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Gentle densification of suburbs could help meet London’s housing needs

Planners, architects, housing campaigners and policymakers agree on the need to intensify our residential suburban streets with more terraced homes and mid-rise flats.

The case for gentle or ‘Goldilocks’ suburban development – not too high and not too low, not too dense but dense enough – is strong.

Large tracts of outer London are given over to detached and semi-detached homes. The modest densification of even a small fraction of these could make a huge contribution to meeting London’s housing needs. The architectural practice HTA has estimated that doubling the density of just 10 per cent of outer London boroughs creates the capacity for 20,000 new homes per year, making a big contribution to the new housing London so desperately needs.

Intensifying low density neighbourhoods would also make it easier to support public transport and sustain lively high streets, towns centres and community infrastructure, and the jobs and social networks that they can bring.

Many suburban detached and semi-detached houses are poorly insulated and energy intensive – they need upgrading if London is going to meet its climate change commitments. Many of these properties are also owned and occupied by empty nesters, a group that could be a big beneficiary of redevelopment. These older owners might be relatively property-rich, but they are often cash poor. Their homes can be over-sized, ill-suited to their needs and expensive to maintain and run. 

There has been an increase in privately rented suburban homes – the 2001 census found that 10 per cent of outer London households were privately renting; in 2011 the figure had more than doubled to 22 per cent. Most buy-to-rent landlords are not ‘professional’ property developers and will tend to need support if they are to grasp the potential of intensification. But they have an obvious monetary interest in redeveloping their properties.

When it comes to development, most people have a strong preference for a home on a street with some outdoor green space, rather than one that is overshadowed by a large block or tower complex. The value that people attach to well-designed terraced houses or mid-rise flats is reflected in the enduring popularity of these developments and the high prices they tend to command.

Yet for all the benefits that ‘gentle densification’ could bring, it is not taking place at scale. Local authorities do not have the extensive land ownership that has enabled (sometimes controversial) social housing redevelopments. And multiple private ownerships can make it hard for developers to create opportunities.

On a positive note, architects have produced helpful illustrations of how London’s suburban streets could be attractively densified while retaining street-centred patterns and allowing access to gardens and terraces. Last year’s planning white paper, with its emphasis on design codes and ‘as of right’ development, could provide a smoother, more predictable route to planning permission.

But the barriers holding suburban intensification back go beyond design and planning. They fall into two broad categories:

Demand-side barriers 

Suburban properties are typically small and individually owned. But densification works best when a number of adjacent homeowners come together, because: 

  • Neighbours are less likely to object to development when they will gain from it. 
  • Collective development brings big economies of scale.
  • Collective development allows for a unified approach to design (while also permitting some individuality where people want it). 

So, we need mechanisms and incentives that would enable and encourage home-owners to work together on redevelopment.

In addition, the process of developing designs, getting planning permission, securing finance and commissioning and managing construction is complex. Few homeowners will be confident in negotiating their way through the process on their own. So, we also need a system that is as simple as possible to navigate and expert guidance for those wishing to get involved.   

Supply-side barriers 

Finance markets are not geared towards this resident-led suburban development – especially collective development. 

Britain’s developer and construction sector has been hollowed out over recent years, with a big decline in small developers, contractors and builders who might once have undertaken intensification work. Advanced, modular off-site construction would be beneficial as well but it is also an under-developed market. Further, Councils have typically been nervous about redevelopment of their residential suburbs, it is viewed as too much political pain for fairly limited gain.

We need to turn this dynamic around by finding ways of increasing possible supply and decreasing reasons for opposition. In short, we need imaginative and sustained policy intervention if we are going to develop businesses with the skills and resources – community enablers, developers, lenders, builders – needed to deliver suburban densification. And we need a framework which is easy for planning authorities to implement and manage.  

It’s against this background that Centre for London is working with Create Streets, the urban design research institute and social enterprise, to explore new models of bottomup suburban intensification and renewal. To find out more and get involved, please contact our Development Manager, Max Goldman.

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Ben Rogers is Founding Director of Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here