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We look at the implications for architects of likely developments in housebuilding, and at the European Spatial Development Perspective Planning advice

PRACTICE

Brown land for new housing

Newly published government data1 on land-use change shows that nearly half of all residential development is taking place on land previously developed for urban uses ('brown' land), and this doesn't include redevelopment of land already in residential use.

Recently the new government accepted, amid controversy, a previous target of putting 50 per cent of new housing on brown land. The previous administration had suggested increasing this to 60 per cent in the green paper 'Where Shall We Live?', and the uk Round Table on Sustainable Development, chaired by then environment secretary John Gummer, identified an 'aspirational target' of 75 per cent.

The new statistics, based on a five-year analysis, identify new and previous uses of land in a number of categories divisible broadly into urban and rural. They are recorded for the detr by the Ordnance Survey and reflect a five-year lag in providing reliable results. Thus the latest numbers refer to map revisions between 1985 and 1996 but draw conclusions only up to 1992, with provisional data for housing changes up to the end of 1995.

The trend towards housing is clear. In 1985, 38 per cent of land changing to residential use was previously developed for urban uses - that is, all land which has been built on, including land left vacant following previous development. In the most recent years (1993-95) this proportion has increased to 45-50 per cent. In 1993 the proportion ranged from 30- 35 per cent in the South-west and East Midlands to over 80 per cent in London.

If previously undeveloped land in built-up areas is added (this does not include playing fields, parks or land in rural uses within built-up areas), the 50 per cent in 1995 becomes 62 per cent. Thus a new target of 50 per cent looks to be unambitious, particularly since the trend suggests this has been exceeded, even without allowing for the recent acceleration in conversions of surplus office buildings into residential blocks.

What is the implication for the work of architects? On the face of it, acceptance by the government that half of the predicted demand for new housing will be in rural areas means endless struggles for permissions against entrenched policies and local lobbies and insufferable days at public inquiries during consideration of infinite statistics on housing- land allocations, take-up and unused permissions. But there are at least two other influences.

One is the reliability of the much-trumpeted need for 4.4 million new households by 2016. Richard Best, director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, recently warned that the 4.4 million may have to be revised upwards in view of the backlog since 1991 and the need for demolitions of obsolete housing stock, making 5 million a more realistic figure. As has been reported elsewhere2, the 4.4 million projection was based partly on a government assumption that net inward migration would fall from about 50,000 a year to zero early next century, whereas in fact it is presently running at over 100,000 and shows no sign of dropping.

Research for London Transport Planning suggested that the (roundly) 300,000 new households implied by the 4.4 million figure for inner London over the period should be nearer 460,000.

Balancing this is the increasing acceptance that obsolete post-war slum- clearance density limits on new housing should be reconsidered urgently. A well-attended seminar at the end of last year at the London School of Economics, chaired by Ricky Burdett for the London and Westminster Society of Architects, heard several speakers argue the benefits of higher residential densities. Most graphic perhaps was Terry Farrell, putting Greater London and Hong Kong side by side - a similar land area and a similar population, he said, except that London is developed at suburban densities throughout the metropolis while Hong Kong represents the extremes of high and low density.

The skills and imagination of architects can, indeed must, be brought to bear if the dramatic challenge of meeting these demands is to be dealt with in a satisfactory way. It remains depressingly true that architects have too little influence on the form and layout of the standard production of volume housebuilders in the countryside, but even the radio ads are beginning to name the architects for the new models of urban living. Let's get to it!

A spatial perspective for Europe

As part of the uk government's presidency of the eu this year, we are committed, apparently, to producing something entitled the European Spatial Development Perspective. Nothing that an afternoon with Minicad on the Mac couldn't knock out, you might think - in 3D and full colour at that.

But no. This is to be a document which 'aims to promote an integrated approach to development across all relevant policy areas through partnership, co-operation and sharing expertise . . . it will provide a framework for national and regional planning authorities to develop planning policies which will lead to social and economic cohesion and sustainable development. It is also designed to encourage cross-border co-operation and trans-national approaches to planning and economic development3.'

More Euroverbiage, then. But what's this? 'Urban initiatives and Structural Cohesion Funds will be discussed' at the meeting of ministers in Glasgow next June which is to consider the draft document. So there's money in it. If it shows us how to achieve Parisian residential densities in among their profusion of uncontrolled mixed uses, then perhaps it can do some good after all.

Brian Waters is principal of The Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership: 0171 828 6555

1 Land Use Change in England No.12 detr: isbn 185112 045 9 from the Stationery Office

2 Planning in London April 1997, tel: 0171 834 9471

3 as reported in the October bulletin of the Encyclopaedia of Planning Law, pub. Sweet & Maxwell

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