Sleepy Suburbs – online briefing and Q&A

Join us to hear more about our latest report on housing and planning reform

Event starts at 12.00 -13.00 on 16 April 2020 at Online

Watch the event video below and read Centre for Cities Analyst Anthony Breach’s responses to questions asked.

Housing is one of the biggest challenges that the UK faces, and this problem is particularly acute in cities in the Greater South East of England where demand outpaces supply.

While there is now a good understanding of which cities and large towns build the most – and the fewest – homes, much less attention is given to exactly where in cities new homes are being built, and why.

Anthony Breach, the report’s author, presents the analysis and findings from this report. His presentation is followed by a Q&A chaired by Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of Centre for Cities.

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How does homebuilding since 2011 look when overlaid with existing density? Are we seeing dense LSOAs intensified, or are those the ones laying dormant?

It’s hard to say – it appears to depend on the location and the nature of the land ownership. Neighbourhoods which are already dense and have complex ownership structures appear to experience  little new development – so places as different as Kensington and East Ham each see very new homes being built. But even dense neighbourhoods with a single owner such as social housing estates owned by councils and housing association appear to be much more likely to experience redevelopment and densification.

Connectivity and sustainability are, or should be, key considerations for development – preferably TODs

Agree – and it’s not necessarily a bad thing that we see pockets of high density supply at transport nodes in big cities such as Stratford or Bolton. The alternative, where land adjacent to and 20 minutes walk from stations are both the same density is inefficient. But it seems these high density pockets are unusual, and that many more railway stations do not experience any Transit Orientated Development (TOD) at all.

Does Ant (or anyone else in the meeting) know any good examples of other countries (apart from Japan!) or cities which are building significant amounts of new housing in existing suburban areas?

Suburban densification seems to be more common in East Asia more generally – in South Korea, Taiwan, China, and Vietnam I know it’s not unusual. It’s worth noting here that these countries have since WWII experienced significant land reforms, which broke up large agricultural estates and redistributed land to smallholders, which suggests that complex land ownership is not necessarily a barrier to suburban densification.

Historically, suburban densification did happen regularly in the West before the creation of modern planning systems. Manhattan Moves Uptown is a great depiction of this process in 19th Century New York.

To what extent do you think this analysis merely reflects the public-private partnership model that dominates provision of the finance that enables local authorities to deliver their housing targets?  (Private sector developers favour viable locations and, in large scale city centre regeneration schemes at least, call all the shots.  Local authorities become a bit of a pushover in the planning process as they have too much to lose if a developer walks away.)

In the biggest cities in particular, I think it does reflect that. If you’re an inner London borough, and you have a massive housing target, and you own lots of land in your borough, pockets of high density construction probably is the right strategy in our system. But I don’t think that’s the whole story – to explains those neighbourhoods where nothing is being built you have to look at the institutions which developers, local authorities, and landowners are all working in.

Do you think one of the effects of the current health emergency might be greater resistance to densification of cities – even de-densification of cities? Could this be a major political obstacle? From open plan

That might become a sensitive political argument, even if the data which we’ve been collecting at Centre for Cities suggests that it’s not true. From what we can see, there’s no relationship in the growth of the pandemic and the density of cities, at this stage.

But it is an intuitive argument, and I suspect people who think cities are important and good will have to encounter this argument a lot over the next few years. Personally though, I wonder whether the experience of trying to stay at home while flat sharing will be a radicalising moment for younger people in particular. Self-isolation would be much easier and safer if each household had its own dwelling, which due to the shortage is not currently the case.

Anthony, you recently said on Twitter in a conversation about this report, that the UK is unusually poor at demolishing old homes. Why is this, and how can the planning system increase the number of demolitions to ensure dormant suburbs build more?

I haven’t been able to identify a smoking gun for this. The research shows that there is a lack of suburban densification generally, which will naturally reduce the amount of demolitions. On the whole though, there seem to be biases among both planners and the public about old houses being better, which considering we don’t believe that about cars, or TVs, or washing machines is rather strange.

Given the barriers to private suburban densification under our current planning system, I suspect we would need a much greater role for the public sector to increase demolitions. This was the case also in the postwar period, where the slum clearances by local authorities have left a decidedly mixed legacy. We would need to move away from a discretionary planning system towards a flexible zoning system if we don’t want to repeat those same mistakes.

What’s the role for district centres to serve as focal points for intensification alongside PTAL?  We’re doing a lot of work around 20min walking distance to shops and services. Also, is there evidence that intensification is occuring along public transport corridors already?

There’s probably more potential for town and district centres to densify than we’ve seen so far. While it has happened a lot in certain urban local authorities, it’s not universal.

Using PTALs to guide housing density is a bit of a shortcut here to the efficient outcome that  housing density should be a function of land values, and land values are, all else being equal, higher the closer you are to railway/tube stations and the shorter your commute. That should hold true for district and town centres in successful urban economies too.

As regards the Permitted Development concept, some would argue that it has been abused in situations where office buildings have been converted into living accommodation in forms that would fall short of conventional planning requirements.  Do you have any observations to make on this point?

There are two things going on here with PDR office-to-residential conversions. First, PDR conversions are exempt from  conventional building regulations, which leads to poorer quality housing. I don’t support this, and I would prefer if office buildings were knocked down and the site redeveloped than converted in this way. This is with the exception of minimum space standards, which are a bad idea at all times.

