Category Archives: Planning

Crystal Ball Gazing #1 Housing and Planning

Crystal ball gazing #1 Housing and Planning

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A massive subject but one that is high up the political agenda, locally and nationally – at last.

Anything done in terms of delivering new homes will only be a small contribution to the overall need for new homes nationally though the needs vary from place to place.

Sites that are available, affordable and desirable have to be considered with emerging planning policies and public support within the context of the economy and changing need. All are moving targets. The politics is rarely static in the long term.

Housing must now live with an uncertain future outside the EU, which may mean changes to law and regulations, and even be affected by immigration and construction labour availability. All consequences of the Brexit referendum result.

Urban Design London offer a forum for London Boroughs and interested parties to debate these and other important issues for London. Last week on 12 January. the new Deputy Mayor for London, James Murray presented an overview of housing which the Mayor Sadiq Khan had made a key part of his manifesto. It came across as well thought through and moving forward well. It is still early days but the ambition and clarity shone through. Points discussed during the day included:

  • Demand and location for homes
  • Delivering affordable homes (affordability being defined in many ways)
  • How accessibility, design guidance and densification impact urban development
  • Estate regeneration and others discrete interventions (small sites etc)

This is a part of a much bigger picture. The next version of the London Plan has just started on its journey, with draft consultation in the Autumn of 2017, Examination in Public in Summer 2018 and the final version in Autumn 2019.

When looking forward it is always valuable to give some consideration to recent futures. Institutional memory is short particularly now that jobs for life have disappeared.

Looking at the Place Alliance website took me to a short summary report on Housing Futures prepared by CABE in 2004. The study was looking at the next 20 years so 2004-2024. We are more than half way there. What was surprising was how on the one hand so much had changed in the political background but that the challenges and issues were still very much the same.

Broken down into 7 papers the broad subject headings are:

  • Cities
  • Suburbs
  • 21st Century Homes
  • Housing Economics
  • Climate
  • Governance and
  • Regeneration

This is a snap shot of a huge subject.

I am reminded that one of the authors, Christine Whitehead, said on Radio 4’s Today Programme recently when commenting on the latest housing initiative – (a version of garden cities, now including towns and villages) that there had been over 150 initiatives on housing since 2010.

The Bristol Arena

Making a place – master planning and architecture.
Design Team
Populus: Architects and lead consultant
Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios: Architects
Buro Happold: Engineers

The Arena provides a flexible internal entertainment space for a wide variety of events with a maximum capacity of 12,000. Outside the Arena itself the site will initially include surface parking which in a second phase be developed providing up to 19,000 sqm floor area of mixed uses. Outdoor spaces for events and accessible parking will also be provided. The design teams’ aims to create a cutting edge multi-event destination- ‘a ‘Colosseum’ for Bristol. The Bristol Arena has recently been granted planning permission.
The Arena concept developed most often in the USA has most often been developed on sites outside the City Centre. As such these large internalized entertainment spaces are a challenge to the urbanist, (even in Rome). Locating the Bristol Arena on the Diesel Depot site next door to Bristol’s Grade 1 Listed Temple Meads Station, has also been a long journey, with the trials of recession and the virtual freezing of development outside London. Now that it has received planning permission it can move on to prove that all the effort was worth it.
The constrained “island” site faced many challenges, both practical and qualitative. How can the site accommodate competing demands of access for visitors, the audience as well as service vehicles and a river to cross? Can the topographical challenges of a flat site with a virtually shear wall to the south and steeply sloping and busy road along the south west? Will activities attract during the day as well as the evening? Will the site offer more than just a one stop shop based around entertainment. In answering all these questions, the client, operators and design team has done an excellent job
Site access is difficult, the choice of options is limited. The Avon has to be crossed and it is unfortunate that the first bridge for vehicle access to the site has been less than inspired. It is not a dramatic gesture, which would be the wrong move, but is not restrained and simple. It falls between the two, a missed opportunity. The pedestrian and cycling bridge which will follow soon is remote from the main action, requiring a long ramp for cyclists. Pedestrian and cycle routes join to become a shared pedestrian and cycle bridge. This is not the optimum option as it could lead to pedestrian and cycle conflicts. Given the green credentials and importance of cycling in Bristol this is an unfortunate decision.
One of the main challenges for Arenas is the servicing and access for large trucks required for get in and broadcasting. With the access restrictions to the site all types of vehicles including large trucks for shows as well as cars to the car park use the same bridge access. This will call for very careful management to avoid conflicts. Could the surface car park provided in the first stage have provided for more creative meanwhile uses before the second phase comes forward? Were other locations for vehicle parking considered? Could disabled access be provided by a shuttle service rather than an on site car park? It seems to me that all these questions could have been answered by more radical solutions but I guess the business plan and economics ruled the day.
The client and consultant team have high ambitions…
“the extraordinary setting of Arena Island be brought to life through dynamic landscapes and a series of terraces that flow from river to park, and through village to a new public square, providing
 the platform for a whole range of outdoor events and community activities.”
The success of the Arena as a destination will depend on the range of other activities at all times of day and in the evening. This will help determine the character of the place and the challenges relate to the island nature of the site. This site has special qualities. I would have expected more have been made of the public spaces around the building. Hard landscaping predominates but the historic references are lost. Quieter spaces and more soft landscaping and tree planting would be welcome. The old Diesel Depot site had distinctive dramatic qualities. It is to be hoped that the art interventions will draw from the history and add to the sense of place.
Many of these challenges will only be fully answered as later phases of development come forward. But in the first stage, the creation of the Arena as a new venue will begin to answer these questions. Ultimately, will the Arena and its surroundings become part of the City? Given its location and the fast evolving Bristol Temple Quarter, the future looks very promising. Bristol is benefitting from the vision of Mayor George Ferguson and the Government and other Agencies promoting the South West of England over many years. Without their commitment and vision the Arena development would not have reached this stage.
The visuals of the building are dramatic and promise much, a beacon at night. As the winner of a well worked design competition, the Arena deserves to be a great success and with a team that combines Populus, FCB Studios and Buro Happold, it has the credentials and track record to deliver it.

