The NLA recently brought together Islington Councillors, housing developers and architects to discuss delivering more, high quality homes in the borough in the context of new housing and planning legislation. David Taylor reports.
The invited group of local politicians and professionals gathered at Islington Town Hall to debate key issues of growth, certainty, viability and density. They were asked to respond to the question of how can Islington embrace an ambitious growth agenda and build high quality homes despite constraints on space and the challenges of some of the more troublesome elements of current government housing policy.
An invited group of councillors, developers, planners, architects and other housing experts gathered at Islington Town Hall to debate this issue and more as part of an NLA think tank, with the issues of growth, certainty, viability and density to the fore for housing in the borough – and beyond.
Islington is the most densely populated place in the country. It is delivering new homes faster than anywhere else in London apart from Tower Hamlets. The borough has ambitions to continue delivering at this high rate of growth provided that this brings real benefits for local communities particularly in the form of high levels of social housing.
Islington is also facing a challenge in terms of meeting the demand for new employment space in the borough.
One Islington representative said there was a real feeling across London that boroughs and developers need to up their game quickly and in a sustained way if we are to make sure housing output rises and stays high. This must also be done in a way that brings communities alongside, avoids conflict and concentrates on shared outcomes.
Developers don’t like delay and uncertainty, and there is a need, said one present at the meeting, to better ‘tramline’ applications towards a positive decision by the local authority. So, how can speed and certainty be increased?
Islington’s record of delivery shows it is pro-growth, said one contributor. The key question is therefore how can the council work more effectively with the private sector and housing associations to achieve a ‘win-win’ situation whereby local communities truly benefit from increased housing and employment delivery and developers get the speed and certainty of delivery that they crave.
The delays in the process arise mainly through its adversarial nature, something that has seemingly increased in recent years and wastes resources on all sides. What can often slow things down most are discussions about development viability, causing undesirable delay, conflict and uncertainty.
The government and the previous Mayor of London have allowed many developers to reduce affordable housing delivery using the viability process. However, many developers agree that the current system only really benefits the landowner by pushing land values up so far that it is impossible to meet the boroughs’ affordable housing targets and other planning requirements.
This situation also creates mistrust and conflict with local communities and often resistance to development. Local communities often feel that they experience all the dis-benefits of development both during and after construction but see very few of the benefits. Local people may feel that developers are making too much money at the expense of local communities or, perhaps, the local authority is being too lenient.
In 2008 there was a requirement for 50% affordable housing in London, and there was no confusion about what that meant. Now though, said one contributor, it was almost impossible to even define what affordable housing is. The city can create schemes like Old Oak Common that only deliver benefits to the landowners, because of the prevailing planning policy. Why not clearly define what affordable housing means and impose a fixed affordable housing target across the Capital?
The general view amongst developers and housing associations present was that the market could adapt quite readily to the situation of a clear definition of affordable housing with a fixed target. Taking a fixed target as a starting point would avoid the ‘shadow-boxing dance’ of viability discussions. It was also suggested that there should be a ‘valve’ for genuinely exceptional cases. But in moving to a fixed target there may be a risk that landowners might decide to simply sit tight for a few years in the hope that new administrations change the rules again.
The GLA needs to push affordable housing as a pan-London issue, said one contributor, especially as new transport links are making the city ‘smaller’. More of a ‘use it or lose it’ approach could also be used with public land, and there should be measures taken to prevent landowners applying for permission when they have no intention of actually building schemes out.
The absence of trust around the industry needs to be addressed with clearer communication to local people of the tangible benefits of development, whether around a contribution to affordable housing, CIL or S106. Indeed, thought one contributor, the planning system has become ‘dispassionate’ – how can planning become an advocate for development in its area as a good thing whilst also allowing proper decision-making?
The challenge of continuing high levels of growth in Britain’s most densely populated area was also debated.
How about innovative density approaches such as in North America, where applicants can go taller if they deliver more affordable housing? This informally exists in terms of getting the balance of benefits in schemes right, but could this be made more explicit in policy here? Intensification can sometimes price out people on low incomes said one contributor, especially in some of the tower schemes with high service charges.
But it isn’t just about tall buildings. Even with relatively few tall buildings Islington is already Britain’s most densely populated area. Are there other building typologies that can deliver high density growth just as effectively? How can we deliver well designed high density schemes of the highest architectural quality?
The group also discussed planning reform. There were strong concerns that planning reform would be extremely disruptive to the certainty and speed of decision making that developers want, with Islington particularly concerned about elements like the ever-more complex and onerous Starter Homes policy and other provisions in the Housing and Planning Bill (now Act).
The session concluded that everyone around the table had the shared aim of bringing forward high quality development with speed and certainty. This would provide the homes and jobs that London needs whilst addressing the legitimate concerns of local communities. Everyone was enthusiastic that these discussions should continue as Islington reviewed its planning policies and a conversation opened up with a new Mayor.
By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