However, the second point about PDR conversions is that we can see that they have been concentrated in cities with very expensive housing markets. Much more affordable cities like Blackburn have not seen any PDR conversions at all. This is proof that a less discretionary planning system would have a much closer alignment between local supply and local demand, which is exactly what we need to fix the housing crisis.

So I’d say that while I understand the concerns people have about PDR conversions regarding building regs, PDR shows that there’s a really important hidden problem within our housing market. We could keep building regs and institute the planning reforms required.

So how would you solve the land assembly issue? Building more in the suburbs means primarily acquiring occupied properties (particularly in the more attractive suburbs). Sites can be allocated, but unless they can be assembled they won’t come forwards. While CPO powers exist it is a difficult process.

It’s extremely difficult, currently. It’s too big a risk for the private sector at present, which means it requires a very large role for the public sector. I think there’s a limited appetite for that among voters, partly as the public sector does not have a great track record at doing exactly that.

This barrier to the public sector is why I believe you need to make it easier for the private sector to do this by changing the institutional constraints they operate within. It is always going to be tricky and risky for private developers to do suburban densification, but we shouldn’t make it much trickier and riskier than it has to be.

Isn’t the low level of new housing in suburbs in part due to the fact that they are established and desirable and simply don’t offer substantial opportunity for significant new homes without demolishing existing housing stock, which is in high demand?

Maybe. But we don’t really know, because it’s not practically possible to change the nature of those neighbourhoods in any city in England and Wales.

Also, the target of building up to 3% in suburbs [over an eight year period – roughly 3 to 4 houses a year at least in every neighbourhood] address aggregate numbers but doesn’t necessarily speak to place making and affordability.

For sure, and there would need to be tweaks in other policy areas if problems emerged from any such increase in suburban supply.

With higher income households further away from city centres. Does building in suburbs exacerbates the problems of inequality and social mobilty?

I don’t see how it would. If anything, the current housing shortage we have now (in part caused by a lack of supply in the suburbs) makes inequality in housing costs worse between renters and homeowners, and inequality in housing wealth worse between homeowners in prosperous and struggling cities.

Could you elaborate on the YIMBI ideas using Local Development Orders? How would this work in practice?

London YIMBY would be the better organisation to speak too about the nitty-gritty of this! But as I understand, under current legislation an LDO could be implemented by an LPA which would allow trials to be run.

Question from YouTube: how do you address those who oppose building on the greenbelt?

The simple case against the green belt is that it just does not actually do what its supporters claim. As an example, the green belt isn’t that good for the environment. By blocking new homes close to cities, it forces new housing to “leapfrog” the green belt and be placed elsewhere, with more driving, congestion,  and pollution. We reckon that we could build up to 2 million houses on green belt land within walking distance of train stations, each in 45 minutes of London, Newcastle, Birmingham, Manchester, and Bristol. Building in these parts of the green belt would be more climate-friendly than continuing to do what we are now.

Second, what this research shows is that the green belt does not “encourage the recycling of brownfield land”. While there are pockets of high density development in certain places, large parts of our existing suburbs are building nothing. If we want to recycle more brownfield land we need to change how our planning system shapes development of previously-developed land, not make it impossible to build on empty land.

If you increase the price component in the calculation for housing requirement, aren’t you just likely to see significantly more pressure for greenfield/urban extensions outside the city boundaries, as it’s just easier for most developers? Wouldn’t it need to be combined with some reward or compulsion to build in suburbs, especially around transport hubs.

Yes, this is true. If we’re remaining within our current planning system, we’d need a mix of policy ideas to achieve more supply in the existing suburbs and ensure that housing supply increases in the most high-demand cities. They complement each other, but would require distinct approaches.

What is the evidence from elsewhere that zoning system lead to a higher level of housing delivery?  How do you deal with the difficulties of transitioning to a zoning system and the inflexibilities (and litigation) that follow?

It really depends on the details of the zoning system. We know there are zoning systems which replicate a lot of the problems with discretionary planning systems – Issi Romem has done some good work on this back when he was at Buildzoom.

But there are flexible zoning systems which have much better track records – I’ve written about Japan’s zoning system previously as an example.

I didn’t catch the name of the dense development in east/north east London responsible for the huge spike in one of the graphs. Please clarify and perhaps say something about the value or not of such developments.

It’s around the former Olympic Park in Stratford. By most accounts they’re decent, high quality developments – I believe the LSE has recently done a study into life in these new higher-density schemes in London, and most people are pretty happy with them. If anything it’s strange that what we refer to as “luxury housing” would be rather ordinary, new middle class housing in other countries.

The major sites available in suburbs that councils might unlock for higher density development are their housing estates – and they’re fraught with challenges – not least gentrification – can you understand why councils are not grasping the nettle here – and what should they do about it?

In some places councils have grasped that particular nettle!  It certainly explains the pattern of some places on the maps like Elephant and Castle. There are clearly big challenges around this, but one implication of that is if we want to reduce the pressure on council estates, we need to allow much more construction in the existing suburbs.

Councils are forced into this behaviour because they currently have no other choice. No private suburban densification is forthcoming, because it cannot under our institutional set-up.

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