Knightsbridge Barracks

To list or not to list? Demolish or retain, tall building or mid rise street. If you want a good case to reveal the full complexity of the listing process, the debate over tall buildings, heritage and the distinctiveness of place and its impact on development, it is hard to think of a single better case than the Knightsbridge Barracks.

The third Barracks on the site, completed to the designs of the significant mid 20th century architect Sir Basil Spence, from the start controversial, of undeniable significance architecturally, historically and of great importance  as a group of buildings on a severely constrained site, the complex, according to participants at the New London Architecture breakfast meeting , John Allen in particular, was pretty clear, it deserved listing.

If a similar scheme with a tall element were proposed today, John Walker of Westminster City Council Planning, was clear it would not be approved. Indeed he mentioned the removal of the tower as being an improvement to the skyline. Whilst not an advocate of tall buildings around the park, the Barracks unlike the Hilton or Lancaster Gate Hotels is a significant and distinctive landmark and its removal would be a step too far. However it is contrary to policy for development around the listed Park and conservation area no more tall buildings will be developed unless that policy changes, but of course this has no bearing on the question of listing.

But the listing aspect is only one part of a larger issue. The location of the monarch’s personal guard, the Blues and Royals the Household Cavalry within 30 minutes of the Queen is a critical part of the development equation as clearly pointed out by John Walker. To replace the existing Barracks requires a new location somewhere close by, in the most expensive real estate in London. This has been the stumbling block for every potential applicant discussing their proposals with the planners in Westminster.

So what is likely to happen? Perhaps some amendment of the rules and requirements set by the Government in terms of distance and riding time or a continuation of the barracks on site within a listed or unlisted complex? If the complex is listed, how will this affect the potential for change, the appetite of the development industry and the site’s value? John  Walker also said the City Council do not want another 1 Hyde Park with very few residents and apartments.

The campaign being run by the 20th Century Society ‘Say neigh to demolition’ has a long way to run and this is just the start.

Resilient Cities

The Royal Town Planning Institute are running a series of seminars to celebrate their 100 year anniversary. Resilient Cities sounded an attractive one to attend. The location at Arup’s head office in Fitzroy Street was an added attraction.

What would be the expected topics? – Global warming, flooding, energy system resilience, sustainable transport, food, air quality? Actually no, none of these really figured as the main subject matter. It focused on three areas. LOcal, regional and UK wide.

The local, Kings Cross redevelopment by Argent, interesting in its detail of the role of the community, the processes and emphasis on robust master planning and consultation, but actually little on the application to redevelopment in general and the challenges and perseverance required by the more creative developer in achieving better outcomes. There is much to learn from Argent’s experience and Anna Strongman gave a good account of the main areas of her involvement from Section 106 negotiations with Camden through to the extensive programmes and strategies in place, many as a result of those negotiations. It was interesting to detect her criticism of CIL as an alternative to S106 particularly when it comes to more complex development. It is dangerous to pick on one comment to exemplify her experiences but the statement that resilience is built through conversations struck a cord. It will be interesting to see if these continuing conversations can grow into the richness that city living can bring.

