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Will cities, specifically those surrounded by Green Belt, see an urban renaissance?

The debate over the Green Belt, and the newly branded ‘grey belt’, has made the headlines a lot recently and will remain at the forefront of development decisions due to the two major parties’ diametrically opposed views on the topic. 

For the time being, however, the Green Belt (rightly or wrongly) will remain sacrosanct as the current government prioritises ‘gentle density’ in urban areas in preference to greenfield development.

white and brown city buildings during daytime

So what impact is this likely to have on cities? Can a renewed approach to densification support regeneration, especially for those areas which may lack the necessary quantum footfall?

Density – more specifically, ‘gentle density’ – a central theme of the revised NPPF, which is currently being consulted upon. The changes to the NPPF were in large part a response to a rebellious group of anti-development backbench Tory MPs who threatened to torpedo the progress of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. And so some big-ticket changes, including removing mandatory housing targets and tightening up on Green Belt development, were made. 

Many in the development sector question whether the rather vague and unquantifiable concepts of ‘beauty’ and ‘gentle density’ were thrown into the NPPF as a means of stalling proposed new developments for political purposes. For stall them they will; they are terms open to such subjective interpretation that they will tie decision-makers in knots even more than they already are. 

To understand whether ‘gentle density’ can help, rather than hinder, the quality and quantity of new developments requires a definition – as it hasn’t had a place in the planning lexicon until now. That’s where the problems start. ‘Density’ is relatively straightforward as it can be measured in quantifiable terms; a relatively simple function of homes and site area. ‘Gentle’ means very little in a planning context but its function, on any plain reading, is clearly to limit density rather than increase it. The deceit in the wording is it purports to enable a higher volume of housebuilding, while also giving leeway to appease the ‘beauty brigade’ as necessary. (‘Beauty’ however, is even more problematic in planning terms: it is subjective, unquantifiable and very much in the eye of each beholder). 

The notes which accompany the NPPF make some attempt to quantify ‘gentle density’: they state that, ‘Small sites play an important role in delivering gentle density in urban areas, creating much needed affordable housing, and supporting small and medium size (SME) builders’. They go on to be more specific about density, ‘Local planning authorities should identify land to accommodate at least 10% of their housing requirement on sites no larger than one hectare; unless it can be shown, through the preparation of relevant plan policies, that there are strong reasons why this 10% target cannot be achieved.’

The guidance also places renewed importance on upwards extensions: ‘Building upwards in managed ways can help deliver new homes and extend existing ones in forms that are consistent with the existing street design, contributing to gentle increases in density… local planning policies and decisions should consider airspace development above existing residential and commercial premises for new homes. This includes allowing upwards extensions where the development would be consistent with criteria relating to neighbouring properties and the overall street scene, as well as being well-designed and maintaining safe access and egress for occupiers.’ More specifically, it encourages the introduction of mansard roof windows: ‘In some locations, local planning authorities have been reluctant to approve mansard roof development, as it has been considered harmful to the character of neighbourhoods. As a general approach, this is wrong – all local planning authorities should take a positive approach towards well designed upward extension schemes, particularly mansard roofs. It is proposed that a reference to mansard roofs as an appropriate form of upward extension would recognise their value in securing gentle densification where appropriate.’ In my view, this continued idea that building mansard roofs, or indeed the fascination with ‘airspace’ development can make any significant dent in the housing shortage is a wishful/fanciful case of burying heads in the sand and a means of avoiding the tough conversation about proper development on the ground. There is scant evidence that airspace development is actually working.

It seems a step too far for planning policy to identify specific architectural features such as mansard windows as ‘well designed’ and to state that considering them harmful to the character of neighbourhoods is ‘wrong’, as it is commonly accepted that whether any architectural feature is ‘right’ or ‘beautiful’ depends upon the context. 

My view is that good design is closely linked to good land use. In most situations, and especially in urban areas, density has many advantages. We have an indisputable shortage of homes which is best addressed by providing an optimal number of homes on all available land; that’s Chapter 11 of the Framework which seeks to make efficient use of land. Doing so helps create a mixed and balanced community, increases the potential for a range of facilities in close proximity, is economically advantageous (allowing resources to be spent on services and amenities) and can facilitate greater variety of uses, such as live/work and co-living. Denser schemes also have the potential to be more sustainable, not least in terms of sustainable transport, if located close to public transport or withing easy each of local services. Developable land, especially in cities such as London where I am based, is a scarce resource and it is essential that potential development capacity is not wasted.

I would like to think that these changes would have little bearing on my work because, working with my colleagues in Boyer’s design team, we already produce schemes which are well designed and make good use of available land. But I fear that tenuous terms such as ‘beauty’ and ‘gentle density’ despite meaning very little in planning terms, have the potential to result in major schemes being called in and refused permission, exacerbating our current housing crisis.

Image: Pedro Lastra

More on this topic:

Rejected homes find a space on Hertfordshire Green Belt

England’s green belt could clear the way for 73m new homes

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