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The dense city question

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Updating space standards in cities may go some way to alleviate housing problems, but is cramming the answer?

An excellent history and analysis of small dwelling designs by Conran director Matthew Wood appears in this month's Planning in London.

1Titled 'Whatever happened to the micro-flat?', it spans from the Isokon of 1932 to Conran's Roppongi of 2002, via the Winnebago. The general failure to accept extra-small studios in the UK stems in part from a fear that they will not be used just to meet special niche needs but will, in the end, merely provide substandard accommodation.

Many of us are old enough to relate to 'Parker Morris' standards, which still represent a datum for minimum floor areas in housing even though private housebuilders have long since sold units built to lower space standards. Both the planning system and the housing market have immense inertia and it takes great persistence from forward-thinkers and then a legislative bang to achieve a significant shift on the ground.

As Matthew Wood illustrates, we have had the persistent thinking but still await the breakthrough. This persistence has fed into top-level policy with the Task Force and the Urban White Paper, which together move us beyond the slum-clearance mentality of municipal housing to the richness of high-density, mixed-use development. All of which has to be skilfully carried out.

So where is the blockage? No sign of resistance in the market, though in the absence of significant supply it cannot be fully tested. The current lament that first-time buyers are priced out of the market would be addressed by cheaper, smaller units.

These would provide that 'first rung on the ladder' and so, by definition need not be categorised as sub-standard, long-term accommodation.

So guess what? The blockage must be in the planning system, and it's not hard to find where. Just look in the back of your local Unitary Development Plan or at its supplementary guidance and you will find entrenched long-standing suburban 'standards'.

Even where planning officers openly dismiss upper density limits as no longer being applied, they still demand suburban overlooking distances (18-22m between windows) in downtown Hackney, Hammersmith and Greenwich. These distances are more worthy of leafy Barnet in the inter-war period.

Just as Building Regulations now deny us garden flats and new 'Georgian' terraces, so supplementary policies enforced by the prejudices of officers and committees preclude small-scale, high-density development. Not just micro-flats but even conventional studio flats are refused as being mere 'bedsitters'.

An elegant and concise analysis of residential density has just been published by the Greater London Authority.

2In his introduction, Richard Rogers says that even in London we are still building at a density of 78 dwellings per hectare (dph) - about half the density of the Georgian terraces of Notting Hill and of some of the contemporary continental examples illustrated in the book.

'Town cramming, ' he says, 'has more to do with poor design than sheer numbers.' The examples include Dolphin Square at 428dph and Renzo Piano's Rue de Meaux, Paris, at 317dph. As well as providing a cogent definition and explanation of residential density, the book comments: 'Car parking standards and stringent overlooking regulations have constrained compact development in parts of the city.' The London Plan needs to target these obstructive policies if its objectives are to be met and the capital is to set an example for other British cities.

What price a replication of the traditional Kensington mews house - often single-aspect, north-facing and only 5m between residential windows. Now there is a minimum standard that patently can be made to work. Let's allow for it in supplementary guidance if we really want to make land use more efficient and housing more affordable.

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership. Email brian@bwcp. co. uk or visit


bwcp. co. uk

1www. planninginlondon. com

2Housing for a Compact City.Available from tel 020 7983 4100.£10


The Court of Appeal sent out a warning signal about the liability attached to the owner of a listed building where there have been unauthorised works, even when carried out by a previous owner.

A decision handed down on 20 May (by Christian Braun, vice secretary of state for transport, local government and the regions) referred to a listed house bought by a couple in 2000. They were unaware that unauthorised works had been carried out and were wrongly advised that their internal alterations did not require listed building consent. An enforcement required them to carry out extensive works of rectification. A three-day inquiry followed and they then appealed. The court determined that, while the purchaser cannot be prosecuted for any offence committed by a previous owner, it is open to the local authority to take enforcement proceedings in relation to any breaches that have occurred at any time since the property was listed. There is no limitation period such as that applying to breaches of planning permission, so this can represent an obligation to return the property to its original condition.

Advising purchasers of listed buildings can therefore be very tricky, since clear records of its various states at different stages over many years are often not available. While this may make enforcement difficult, the consequences of getting it wrong are serious. As the court said, this decision may call for planning authorities to do more to maintain such records.

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