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As of 30 Jan 2015, Chris Brown’s comment pieces will be appearing in a Planning column and as articles on the new Placemaking Resource website rather than on this blog, which will no longer be hosting new entries.

Unaffordable Homes vs a National Plan?

London has 1% of the land area of the UK, 13% of the population and over 20% of the economy. And the population of London has just reached a record level.
So it’s not surprising that the cost of housing in London is an issue. Get used to it!
Despite the hype about which new London baby will be the record breaker the reality is that the person that takes London beyond its previous highest population will be an immigrant.
Most likely it will be an immigrant from the north of England or from the European Union.
And these immigrants want to live in London. They don’t want to live an hour or more’s uncomfortable commute from their work and from the bright lights of the city centre. There is a nice app here that shows you commuting distances by public transport as time contours.
The average London commute is about 37.5 minutes each way compared with about 27 minutes for the country as a whole.
Dutch planners regard 35 minutes as the longest acceptable commute time for their biggest cities and plan accordingly.
So the superficially attractive idea that developing low grade Green Belt around stations can deliver a million homes probably isn’t the housing solution that will most improve the quality of life of London’s population. If you use the map app you will see that virtually no Green Belt is within 35 minutes of central London.
So what to do? It was interesting to listen to the recent Newsnight debate, instigated by the Centre of Cities latest report, on Milton Keynes.
Simon Jenkins called Milton Keynes urban planning out of date and noted that as our only well located new town it wasn’t surprising that it was fast growing (18% over the decade 2004-2013 according to centre for cities, mainly on green field land, compared with about 13% for London, 98% Brownfield, and 7.5% for England, 80% Brownfield) and Michael Edwards observed that places like Ebbsfleet and the urban extensions of Bicester lacked the scale to attract universities and therefore to be real cities.
Ebbsfleet and the Graven Hill extension to Bicester are both Brownfield sites and are both considering large numbers of Custom Build homes and both have some locational advantages. Both have or are getting improved rail connections to high growth locations within reasonable proximity (if not reasonable fares). And the neighbourhoods in Ebbsfleet just sneak in to the 35 minute commute to Kings Cross (though not further into central London) and the new Bicester neighbourhoods are within 35 minutes of Oxford when the new train line is operational.
But neither are they about to create attractive cities of 300,000 population.
The winner of the Wolfson economics prize, Urbed, advocated the sustainable expansion of attractive mid sized cities which might include places like Cambridge, Oxford and York. This works with the grain of market demand and inevitably will divert some demand from London.
Their challenge is to deliver sufficient public transport, cycle routes and dense walkable neighbourhoods which negate the need for a car and therefore avoid exacerbating the already insufferable congestion these places already experience. The new Oxford Parkway station with its large car park is not the way to achieve this. Instead it should be the centre of a dense, low car use, walkable neighbourhood serving Oxford.
The Centre for Cities report identified the decade of limited job creation in northern cities. One potential way to take some of the English immigration pressure off London house prices would be to invest heavily in the infrastructure that would deliver competitive advantage to these cities. HS2 isn’t that infrastructure but HS3 and the Northern Powerhouse just might be if combined with investment in the liveability of these cities.
New public transport infrastructure that is fast, frequent and affordable can expand the reach of a strongly attractive centre like London’s. HS2’s likely fare pricing and station locations will limit its ability to do this but Crossrail, Crossrail 2 and the proposed extensions to the Northern and Bakerloo lines do help to open up reasonably accessible locations, with reasonable fares, with the potential for high density walkable neighbourhoods.
In the longer term there is significant potential for existing London suburbs to change, around their stations, from semi detached densities to much more vibrant mixed use walkable neighbourhoods along the lines of those found in inner London in places like Islington and Kensington. The market will eventually deliver this, or at least the density though probably not the quality, but local government intervention will be required if this is to be delivered in the timescales required to address current housing needs.
These options are not either or. They can all make a contribution, if sensibly planned, to the housing and employment needs of the country.
Even Milton Keynes will be densified as it tries to retrofit a sustainable, liveable urban form on its car and fossil fuel reliant plan.
If planning is to be effective it has to be the sort that has hold of the purse strings. That can invest in infrastructure to make places more competitive. And that applies to all levels of Government. It is very hard to divine the spatial growth logic behind national infrastructure plans. How they connect to growing economic sectors. How they build on public transport investment with the critical placemaking, cultural and liveability investment needed to be competitive.
This isn’t a small matter. If some parts of the country cannot deliver job accessible homes fast enough for their growth, or for affordability, while also enhancing their population’s quality of life then the national plan is either absent or insufficient.
Government is not great at that this stuff, being too easily swayed in its investment decisions by party politics. The incoming Government will have choices. It could densify London’s outer suburbs, it could accelerate London’s commuter infrastructure, it could invest in a big way in the Northern Powerhouse public transport and the liveability of the inner urban neighbourhoods of the northern cities. Or it could do all of these things and maybe put off HS2 for another day having secured the route for posterity.
Whatever it does, we can be pretty confident that, relatively, London house prices will still be expensive!

Community Led Urban Regeneration

The regeneration world (in the true definition of physical regeneration ie development that is not viable in the market) pretty much ground to a halt in the UK post 2010 as austerity bit and sources of gap funding (money to meet the deficit between the cost and value of a regeneration project) dried up.

Quality Affordable Housing for All?

One of the biggest issues the country is facing is the question of how to provide quality housing for everyone when not everyone can afford it.

We are currently running a housing benefit bill, public subsidy for housing costs to people on low incomes, of around £25 Bn a year.

Learning From Overseas Housing Markets

The Christmas and New Year holidays, if suitably extended, as they were for me this year, give space to contemplate the worlds of placemaking, housing, planning and regeneration from a greater distance than usual.

I spent the time on a long distance tour of Custom Build. The main thing I learnt was the importance of culture, and the economic concept of persistence, on the structure of housing markets.

Move over Placemaking boys!

I’m increasingly encouraged by the visibility of (mainly young) women in the Placemaking world.

Urbanistas is spreading rapidly across the country led by an ever increasing number of dynamic women in our major cities.

And there has been some great writing on the role of women in our world.

The Right to Custom Build, but no Right to Affordable Housing?

Government is currently consulting on a Right to Build for Custom Build. Confusingly for Googlers this is not the Community Right to Build which is entirely different.

And even more confusingly it uses a different definition of Custom Build to that used by the minister in the house during the debate on the second reading of Richard Bacon MP’s Private Members Bill (which paves the way for the proposed Custom Build Register which is a key part of the consultation and which has cross party support), the day after this consultation was published.

Placemakers – A Duty to Society?

When I was invited to a conference in Dundee on a Friday afternoon on professionalism, place making and people I thought long and hard. I didn’t immediately recognise its importance. It took quite a while to sink in to my small developer brain. But after listening intently to the proceedings it felt to me like the most important challenge we have to solve. Getting it right solves, or at least substantially solves, some of our biggest challenges like climate change and mental ill health.

Housing – Health, Poverty, Employment and Climate Change

Being sceptical about Passivhaus is like being a climate change denier, expect attacks from the evangelicals.

To be clear, I am evangelical about reducing human impact on climate change and am a supporter of reducing energy consumption in new buildings.

Jacobs, Gehl, Moylan, Murrain and Real Life Better Placemaking

I was in Leeds this week, not for the first time, with a group of people with real passion to make their city more economically competitive and to pass on a better place for their children to live.