Have minimum density requirements led to a proliferation of high-rise poky flats, growth of the buy-to-let market and reduced the ability of first time buyers to step on the housing ladder? I’m not disputing that these things have happened, but is it really all the fault of poor Mr Density?
First of all, lets take a look at the average density of schemes completed across the country. Recent research by the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit shows that between 1996 and 2006 the average density of new build schemes increased from 25 to 41 units to the hectare. Given the minimum density guidance is 30 units to the hectare is this really a problem? London is different: the average here has crept up to 84 units to the hectare (although down from a high in 2004 of 97 units to the hectare). So is this a London-centric issue? Maybe, maybe not. The London Plan density matrix, derived from the excellent SRQ (Sustainable Residential Quality) research work for LPAC back in the late-90’s demonstrated that through a design-led approach to housing, high quality, attractive, liveable places could be created that, sharp intake of breath, were also of a density optimising and making most efficient use of the land, reflecting local conditions.
The SRQ work and many subsequent reports and research papers sought to break the myth that high density meant high rise, and that high density automatically equated to poor quality design and living environments. One only need look at some of the most highly desirable parts of the capital to know this is patently not true. And even in the London suburbs, the subdivision of the Victorian housing stock has changed the demographics and dynamics of the area, but without impacting on the quality of the urban form.
So what is the point here: it is that density can not be blamed for the creation of poky, poor quality flats and the often transient nature of communities that result. What is perhaps more important than focussing solely on the issue of density is that of design. A more rigorous approach and understanding of places, scale and structure would have helped to achieve a better product. As would the full use of powers to refuse developments on design grounds and only insist on the very best response for that site. The focus on the numbers game as the primary objective of planning has also been a major problem: the rush to achieve housing targets has gone hand in hand with falling design standards and, dare I say it, greater profitability for the developer.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing though. Rather than a knee-jerk reaction to density policy what should we be doing now to make a difference? We need to focus on what a place should be like rather than just achieving numbers. We should think about different housing typologies and models, including those that are flexible and adaptable to changing demographics and family structures over time, we should insist on decent size standards and, particularly in the current economic climate where there is real pressure to get things moving, we should be strong enough to say no to poor design.