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Onwards and Upwards? – Londoners Reach for the Skies to Solve the Housing Crisis

At a Green Belt seminar in Oxford in 2015, faced with a tricky question from the floor regarding where new housing in rural Surrey might go, if not in the Green Belt, a CPRE delegate, without the hint of a smug grin, suggested “upwards”. There was no recorded presence of a DCLG or Mayoral mole in the audience, but who knows because, a few months later, (February 2016) DCLG/Mayor of London have issued a consultation paper “Upward Extensions in London”.

Answers, not on a seaside postcard referring to erections or mine being bigger than yours, are requested by 15 April 2016, online to www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/Z6SGGNB. The consultation is not to be confused with the ongoing debate, especially in Westminster and Ken & Chel, about the propensity of wealthy householders to seek even more indoor pools and home cinemas by building under their existing houses and gardens.

The London Plan seeks to have 49,000 new homes built each year, this against the backdrop of an annual rate of 25,000 p.a. since 2008. Given that the Green Belt is a no-go area and brownfield sites just don’t seem to come up with the goods, the answer is to build tall. This is not specifically targeted at new builds, but by changing Permitted Development (PD) rights to allow additional storeys to be added to existing buildings. First reaction must be that creating taller homes does not automatically equate to more homes, but let’s look at the options put forward in the consultation.

PD rights, with prior approval, are, supposedly “a light touch approach to granting consent”, though anyone going down that route may be forgiven for sniggering. The consultation paper suggests that there might be a new PD right in London that provides for one or two additional storeys on an existing building, where the roofline of the adjoining premises is at least one or two storeys taller already, conditional upon the additional space being used to provide self-contained additional housing units. The right to grow would not be confined to existing houses, but could include shops and offices.

An alternative option, with the same objective, would be for London Boroughs to bring forward local development orders, permitting upward expansion in specific areas, perhaps around transport hubs or in town centres and high streets. The third option sees the London Plan introducing new planning policies to support additional storeys.

There are provisions in the consultation for multiple PD spurts, so that two or more neighbours, sitting next to and/or close to the big boy on the end of the block, could grow together, but only the immediate neighbour could grow on its own. The illustration, see below, rather suggests that if you press down on the tall building, one of the others may pop up, like the valves on a trumpet or a bump on a cartoon character’s head when whacked with a frying pan, but you get the gist. A and C in Example 1 can grow when they like and D can join in with C. B and E are good to go in Example 2 and could take C and D with them. It’s a good game.

Example 1 Example 2

If the consultation period did not run past April Fool’s Day, you might think that this was such a wheeze. Is it not one of the dafter ideas to come out of the DCLG and the Greater London Authority?

Are Londoners going to rush to build extra floors on their houses to provide self-contained flats on the roof? Where would the servants live? Are the foundations of London’s houses and shops built to take additional floors and do we have enough structural engineers to give us the answer. Granny can’t live up there in order to free up her one person, four-bedder, not with all those stairs, and, talking of stairs, will the PD rights include provision for a new stair tower, fire escape or lift to make sure that the “Crash in the Attic” is truly self-contained not to say safe? Are there enough lop-sided street scenes to make a difference and do we want building heights to be all the same?

A lot of government initiatives to promote new housing without trespassing into the green belt smack of desperation. This one has an element of comedy about it, even more so than recent escapades such as “Escape to the Industrial Estate” and a PD right to demolish an office block and rebuild it, bigger, as housing. Someone at the DCLG has an oversupply of imagination or maybe needs to cut down on the caffeine.

The ideas may be desperate, you might even say daft – but at least they are suggestions, there does not seem to be anything as definite from either of the London Mayoral candidates who seem only to rely on rhetoric.

Why not just have a sensible review of this country’s outdated Green Belt policy and leave the Permitted Development Order alone for a while, to recover from trauma of last year!!

Who knows, a review of Green Belt policy might also help to address housing difficulties in locations other than London. On the other hand, perhaps we should be grateful for any distraction from the prospect of months of political talking heads “debating” Brexit!

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