At a city/regional level, Tom Bridges outlined the experience of Leeds, where he is Chief Economic Development Officer. The clue is in the job title, economic and development. The focus was therefore more about the future for business resilience in Leeds.

Dividing his presentation into four sections: knowledge/innovation and economic development: poverty and low pay: Connectivity: Devolution Tom addressed key issues in a logical manner but the lessons of the last 100 years were largely lost. His view that Leeds should build on its strengths and avoid the danger of putting all its eggs in one basket is to say the least disappointing. There is poverty in Leeds and Leeds have worked with the Joseph Rowntree Trust to address this, but nothing really apart from the need to upskill and raise wages was mentioned, hardly novel but probably the subject of a much longer presentation. In terms of connectivity, There was an uncritical acceptance that HS2 would be a great thing without questioning whether it would be a drain from Leeds, and in spite of showing a plan, no mention of the remoteness of the HS2 station from the main one which is now apparently the largest/most important North of England. Whether investment in HS2 would sort out the poor connectivity between Northern cities was not addressed. The wider Leeds region with its population of over 3 million and an economy of £53bn deserves more control over its budget, but there was no sense of what the City would actually do with that extra spending power. Maybe it doesn’t know? In the whole talk there was no mention of Bradford, rivalries die hard?

Andrew Carter of the Centre for Cities gave a presentation on the development , rise and fall of UK towns and cities to show how the last 100+ years demonstrates that resilience is a dynamic process in which luck plays a part along with, the ability to rebound from shock, adapt to global and local changes in politics, policies, the economy.

Mapping the effects of changes over that 100 years is fascinating. Comparing the effects on New York and Pittsberg of the decline and fall of the garment trade and the entrepreneurial spirit of NY is interesting. The decline of one industry towns and cities repeats the lesson that Leeds is applying – not putting all your eggs in one basket. Citing the effect of the growth of cheap flights and foreign holidays on Blackpool and Margate is nothing new, populations move to where there are jobs. High skilled jobs cluster and boom, but lower skilled jobs are also expanding.

Providing a balanced economy is not helped by restricting housebuilding through constraint on development, but we should accept that Cities constrained from developing by green belts will inevitably become more expensive. The lessons of Cambridge releasing green belt land is important. At the moment the biggest drop in opportunity is in the mid scale and pay area for which read administration, secretarial and middle management – areas most threatened by automation and the ability to type this blog without calling on a secretary to do the technical bits. Everything changes but much remains the same? – is that really true? Picking winners doesn’t work but are struggling cities beyond salvation.

I conversations later I wondered whether a comparison of Bristol and Liverpool as two cities built on trade and specifically the slave trade can now be seen as polar opposites among the second tier 8 major cities in the UK. There is no doubt that Bristol is succeeding in a number of areas, had the foresight to elect a mayor, develop as a tech hub to rival London and achieve European Green Capital 2015, whilst Liverpool, notwithstanding its cultural excellence music, drama, football teams struggles to compete. Is there a lesson there?

So little mention of climate change and resilience, questions from the floor on energy solutions for cities and cycling met with blank stares. A complete refusal to debate the question of whether growth was necessarily a good thing was dismissed as total rubbish by Andrew Carter. Centre for Cities, a non partisan policy research unit, should have a more considered view on the challenges as well as the opportunities of growth.




London’s Council Housing

New London Architecture run a great and very well attended series of Breakfast meetings to discuss issues of interests Architects, Planners and other Built Environment professionals.

On Tuesday a full agenda with contributions from Council representatives and their designers presented inner and outer London Borough approaches to new models for more affordable homes and the revival of council housing.

Changes to regulations have helped Councils to start redeveloping their estates. Options of borrowing against the HRA or General fund, GLA/HCA subsidies and external European sources of funding and joint ventures were all outlined. Within the relatively short time for each presentation these inevitably had to be simply presented, the detail is far more complex.

Similarly delivery models ranging from direct developments where funding is available, joint ventures and outright disposal of non-core assets as a means of raising funds were discussed and outcomes presented.

Design responses to individual challenges in the Boroughs represented both in Central London areas (Camden, Westminster), and outer London (Barnet, Barking and Dagenham, Ealing), were, sensitive to place and good sense. Hilary Satchwell of Tibbalds working collaboratively in the Bourne Estate demonstrated the complexity and opportunities that exist in the centre of London, whilst Andrew Beharrel working in Barking and Dagenham, explained that their work impproving post-war mono cultural council estate housing was in the DNA of PTEa, who have been doing this sort of thing for years.

All schemes presented had to suffer the delays caused by the financial crisis which had no doubt put great strain on these relatively small businesses. All demonstrated that housing that provides long term quality and management is possible.

