illustrating what was permissible under planning laws. They would be comical were they not what a homeowner can get away with. The many changes, add ons to the original pristine planning rules make policing development more difficult than it should be. Add to that the systematic salami slicing of local authority services and staff and one witnesses in many areas a degradation of the built environment. Another of David’s powerful examples was a series of photographs of a row of bungalows near Shoreham. Bungalows aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but when built this development had a unity and integrity about it. Over the years owners did their own thing - planning apparently wasn’t in anyone dictionary and the result is an eclectic mashup of additions, extensions and out houses etc.
Given the complexity of our planning laws and regulations it is essential that there should be somewhere one can go to to get an everyday explanation. There is the Planning Portal set up by the Government in 2002 to do just that. Except it doesn’t. It merely mirrors the law in language that is no less opaque. The site is difficult to navigate adding frustration to the enquirer’s confusion. I
t is a poor reflection on the official supply of guidance that Mumsnet - not known for its focus on building regulations - provides more accessible and helpful information. Frustrated with official neglect a number of online sites (Mumsnet, Reddit, Gransnet and Pistolhead) have emerged to fill this gap.
The aim of our planning laws is (was) to ensure that the private, be they individual or corporate, didn’t prosper at the expense of the wider community. When there are different interest groups as in the case of planning and development each side will game the system in unusual and creative ways. Language should not be barrier to engendering a creative tension between the individual or developer and the community.
Local authorities rather than being “the enemy” should be enablers: - helping out, holding the ring. Thurrock Council shows how this can work. Everyday language is used to bridge the planning information gap at Building Rights an on-line resource of planning expertise that is user-generated, peer-reviewed and independent of the party-politics that tame and distort other resources. It is a place where the rules of what can be built and what cannot can be shared, tested and generated in public.
Getting you and me to engage in the planning process, working with local councils in determining what is best, in planning terms for the community and using language that is inclusive is what’s needed. It’s happening, in spite of planning laws and the professionals and it’s being owned by the community.
Guy Rochez’s task is straightforward. How will planners find ways to deliver the required development in our suburbs to accommodate London’s forecast population growth in a manner sympathetic to the existing communities and environments. The Mayor of London’s Plan calls for two new homes for five existing ones. That is quite a challenge.
Croydon is a mix of detached, semi detached and terraced homes. Over time streets and neighbourhoods have evolved. Existing homes have been extended, rebuilt along with additions in the gardens - much of this has been unplanned - you might say organic. Within this typography there is considerable scope to accommodate the required extra housing but given the pressure on land, guidelines for and examples of acceptable development is essential. This is not a rigid centralised plan rather a flexible set of rules and practices which will enable the housing needs to be met whilst maintaining an attractive suburban environment.
Croydon’s approach is three pronged, building on how the suburban scene has evolved over the recent past. First, there is Suburban Residential Development - where semi detached properties predominate. Then there’s Areas of Focussed Intensification - where typography or existing build offer scope for significant density increase without overwhelming the existing character of the area. Finally there’s Residential Extensions and Development - a planned, more intensive use of existing individual approaches - loft conversions, back extensions, garden offices etc.
Overlaying these three approaches is relatively detailed guidance on the nature of the builds allowed. In the first two developments of up to 20 units on a local site would be possible. These would, however, have to satisfy specific guidelines to ensure that any development does not have a major detrimental effect on its neighbour or the neighbourhood. Croydon has developed illustrative examples of existing, acceptable and unacceptable developments.
Within any area where development is to take place there will be different approaches to deliver intensive housing. For example building three storeys in a predominantly two storey area needs to recognise the existing character of the area. This will call for creative design and sensitivity.
Approaches to inserting new builds within an existing environment can be innovative, a reinterpretation or a sympathetic and faithful copy of the surrounding build. Again the Council’s guidance gives illustrations of all three to help the developer design the most appropriate build.
There is likely to be opportunities for new approaches. Combining neighbouring sites, developing backend sites which can create new pathways and community connections. It is important that in areas where residential extensions and developments are to take place - for example terraced housing - the impact of intensive development is adequately assessed and addressed.
Four Intensification Areas have been identified in the borough. These are Brighton Road, Forestdale, Kenley and Shirley. Here there is established infrastructure but relatively low housing density. The aim is to bring about managed redevelopment of these four areas. Allowing builds up to twice the existing predominant height, with a managed change of character with mixed use and new public spaces and amenities. This approach is designed to ensure the existing green spaces are maintained and the surrounding areas enhanced. Plans have been developed to show the possible evolution of these areas over a 20 year period ensuring what is built is managed.
Following David’s and Guy’s presentation there were questions from the floor.
Tension between individual rights and the collective consequences of individual choice. David K suggested that the mind set in planning policy was that the individual was the enemy of planning. Yet individual planning is important - it is what goes on. Need to get a balance between the voice of the individual and the overall benefit for the community. What’s happening outside the world of planners, architects and local authorities where groups of individuals are using social media to develop communitaire proposals is exciting and a way ahead.
What does intensification mean for those four areas identified in Croydon? Guy stressed what’s proposed has to work with the area. In Kenley which is leafy and hilly - this limits the scope for development - that has to be recognised. In the Forestgale area there is an opportunity to the change the scale in the type of housing creating a more unified estate. Yet it’s the individual landowners that will take forward this change.
How do you persuade people to give up their land for development. Guy pointed out this was already happening. Intensification, through private development is taking place without any thought through planning. This will continue but should be within a strategic approach.
The question of financial incentives and any mechanism to encourage individual homeowners to work together to develop sites was raised . Gut mentioned that there were already homeowners taking forward community developments. People are becoming more imaginative in their approach to site development. There’s interest in home building and LA’s already are aware of those groups and individuals keen to do this. The trouble is at present the appropriate financial instruments - mortgages and loans are not mainstream - so it’s difficult for Councils to act as enablers.
There was a question focussing on young renters. The Councils' plans and proposals address the suburban middle class - the large renting community is not engaged in the planning process. The speakers recognised that this was a problem, although intergenerational financial help can and does get young renters onto the home owning ladder. The practice in Tokyo where space is at a premium was mentioned. Families buy the biggest site they can afford - as the family grows that site is subdivided providing housing.
It’s essential to get involved at the beginning of the strategic planning process. Knowing what sort of borough you want to live is key. Councils have limited powers to be effective, allowing. developers to build what they , not the community, wants. Section 106 is a godsend for the developer.
The planning laws were framed when the state did much of the building. That’s changed dramatically and Councils now have to work with and are dependent on developers. It is essential to lever in at the early stages of any planning or development proposals effective community pressure