Richard Brown: London’s suburbs should embrace density

Richard Brown: London’s suburbs should embrace density

Russell Curtis, architect, On London contributor and one-man spatial think tank, published a new paper, Towards a Suburban Renaissance, on his blog last week. Reflecting on their generally low and static densities, Curtis argues that London’s suburbs could accommodate many more homes near stations, by gentle densification of existing residential streets – an upwards extension here, a replacement of a house with a low-rise block of flats there, a new build in a back garden there.

Without even encroaching on protected industrial land or open spaces, Curtis calculates that London could accommodate around 900,000 more homes in this way. Current completions are much lower than the current London Plan target of 52,000 homes a year, and both government ministers and London think tanks say that target should be set higher still. Realising even a small part of the potential that Curtis identifies would be a big boon.

You might think that in a city with a rampant housing crisis and record levels of homelessness, such a modest proposal would be enthusiastically debated by mayoral candidates in an election year. Or…you might not actually, because if you are the sort of person who reads On London, you are probably aware just how politically tricky suburban densification is in a contest where every Outer London vote counts.

Politics confounds any attempt to boost housing supply in the capital through suburban densification. The result is that any vacant site is developed to the max and everything else remains untouched, leading to a lumpy cityscape and eerie juxtapositions such as the transition from towers around East Croydon Station to the two-storey terraces of surrounding streets. Everybody can see the dysfunctional results of this approach, but the politics of changing tack are too tough: as Curtis has written for On London before, both the Mayor of London and Croydon Council have backed down from suburban density-friendly policies.

There are ways to open up the conversation, at least. The “Street Votes” proposal, developed by Policy Exchange and championed by the Nicholas Boys Smith, chair of government’s Office for Place, proposes empowering local communities to redevelop their own neighbourhoods, sharing in economic benefits and ensuring that redevelopment is seen locally as an enhancement rather than a blow to quality of place. A government consultation on making this idea a reality has recently closed, and Street Votes could make a difference where communities can see the potential benefits.

But I think there’s a bigger strategic issue too, about how we talk about density and amenity. I was thinking about this recently over lunch in a small village on the edge of London. Our hosts, heavily involved in the parish council, were discussing how they hoped to use tree preservation orders to scotch any danger of new homes being built on adjacent land.

Their other big campaign was to find a way of re-opening the local pub, which was shutting down owing to dwindling trade. They were prospective clients of my partner so I bit my lip, but in my mind’s eye I was shaking them by the lapels and shouting, “Don’t you see the connection? No more people means no more pub!” To which you might add, no more primary school, no more bus service, no more local shop…

When I look on borough planning consultation portals, I can always find an option to comment on loss of amenity from a development. It’s much harder to comment on loss of amenity from not developing. Across London’s and other cities’ suburban high streets, shops, restaurants and bars are struggling to survive in the face of changing consumer habits and constrained spending.

One answer to this is to shrug, feel a twinge of sadness and let the market find more economically viable uses for the space. Another is to try to make sure these services have enough customers to keep going. You don’t have to go to the pub every evening or ride the bus every day yourself, but you shouldn’t prevent the people who might do so from moving into the area and then complain when the landlord shuts up shop or Transport for London cuts service frequencies.

In urban areas we are all free riders, locked into relationships of mutual reliance on other citizens, and their use of public and private services. If we seal off our neighbourhoods from newcomers, we don’t preserve their character so much as undermine it. We need more homes in London to address the housing crisis for sure, but also to sustain the urban services, quality and vitality that bring people here in the first place. Density is the secret sauce of our cities. We need to sing its praises.

Follow Richard Brown on X/Twitter. provides unique coverage of the capital’s politics, development and culture. Support it and its writers for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE. Google maps image copied from Russell Curtis blog.

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