The future direction of the growth of the City Fringe has been mapped out in a new supplementary planning guide, the City Fringe Opportunity Area Planning Framework.
And while the document was adopted at the end of 2015 for use, speakers at a CPA breakfast seminar held at the end of April wondered if it wasn’t too little, too late.
“It’s here at last, and it has the stature of an SPG,” said John Watson, director of planning at Savills and a former City planner. “Significant growth in this area is being anticipated.”
The plan notes areas where secondary office space should be maintained, a step towards ensuring affordable business space continues to be available. There is also clarity on where strategic through routes should remain, and green spaces. “I think this is where the framework plays a useful role.”
Watson added that the document will also help to prevent further loss of commercial space to residential use, something that London boroughs will need to take steps to resist. “We need to have regard to it. This will support the boroughs in maintaining this right of exemption.”
The document notes key strategic areas, where commercial uses are to be retained and encouraged. And key sites are also identified, allowing those involved in the areas to see where development will be permitted, or not.
“Whether you like it or not, it does give clarity over where office space will be protected, and mixed use encouraged.”
Watson also pointed to the potential problem of micro management of the area: “A great deal has happened in the City fringe in the last 20 years, without this document. They do need to take care not to kill off what they are trying to create.”
City surveyor Peter Bennett was not entirely positive about the publication. “It’s taken the GLA 20 years to produce a document that is out of date. The City needs the hinterland.”
“The relationship is changing”, he said, and values in the fringe areas are increasing. SMEs are feeling dynamic growth, whereas some traditional business sectors in the City are struggling. Bennett said he sees the City needing to encourage the tech sector to expand into the traditional City spaces. “I think the big problem with this plan is, it doesn’t include the City.”
CPA president Mark Ridley – who works for Stanhope – said a recent report noted high demand for office space in the range 3-10,000 sq ft, and there was already a response to that need. “The market signals to developers like us is that the City fringe is a very attractive place to refurbish buildings – it’s happening already.”
He also noted that the residential market was softening, pushing business space to the fore once more. “The market signals are that commercial is the more viable development plan. It will help the property industry respond to the SME growth story.”
Speakers discussed the concept of “affordable workspace”, something boroughs including Hackney now include in policy documents. Some struggled with the idea of delivering SME space for renting at a below market rate. Bennett said it was “looking at the problem the wrong way,” while Ridley worried about how candidate businesses for the cheap space were selected: “I can’t see how a local authority is best placed to pick winners.” And he said that subsidising rents was the wrong route to supporting businesses. “Where the government really needs to focus on, is venture capital.”
LPA Perspective: Despite the complaints about slow delivery, this document does provide some clear rules for anyone looking to bring forward a scheme in the fringe area. It clarifies the likely response from Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets to new ideas and projects, and unifies what might otherwise be disparate cross-boundary policies.
What any planning document cannot do, however, is outsmart the market. And prices for business space in the City fringes have already risen substantially. Does this mean that the tech hub simply moves further out, into new areas? Alternatively, as Bennett suggested, they may be encouraged back into the City itself, where technology and other changes are providing challenges to traditional sectors.