The closure of Homebase stores across London may have been bad news for DIY’ers, but all those newly-vacated sites seemed like good news for house-builders as well as those urging “brownfield” land not “greenfield” to be the priority for new development.
The former Homebase site on the edge of North Finchley town centre certainly looked promising, and developers Taylor Wimpey were on message when they unveiled their scheme: developing “scarce brownfield sites” would protect the Green Belt and address the “acute affordability issues in the capital”, they said.
It wasn’t to be. Their plans, for 307 new homes, 35 per cent affordable, in six blocks of flats ranging from four to nine storeys, had already been refused by Barnet councillors. They have now been comprehensively rejected on appeal by planning inspector Paul Jackson.
The verdict is already being seen as significant for the city as a whole, where what has been characterised as a “war on the suburbs” has been increasingly ramping up.
New homes would be “entirely appropriate on this site lying close to a town centre,” Jackson said, with the figures showing a “significant shortfall in affordable housing” in Barnet as well as doubt about whether overall five-year new homes targets would be met. So far, so uncontroversial. But he deemed the “detrimental effect on townscape character” of the scheme’s tallest eight and nine storey blocks in particular would be so great as to “significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits the scheme would bring”.
Planning decisions always involve a balancing act, weighing the need for new homes against the “harm” a scheme may cause to its surroundings, though commentators, including University College London’s Professor Matthew Carmona, have suggested that numbers have often trumped design quality.
Schemes on former Homebase sites have indeed generally gone through, despite increasingly vocal concern about “ruining our low-rise suburbs with unsightly tower blocks”, sometimes with the help of Sadiq Khan, who has used his planning powers to approve large schemes in Wandsworth and Richmond, up to 15 and 11 storeys respectively. Just last month he backed plans for 473 flats in blocks up to 17 storeys high in Brentford.
Jackson’s approach is different. He highlights the emphasis on design in the government’s new National Planning Policy Framework, quoting ministerial statements directly: “The design quality of new development is too often mediocre…systemic change is needed to ensure design and beauty is a core part of the planning process.”
That means design should be “demonstrably based on an understanding of the existing situation,” in this case, the “largely homogenous low/mid-rise urban terrace and suburban areas around it,” he says. Decision-makers should not just grant permission for well-designed buildings, but actively “refuse it for poor quality schemes.”
For Professor Carmona, the decision could be a genuine turning point, giving “cause for hope” that a new test for planning success – “the achievement of ‘good design’ and not just the avoidance of ‘bad design’” – might prevail.
What is “good design”? Barnet’s planners said the North Finchley scheme, while “contemporary in appearance”, also appropriately reflected the “traditional features of the conservation area and neighbouring built form”.
Jackson’s reading was more conservative: the development was “quite out of place in an area of fine grain low to mid-rise residential development,” he found, and significantly, had not addressed local concerns on density and height. “Change is inevitable – but the tallest blocks in this scheme would be a step too far,” he concluded.
It’s a ruling that will focus minds at all levels: from residents’ groups buoyed by its backing for lower density development to protect the suburbs, to planners, planning committees and developers facing new circles to square, and the government too.
The drive for affordability, championed by Mayor Khan, has seen high density – in the form of high buildings – become the hallmark of new development, particularly where transport links are good. Taylor Woodrow argued that its “arrangement” of high-density apartments in blocks mainly six storey or higher, “allows us to maximise the number of homes to help achieve 35 per cent affordable”. There are other demands as well, for new open space and cycleways, new schools and more, all of which have to be paid for often with contributions from developers’ profits.
Developers Landsec make the same point in proposals for 1,900 homes in blocks ranging from 10 to 16 storeys at the former Homebase and O2 shopping centre site off the Finchley Road in Hampstead: “The reality of providing large numbers of affordable homes – while also ensuring 50 percent of the scheme is new green public space – means some parts will need to feature taller buildings.”
Some council’s agree. Waltham Forest planning committee chair Jenny Gray articulated the issue succinctly when defending her committee’s approval earlier this year of a 583 home 35 per cent affordable former Homebase scheme in Walthamstow, including a 17-storey tower whose scale and height had “horrified” local residents. “We can’t sacrifice what’s good because we are just waiting for a day when we can have perfect,” she said. “We do need these homes.”
Negotiating more affordable homes in exchange for greater height has become commonplace within a system relying on developer contributions to provide affordable homes, even when combined with City Hall grants. But in the wake of the North Finchley judgement, it may be more difficult to make that case.
No-one sheds too many tears for property developers these days, of course, but even Khan’s planning and regeneration deputy Jules Pipe has warned that continuing to “squeeze” housebuilders for more affordable homes is “not a viable way of delivering the amounts we need”, as well as fuelling opposition to new development.
The Mayor and his officials continue to press the case for more subsidy for affordable homes, with the capital now the “epicentre” of the housing crisis in England, with 250,000 households on council waiting lists.
City Hall research suggests that two-thirds of the estimated 66,000 new homes needed every year in London should be affordable, with £4.9 billion a year funding needed to make that happen.
There are wider challenges too for a government now pledging that housing should not be built on “green fields”, while sticking to its 300,000 new homes year target, a pledge already backed by £58 million to prepare brownfield sites for development, some of which has even found its way to London.
New and insightful analysis from planning consultants Lichfields finds no evidence there is enough brownfield land to get close to the government target, meaning that relying on brownfield alone “is likely to reduce the supply of affordable housing rather than increase it”.
Controversial schemes still in the pipeline might show which way the wind is blowing. They include the 217 home 17 storey “office village” scheme near Southgate Underground station in Enfield, where an appeal verdict is pending, and the O2 plans in Hampstead, already described by locals as “completely alien” to its surroundings.
The focus on brownfield sites, coupled with possible curbs on density at the hands of the planning inspectorate, may have the perverse consequence of shifting the new homes battleground back to the Green Belt, and provide new dilemmas for new Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove when decisions land on his desk. If you want affordable housing and you can’t build high, where are you going to build it instead?
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