• Mayor’s design group delivers guidance

A wide ranging report from the Mayor’s Design Advisory Group provides plenty of guidance for the next arrival at City Hall – along with a raft of helpful suggestions.
Growing London: Defining the future form of the city is the first report from the group on one of four big issues it has been considering over the last year since its formation. All come together ultimately under its Good Growth Agenda.
The document sets out to help inform discussions about where new homes will go, at what densities will people live, and how will they access the transport network. “These are challenging questions, but they are urgent,” it notes.
To ensure London gets the homes and jobs needed, the group looked at how major developers work, with members concerned about the way planning permissions seem to be ahead of step with delivery. They recommend the new mayor should strengthen London Plan policy on mixed and balanced communities, encouraging a greater variety of home tenures. The London Land Commission should also split sites into smaller lumps, and positively encourage smaller builders to get stuck in.
Boroughs, too, need encouraging to become more directly engaged in housebuilding. And there needs to be a look at how affordable workspaces can be included in new developments, even perhaps putting light industrial uses into housing developments.
The group also believes that an unnecessarily combative attitude towards development is often borne out of poor consultation. Those opposing projects often fail to appreciate the section 106 benefits they deliver, for example. And in an age of fast internet and apps, planning notices – the piece of laminated paper ziptied to a lamp post – are no longer fit for purpose, says the group, and new, smarter ways of communicating applications, and sourcing responses, need to be developed.
Not all the new development needed will be in Opportunity Areas, and the group suggests the mayor works with the boroughs to identify “developable and deliverable land” which could check out town centres, potential green belt land and smaller, dispersed sites that could, when added together, deliver a substantial uplift. Boroughs should be encouraged and supported to develop growth plans for town centres, even down to providing site assembly thoughts, and design guidance.
Increased density will be necessary to help London meet its housing growth needs, says the report, and so a cap on housing density is not helpful. But a fresh look at the issue is needed, with a redesign of the existing Design Matrix that measures cumulative density in a neighbourhood. And a “tiered level of planning requirements” with ever more stringent requirements should be applied to developments whose density is greater than established ranges.
On tall buildings, the group suggests that London-wide policies should provide simpler guidance as to where tall buildings are permitted, with more tools needed to assess tall building clusters. Debate around tall buildings is polarised, and while there is “a plethora of policy”, such guidance gives an unclear picture.
The report also calls for more interest to be taken in the whole life cost of buildings, not least so that the alleged efficiencies of dense development can be better understood. It says that service charges on apartments are too high, averaging £2.90 per sq ft for an affordable housing flat; in some cases this can be as high as £3,765 a year for a two bed apartment. The report suggests that poor design is often to blame for higher maintenance in the longer term.
Thought is given to making better use of London’s existing resources. “Conversions of houses into flats and non-residential buildings into homes are the unsung heroes of housing supply over the last decade,” notes the report. It recommends that conversions of houses to flats are encouraged, in appropriate locations, while owner-occupiers need a “housing mobility scheme” to encourage downsizing. Office users also need some kind of incentive to improve the efficient use of office buildings, which are currently woefully underutilised.

LPA Perspective: There are lots of bright ideas in this report. While it could be easy to focus on where the resources will come from to develop some of these ideas, they are not just about adding further layers of guidance, but about being smarter too.
The worry is, this is yet another list of things for the incoming mayor to act on. The members of the group need to keep their ideas alive, and ensure there is some action from an individual who will have plenty on their agenda from the start.
On the issue of planning notifications, the group is right that the current system is outdated. What about texts to local residents potentially affected by an application? Or hyperlinks they can scan on their smartphones, to give them details of a project? As those authorities that have developed street fault reporting apps have found, sometimes new tech can focus resources more effectively, to reduce the use of resources.

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