What lessons are there for the future roll out of affordable housing in London? The further loosening of financial constraints on development are needed from central government specifically the Treasury. As Stephen MacDonald, representing Barnet Re (part of a Council/Capita regeneration organisation – questions of how that works would take a separate meeting) said, If Council’s are to deliver more, whilst having to bear current 25% and future 25% cuts in central government funding, then lobby your MP not the Council.

Academy of Urbanism Congress – lessons for the next Mayor of London.

London needs a Mayor for all the people….That’s an obvious statement.

At the Academy of Urbanism congress two weeks ago, a powerful case was made for a Mayor that embraces change, doing things differently and for the benefit of the wider community.

Starting with George Ferguson, hosting the Congress in Bristol where as a non-party Mayor he has encouraged Bristol to embrace environmental sustainability, delivering energy and food, encouraging the local enterprise economy with the Bristol £ and has the support of the local political leaders “who leave their party politics outside the door of his cabinet”. He has a mandate to change and working as the only Mayor in the 8 major city grouping of cities outside London has taken the lead on green issues.

Reeling off the achievements and goals of his mayoralty makes for good sound-bites but they convince as part of an overall Citywide strategy. Above all they address everyday residential needs. Its true that the City has had to endure the cuts as well as any other city but from the awards being given to the city from Rockefeller, Bloomberg and above all the Green Capital of Europe 2015, after many years of planning.

During the day presentations from Sue Riddlestone, Wulf Daseking , Peter Lord, Herbert Girardet and Marcus Grant covered sustainability from the global to local, the value of a place that encourages an entrepreneurial spirit and the challenges of healthy living in the city.  The demands and short-termism that so often result from a misunderstanding of the critical issues being faced across the world.

A rousing and invigorating talk from the ex Mayor of Curitiba , a place that has faced the challenges of a booming population, limited resources but a Mayor that brought the can-do to politics was a refreshing way to end. Focusing on the urban infrastructure of buses in his city Jaime Lerner showed why the urban infrastructure of movement was so critical to the success of his city. Making the bus your friend, with one a minute, when the city cannot afford to build a subway system. The car that drinks a lot and coughs a lot, the cigarette of the future. His three principles of innovation, practicality and simplicity making the difference. A city of structure and design. A planned city one might add and one that the children can comprehend.

Which brought us back to where George Ferguson had started – making children the heart of the city, with every child planting a tree for the future of the city.

NLA Director Peter Murray talks tall buildings

Peter Murray talks tall buildings.

Peter Murray’s New London Architecture has organised an excellent exhibition at the Building Centre, Store Street on the future of London’s skyline focussing on the 240+ existing and planned tall buildings in the capital. Presenting the subject earlier today, Peter stressed that it seemed that nobody elected and in authority (though GLA planners dispute this) knew there were so many buildings of over 20 storeys planned, where they were and how they will impact upon the skyline and the ground level of the city.

Recounting the many changes over the recent past two aspects struck me as being critical.

First – buildings evolve and adapt to changing demands over time. Will the tall residential development may offer little flexibility for the future of living in the city? The best residential buildings can update themselves (Trellick Tower) , the worst (system built – Ronan Point) fail catastrophically or are demolished. However many recent developments have been poorly constructed, of no architectural quality and without an overall master plan that considers the immediate locality, streets, environmental conditions. Commercial buildings are now being converted through permitted development rights without due consideration of their suitability. Commercial space is being lost and designs originally conceived for one form of occupation has throughout time had to adapt. The Gerkin, Natwest tower being two example quoted. What is the long term fate of these many new tall buildings?

Second – tall buildings and specifically those that contain numerous privately owned, often rented flats are likely to have to stand very much longer than commercial developments which can be removed for higher value opportunities. If the market rules, truly affordable homes, at affordable not unaffordable rents are no longer developed save in very limited numbers. The heart of London is being hollowed out so that London can ‘compete’ in the global economy, but that hollowing out will be the death of an attractive city.

Lessons from abroad in unduly conservationist Paris, or in New York where rights are being traded across plots so that extremely tall, high value apartment buildings trading on the values that height brings can be built are not encouraging. It is probably too late to adopt Vancouver’s planned approach ‘Vancouverism’ that both limits height to specific areas but encourages a visually coherent and environmentally positive city.  It would also require a political and culture shift.

So where does that lead. Opportunity areas of which there are so many that one wonders what is not an opportunity seek a planned solution. The evidence from the largest is that planning is taking a back seat in the face of overwhelming development pressure.

