Announced with considerable fanfare in 2018, and becoming formal planning policy the following year, Croydon Council’s Suburban Design Guide supplementary planning document (SPD) was London’s first – and, even now, most ambitious – attempt at encouraging its woefully sparse outer areas to do more to meet the city’s housing needs.
The publication made no bones about its intentions. “The evolution of the suburbs to provide homes that will meet the needs of a growing population,” its introduction stated. It went on: “It must however be recognised that delivering approximately 10,000 homes in the suburban places of Croydon will result in an evolution of the existing character of suburban streets, and that the increased density of homes can impact on the amenity of existing residents if not properly managed.”
The guide was rightly heralded as a progressive and practical attempt to deliver new homes in those places best able to accommodate them, and it was quickly celebrated as an exemplar for how to sustainably densify the city’s fringes. Croydon’s in-house spatial planning team took home a planning award in 2019 and the guide was highly commended at the New London Awards the same year. From a personal point of view, it was an important reference for my architectural practice’s own small sites SPD in Lewisham, which was adopted by the council a year ago this month.
However, just three years on, Croydon’s Suburban Design Guide is no more. In May, the borough’s voters elected Conservative Jason Perry as their first Mayor. He had promised that one of his first acts if he won would be to revoke the “dreaded” SPD, which he claimed has “destroyed” Croydon’s character and led to the “destruction” of homes – a peculiar claim given the huge number of dwellings it had in fact enabled in a relatively short time.
The SPD had been produced in response to Sadiq Khan’s London Plan, which was first published in draft in 2017 but not formally adopted until March 2021. The Plan enshrined the need for the boroughs to consider the importance of small sites in meeting London’s housing needs. For the first time, every London planning authority was tasked with finding ways to encourage development on sites with a total area of less than a quarter of a hectare (roughly one third of a standard football pitch), with a ten-year small-site housing target set out in unequivocal terms.
Not only was this to be a way of delivering much-needed homes, the Plan also acknowledged the importance of nudging small-scale developers back to a market that had become dominated by a handful of volume housebuilders since the 2008 financial crash.
Inevitably, the draft Plan’s publication was met with hyperbolic outcry: a “war on the suburbs” is how Conservative London Assembly member Andrew Boff described the proposals, oddly failing to recognise that small-scale infill development tends to deliver a higher proportion of family homes than small flats; another bête noire of his.
After a robust challenge from several outer London boroughs, Khan was forced to dramatically reduce the small sites housing targets and blunt the “presumption in favour” the Plan had demanded. Having been required to deliver the highest absolute number of homes on small sites of any of the London planning authorities, Croydon Council received the greatest net reduction, with its ten-year target reducing from 15,110 to 6,410 – a drop of nearly 60%.
Croydon is one of London’s least dense boroughs, even when its 2,300 hectares of Green Belt and Metropolitan Open Land are excluded from the calculation. At 65 people per hectare, it has around a third the population density of Islington. Its number of homes per hectare is broadly the same as other similarly sized outer boroughs, such as Barnet and Kingston. And, like those boroughs, it clearly can accommodate many more.
In its defence, Croydon has delivered a lot of new homes in the last decade and a half—more than any other borough—so it’s perhaps fair to argue that the council had indeed “played its part” in meeting the city’s housing need. Yet the figures are misleading. Much of Croydon’s new development is concentrated in the urban centre, where clusters of tall residential towers have sprung up around East Croydon station within easy reach of central London.
This is good. Less good, however, is the quality of much of this new housing. Until halted by the implementation of an Article 4 Direction, more new dwellings were created under dubious permitted development rights, which allow commercial buildings to be cheaply converted to residential outside conventional planning permission, in Croydon than in any other borough. It’s not a statistic to be proud of given the sub-standard quality and small size of many of them. Until the introduction of the Suburban Design Guide, the leafier southern wards had got away without making much of a contribution.
Aware of the inherently risky nature of small sites, and that developers interested in taking them on are less able to absorb the cost of delayed or unpredictable planning decisions, the guide presented a series of suburban intensification methods which, if employed, were highly likely to be nodded through.
The acquisition of a pair of suburban semis – of which Croydon has many thousands – could easily lead to their replacement with a small block of flats at the front of the plot and mews houses in the rear garden. In this scenario, there could be a net gain of up to ten homes with no loss of family housing. The guide demanded that new development be no lower than three storeys – a not unreasonable request if we are to have any hope of densifying London’s laughably sparse peripheral areas.
Of course, this inevitably meant that some areas of the borough would experience some change, but that is a small price to pay for living in this great city. There would be benefits too. As the guide’s introduction made clear, higher housing density inevitably attracts local amenities and better social infrastructure – shops, restaurants, schools, healthcare and community facilities – that might actually mean suburbanites wouldn’t need to hop into their giant SUVs quite so often.
It’s no surprise that those areas most resistant to the principle of intensification tend to lie on the city’s fringes, and often consider themselves to be residents of the Home Counties rather than London. The Green Belt itself is often declared as an unnecessary and anachronistic constraint on the capital’s growth. There is some truth in this, but we should start by turning our attention inwards a little: it is the sparsely populated “greyfields” of outer London we need to tackle first.
The citizens of the suburbs must accept that the evolution of local character is a small price to pay for easy access to everything this wonderful city has to offer – and that it is also their duty to enable others to do the same. Croydon’s Suburban Design Guide was a valiant and progressive attempt to achieve this. We should mourn its passing.
Russell Curtis is the founder of RCKa architects and oversees its commercial and residential infill projects. Follow Russell on Twitter. This article was originally published by Planning in London. On London is grateful for blessing to reproduce it. Photo from Jason Perry election campaign video.
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