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21 May 2018

The only way is up? How emerging national planning policy will increase pressure on building height and density

The Government is targeting the construction of 300,000 net additional homes every year. Those homes need to be accompanied by retail, leisure, education and community facilities – and of course employment floorspace supporting jobs. Where should all the new development go?

There can be no single answer to that question, but part of the solution must be to increase the density and height of our towns and cities where it is appropriate to do so. A recent consultation on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework supports a more critical look at where it might be appropriate to build up our urban form.

The draft Framework proposes a new chapter entitled ‘Making effective use of land’, the focus of which is to require strategic plans to help meet development needs for an area by making as much use as possible of previously developed or brownfield land.

Unsurprisingly, particular emphasis is given to finding places for new homes. 

  • Substantial weight is to be given to the value of using suitable brownfield land within settlements for homes and other identified needs. 
  • The development of under-utilised land is encouraged where it helps to meet identified housing needs and where land supply is constrained – examples quoted include building on or above service yards, car parks, lockups and railway infrastructure. 
  • Changes of use to provide new dwellings are also supported, particularly provided key economic sectors or town centres are not undermined.
  • Authorities are also advised to allow upward extension of residential and commercial premises for new homes where development is consistent with the prevailing height and form of neighbouring properties and street scene, is well designed (always subjective) and provides safe access for occupiers.  Indeed, a potential permitted development right to build upwards, dismissed by previous administrations, is back on the table for further consideration.

The draft Framework makes it clear that, where there is a shortage of land to meet housing needs, it is especially important that policy and decision making avoids homes being built at low densities and there is optimal use of the potential of each site. Policies should include minimum density standards for city and town centres (and other locations well served by public transport) seeking a significant uplift in average densities unless there are strong reasons why it would be inappropriate.  Minimum density standards or ranges should also be considered for other areas.

There is always scope for debate as to what is appropriate by way of height and density. Helpfully, when considering applications for housing, the draft Framework seeks a flexible approach by authorities in applying daylight and sunlight policies and guidance where an otherwise efficient use of a site would be inhibited - provided the scheme results in acceptable living standards. No doubt debate will continue on how such policies and guidance should be interpreted – or indeed refined - in light of the increasing need for new homes.

The guidance also notes other factors that should be taken into consideration in determining what comprises efficient use of land – including the desirability of maintaining an area’s prevailing character or of promoting regeneration and change. It might be said that authorities need to be bolder in accepting and encouraging change within town centres in particular.

The draft Framework does not seek to impose any particular policies on the height of buildings, although it sets the national context in which their design will be considered and assessed, particularly in regard to harm to heritage assets.  It is for policy makers to go on and interpret national policy at a strategic or local level.

By way of example, the draft revised London Plan, also recently the subject of consultation, requires Borough development plans to define what is considered a tall building. It retains a plan-led approach to change, whereby policies will identify locations where tall buildings will be appropriate in principle, giving an indication of generally acceptable heights.  Factors to be taken into account include visual (including in long range, mid-range and immediate views), functional and environmental impacts, the potential to contribute to new homes, economic growth and regeneration and public transport connectivity. However, as in previous drafts, the Plan acknowledges that high density does not need to imply high rise.

Beyond London, particularly as cross-authority planning creeps back into play, it remains to be seen whether there will be an increasing role for strategic policies in setting the scene for denser and higher rise development in urban centres and other accessible locations.  The rise of residential, commercial and mixed-use towers looks likely to continue. 


This article was written by Claire Fallows. For more information please contact Claire on +44 (0)20 7427 1046 or at claire.fallows@crsblaw.com.

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