Are Space and Planning Restrictions Hindering Property Development in London?

The capital’s population continues to rise, with current numbers at 8.6 million and projected to hit more than 11 million people by 2050, according to the Mayor of London’s office. The need for accommodation is a key concern.

However is there enough room to accommodate this growth and, crucially, are London’s planning regulations aiding or hindering good development?

The debate over the lack of housing in London has been raging for some time. The buy-to-leave phenomenon, where foreign investors purchase new-build units only to leave them vacant, has caused much consternation. The need for more affordable accommodation for London’s keyworkers and first time buyers is another hotly debated issue.

So, the question isn’t whether or not we need more housing, but whether there is enough space in London for further development to accommodate these demands.

The figures are uncertain, although the creation this year of a new organisation, the London Land Commission, should soon help to clarify precisely how much space there is available for future use.

The LLC has been given a £1million budget to create a register of the public sector’s portfolio of commercial and industrial land that could be earmarked for redevelopment. These sites, known as brownfield land, require significant work to ensure their safety to humans. Environmental assessments and remediation, or removal of contaminants, will render sites reusable. In an area where undeveloped, or greenfield land is rare, the brownfield option looks like the best way forward.

Last year, the CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) commissioned a report to find out how many homes could be created on England’s brownfield sites. The estimate is just shy of one million combined – a huge opportunity.

In 2013 the Mayor of London identified the need to release more public land for development when he launched a database listing the GLA’s land assets. He stated that many of these sites are currently useless and called for developers to come forward with their ideas of how disused areas of London could be transformed. Many brownfield sites have now entered the London planning pipeline. You can find out more about the GLA’s land assets database here.

It’s clear that London has room for development for the immediate future. But how does planning affect this?

Enter the London Plan – the Mayor’s strategy for the development of London up to 2036. This document guides planning decisions and London Boroughs must conform to the policies within if their requests for planning permissions are to be approved. Some of the highlights of the Mayor’s strategy are:

  1. Brownfield sites must be cleaned if assessments show they’re appropriate for redevelopment. Even with the new remediation technologies available, the strict environmental regulations that must be adhered to can slow down the development process, creating significant expense to the developer. However, if the planning application is to be approved, remediation must be carried out.
  2. Conservation areas must be respected; another challenge to be overcome by the developer if London’s heritage is to be preserved.
  3. Large developments are required to contribute a certain proportion of their building to affordable housing in order to address its lack in the capital. This is a challenge for all developers aiming to achieve maximum return on their property investments.
  4. The development should be accessible, that is, within a reasonable distance of public transport links. Proximity to public transport has a direct effect on purchase cost of land in London, pushing it up, but also aiding in achieving good sales prices for developers too.

These and many other considerations must be met if planning permission is to be granted. Then there are developer contributions to be negotiated too with Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy. You can read about these in our other post here.

By using Section 106s and CIL, planners are able to work with developers to improve conditions in the area, easing the way and mitigating any burden or disruption the development might generate.

The aim of good planning

We mustn’t forget that the aim of effective planning is to ensure that the community’s needs are met. However, we’d be naïve to think politics doesn’t play a part in the decision-making process. Many planning outcomes are the result of masterful manoeuvring at planning committee level. Much depends on these negotiations and pressures to show allegiance to strategies of the moment.

In an ideal world every corner of London would benefit from sufficient housing, plenty of workspaces to nurture the local economy, green areas for recreation and a healthy and safe environment for all of its inhabitants. This is, at least in theory, why regulations and planning applications exist. The intention isn’t to hinder development, but to ensure that it’s done properly.

Through the London Plan and related initiatives City Hall endeavours to support new development, but there’s room for improvement.

The capital’s planners are there to work towards better developments for a brighter future. They should not be standing in the way of necessary development in London; their job is to address any obstacles and push development forward. Progress is key and planners and planning regulations need to enable this, not restrict it.

There’s no argument: Londoners need the housing and it looks as if there’s enough appropriate space to develop for now. We just need to ensure that when planners are subject to pressure, it’s in the right direction.

Their mission? To provide the supply of high quality, sustainable accommodation that London needs to continue to thrive as one of the World’s great cities.