Rowan Moore in his recent excellent articles for the Observer has opened up an issue that won’t go away. It has drawn to the attention of politicians the impact that piecemeal decisions are making to our city. Trying to square development that funds so much of the city’s infrastructure, achieving quality of design and environment, fighting ever increasing competition for land with soaring values, whilst trying to provide homes for a rapidly increasing population who want to live and work in a successful city whose  global city status is a big ask.

One which demands solutions that are more radical than what is currently on the menu.

Google Kings Cross HQ

In the week that Twitter went public and doubled its share price in a day (journalistic exaggeration), what was Google up to? It decided to reconsider its design for the new HQ in Kings Cross.

Simon Allford of AHMM crossed the world for a 10 minute meeting with Larry Page, according to BD Boots, that’s 550 miles travel for every minute of the meeting. This is an opportunity to open up the larger questions of connectivity across King’s Cross and beyond and an opportunity for Google to demonstrate  local as well as global contributions to society. To show some of that old but not dead concept of patronage.

Following the 19th and 20th century philanthropists, what will Google’s response be? What will a redesign do? It may move a limited market forward, but does it provide anything of lasting value. A new park constructed over the railway tracks, green space in an area of green deprivation, pedestrian and cycle links from the Regent Quarter to the fast emerging Argent developments between the tracks of St Pancras and Kings Cross could do.

Someone suggested a new Exchange Square. Twitter was at work here, thanks to Michael Edwards for starting the debate. But Exchange Square is a glorified private office court masquerading as a public space. A new local park is a gift that has lasting value.

The images are from a competition entry for Luxembourg Gare  – a park over the tracks linking two sides of the City. Urban design by Matthias Wunderlich and Simon Carne (Urban Initiatives team)


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Retrofit and the RIBA President

The AJ Retrofit award should be a highlight of the architectural year. First it deals with the bread and butter of an architectural practice as well as the large scale projects. It is all about context, constraints and lasting solutions. This year the winners are no exceptions to these challenges and whilst they lack the really big projects of recent times, there is so much to learn from them.

Stephen Hodder has just taken up his role as President of the RIBA. He knows about Retrofit. Retrofit is all about giving a building a second or maybe third chance. The first initiative of his two year position seem to be seeking evidence for “good design improving lives” as a justification to sell the services of architects to a possibly disbelieving client. This is not a new area of research as others such as the Useable Buildings Trust have pointed out. And if Stephen Hodder is not aware of this I would be amazed.

Whilst there are design deniers in some departments of Government, is this the best way to promote good design? Paul Morrell, at a CABE event a couple of years ago, said that the Government wanted design to a standard that was not excellent, but “good enough”, effectively endorsing Michael Gove’s agenda for schools. Coming from someone with Paul’s track record and experience, this was a powerful and depressing message. I hope it will not be the result of the President’s initiative.

Planning major infrastructure

London Heathrow: the future

Options for a new hub airport for London come in thick and fast. Today it’s the turn of Heathrow to come up with a third or maybe a third and and fourth new runway concept. Earlier this week it was all estuary, Grain Island or possibly Stansted with Foster, Make, Atkins/Hadid battling it out to be Boris’s preferred option. No doubt the Committee empowered to review these options will be thinking beyond the images and consider the views of those directly affected, but it will be the big interests that determine the outcome.

Whatever the outcome there does seem to be some logic in proceeding with this process even if it ends up being a re-run of the 1970’s when Maplin was ditched for Stansted. Can these lessons be applied to the second major infrastructure debate?

HS2: fundamental review

The other hot infrastructure topic, HS2 rolls on, this time with the paving bill in Parliament. HS2 have already racked up significant fees on developing a back of envelope concept but now it seems that real money is needed despite the growing calls for reconsideration through to all out scrapping. Disruption to cities and countryside is inevitable with major projects and yet this one seems to have got off on the wrong foot spectacularly. It seeks to re-balance the economy with a single fast train service that all evidence suggests will draw people down to London rather than the reverse. Its environmental damage to the country and city is too significant to be ignored. The major cities Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds may get the benefit of a service but other cities in greater need in the East Midlands, North West, North East, East, South West and West get little or no benefit. Transport is a network of connections and this proposal makes limited contribution to the overall connectivity at great cost and over a very long timescale.

Above all the project has not been investigated from an agreed starting point. What is it trying to achieve, first it was speed until that was shown to be of limited benefit, then regeneration, then capacity or a mix of all three to justify the need. The objectors have picked off these arguments skillfully but there is no dialogue between design and politics and until there is the two sides will continue to fight.

The country cannot stop infrastructure development because it is difficult and complete acceptance across all interest groups is unachievable, but this project does seem to be heading in the direction of no benefit for anyone beyond a few with generous expense accounts and no time to switch off.