Guest article: Sadiq Khan’s London plan contains some great ideas, but could they be better?

by Dave Hill

This article is by John Myers, co-founder of London YIMBY – Yes In My Back Yard – which campaigns with great energy and imagination to end the capital’s housing crisis by building more good and affordable homes. 

Sadiq Khan’s new draft London Plan has exciting ideas for raising design quality and getting many more homes built. But will they survive?

There is much to love about the new draft Plan: for example, the idea of Good Growth that benefits everyone. It’s great to see London finally get back to an ambition it had for centuries. Making London better means we need to make individual places better too. Trying to stop change will just let pressure build until something nasty happens.

We also love Mayor Khan’s idea of starting to build a city that works for all Londoners. But let’s go further. What about one that works for those who want to become Londoners too? What about those who have been priced out of London?

We started our London YIMBY campaign to stop people being forced from their homes – to let everyone have a decent home and fair opportunities. The social harm, unfairness and economic damage from our current housing crisis is breathtaking. We desperately need more well-designed homes.

Don’t forget that London built far more than the 66,000 homes a year the Mayor now says we need back in the 1930s, and by hand. There’s nothing physically challenging about the new target, although it might take a while to ramp up. The hard part is agreeing where the homes should go.

For us, the biggest idea in the draft Plan is that councils will be required to set design codes for more homes and higher densities on small sites. There is a new presumption in favour of approving small sites that comply with those codes and are close to transport links. If a council fails to create a design code, its powers to refuse development will be limited.

Small sites are great for many reasons. They give small builders a chance to thrive again, after a period in which most of them were wiped out. Allowing small developments can also let homeowners in an area benefit from the additional planning permissions they receive: they can extend their house themselves, or team up with or sell to a small builder. And small sites avoid the “absorption rate” question that can delay final delivery on large sites for a decade.

The inevitable backlash against the Mayor’s idea included front page headlines about “garden-grabbing” and vitriol from Conservative HQ. Of course, people rarely object to being allowed to build in their own back garden; what they hate is someone building in the back garden next door. And, let’s face it, that’s just human nature. Generally, people like what’s familiar; they don’t like too much change; they prefer not to be overlooked or overshadowed; and homeowners don’t like things that reduce the value of their property.

The new rules could allow building at the side and in front of houses too. And the backlash is before councils have even started trying to write design codes for an entire borough, covering everything from Georgian and Victorian streets through 1930s semi-detached houses and 1960s estates to 21st century buildings – not that we’ve had many of the latter built in London, by historical standards.

I confidently predict that setting a design code for hundreds of thousands of people and a wide range of layouts and tenures will turn out to be a teensy bit controversial – and the result will be not be quite what Create Streets and others were hoping for. It’s all so predictable. But there are ways to make these ideas more powerful and also more popular.

We wrote about some of them in our policy report. For example, why not let single streets vote to opt in to augmenting their properties with extensions or additional floors? Giving a presumption in favour of approval to a single street will massively boost the value of each individual plot on that street, even as it gets many more homes built – flats, maisonettes or terraces – and helps make the new individual homes less expensive. You’ll soon see streets clamouring to be involved. That idea has received widespread support and very few objections.

If they’re going to opt in, why not let single streets pick their own design codes, which could include some clear protection for the houses on streets behind, so the new buildings don’t start near the back garden wall? You’d be surprised by how quickly the complaints about “garden-grabbing” evaporate. If a whole street has opted in, even the objectors will be consoled a little by the boost in their own property values. Or you could let single streets opt out if they feel strongly about it. That will massively reduce resistance where it’s strongest.

Another question: why limit the new approach to particular areas near transport points? Boroughs can already insist on car-free developments. It’s hard to predict what will be possible with technology in just five or ten years. Perhaps there will be cheap self-driving minibuses that use existing road space much better. Homes near Tube stations command higher prices and rents, so that’s where people will want to build to begin with. Who is going to build a car-free development that no-one wants or can get to? But who knows what new forms of public transport might be possible in the near future if we let people experiment a little?

The Victorians and Edwardians had clear legal diagrams showing how much you could build near the “property line” – the boundary of individual properties. Without such provision, planners could be overwhelmed by too many small site applications. Why not pre-empt that by setting some sensible “bright-line” rules about ensuring access to daylight and in doing so stop preventing the creation of housing designs like the Edwardian mansion blocks that are still incredibly popular? Again, that’s why letting single streets opt in and pick a design code would be easier.

What now? If they don’t get watered down, the Mayor’s proposals could be incredibly powerful. After attending the launch event, we’ll submit a full written response in the spring. We’re keen to hear from all Londoners who care about housing so we can feed in their views. Please tell us what you think or sign up for our free newsletter if you want to learn more. You can help us make these ideas, and London, better.

 London Yimby’s website is here and its tweets are here. Photograph by London Yimby, with thanks.

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