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Flexible friends

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The recently established Live/Work Network is securing some success in promoting more flexible development choices

At last June's Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) national planning conference, City of London chief planning officer Peter Rees introduced a session on mixed-use development with the comment: 'It's rather like motherhood and apple pie - and both can make you feel a little sick.' Widely regarded as a good thing, mixed-used development often confronts planning with a dilemma. After all, planning's origins are in land-use controls and zonings, and mixing uses undermines that simple approach.

A new Mixed-Use Forum* met earlier this month, attended by two officials from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), as well as developers, bankers and professionals. Defining what mixed-use means, Professor Graeme Evans of the Cities Institute focused on the concentration and diversity of activities that bring new life to towns and cities. There is less need to travel, he said, a more secure environment and the efficiency of shared facilities such as transport, services and parking. Many of the characteristics of the 'creative economy' are facilitated by mixing uses, whether in the re-use of redundant premises or in new development.

Lora Nicolaou of DEGW demonstrated that the creation of new employment centres outside the city centre around transport interchanges could shorten some journeys to work but, by adding choices, could increase the overall distances travelled. She saw merit in larger developments having a predominant use to give them focus.

She also noted that the wealthy were the ones who had the choice of working near where they lived, whereas others often had to commute long distances.

Live to work This may be where mixed-use development at the scale of the live/work unit comes in. Earlier this year, the Live/Work Network was founded with the aim of providing the UK's first information service dedicated to providers and users of live/work.

Its aim is to help everyone involved in live/work development learn more about each other's projects, to provide sound advice based on best practice and to lobby for a more effective regulatory and funding framework.

At its first meeting it scored a success when Richard McCarthy, in charge of sustainable communities policy at the ODPM, challenged live/ work developers to clarify how they could help the government achieve its objectives. It has submitted its report to him and has set up a website for developers and users**. Here it calls for the creation of a separate use class for live/work so as to help stop units from becoming solely residential and to promote understanding of this type of development. It also wants planning guidance on sustainable communities and housing to encourage live/work development.

Although councils such as Southwark, Lambeth, Haringey and Merton in London and the Welsh Development Agency are supportive, others are hostile. Cities now enjoying a revival also see the benefits of live/work as part of mixing uses, Coventry, Birmingham, Plymouth and Huddersfield among them.

The hostility tends to arise where experience suggests that some occupiers ignore the employment aspect of the use and it becomes a means of introducing residents into a defined employment area. This perception may be justified to some extent but goes against views expressed by deputy prime minister John Prescott and London mayor Ken Livingstone, that there is little point in planners holding on to underused or derelict industrial sites that can be better used to meet shortages of housing.

The Live/Work Network suggests wider use of section 106 legal agreements to give authorities indefinite control over the mixed uses of these units.

Ironically, hostility has been greatest in the London Borough of Hackney, which pioneered live/work development, starting with an 'experimental' policy in Shoreditch in the early 1990s.

This year it rescinded its supplementary policy and is refusing new applications, despite the regeneration success it has seen in that previously dying area, where more than 900 live/work units have been created. The density of employment for such schemes is often many times greater than the former industrial shells they replaced, and a lively 24-hour neighbourhood has emerged.

The tide is high In this month's Planning in London, Lee Mallett writes: 'If a building is structurally sound, meets (both) the building and fire regulations and appears suitable to the user for the purpose he wishes to use it for, and the use causes no annoyance to neighbours, what right does the local council have to dictate how someone should use that property?' This is the civil rights issue at the heart of the debate. We don't need another use-class specifically to cover live/work. We should remove the need to obtain planning consent to convert a building from employment use to residential. London is screaming out for more housing, yet Canutes in planning departments all over London resist this with every fibre of their beings - to the point where you begin to think it is just a control thing. So just forget about live/ work and let people get on with making London more prosperous.

Mixed-use development can go in one of two directions: it can combine vitality with flexibility, which not only provides a variety of uses but allows for these to change and mix over the life of a building; or it can be a controlled, frozen arrangement determined by the planning regime at conception.

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