Is it quicker to build homes on large sites, or small?

Too slow, guys. Image: Getty.

The associate director of planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners explains why large new housing sites aren’t a silver bullet.

Most people now agree that we need to build significantly more homes than we currently do – and the government wants planning to think big in how it goes about achieving this objective.

With its “locally-led” garden towns and villages agenda, and last December’s consultation on proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework to encourage new settlements, local planning authorities and developers are being encouraged to look closely at bringing forward large-scale housing development projects.

On paper, this emphasis on large sites is useful: with just one site of several thousands of homes, a district can meet a significant proportion of its housing requirement. Moreover, their sheer size can stimulate the local economy and drive innovation as the site and infrastructure are developed.

However, large sites are not a silver bullet. Their scale and complexity mean that they take time to plan and require significant upfront capital investment. Furthermore, there is a need to be realistic about how quickly they can deliver new homes – such sites are not immune to the challenges and risks of the market.

Our latest research report, Start to Finish, analyses the lead-in times, planning period and delivery phases of housing sites. Here are our key findings.


Planning period

Before any homes can be built on-site, an outline or full planning application needs to be submitted and planning permission (followed by reserved matters approval for outline applications) has to be granted. A Section 106 obligation will generally need to be entered into. Pre-commencement conditions need to be discharged before any development start on-site. 

Our research shows that both the planning period (from application to decision), and the period of time between permission being granted and the first home being built, depends on the complexity of the site, which frequently correlates with its size.

And the larger the site, the longer the planning application determination period. Sites outside of London of between 100 and 499 units take, on average, 2.5 years – at least half the time required for sites of over 1,000 units – reflecting differing levels of site complexity.

By contrast, smaller sites take longer to deliver the first home after planning approval. This period of development takes just over 18 months for sites – outside of London – of under 500 units; but, perhaps surprisingly, this is significantly quicker on larger sites – in particular, on the largest 2,000+ dwelling sites, the time period from planning to first completion was under a year. This could be because larger sites may more often have larger housebuilders on board by the time an implementable permission is secured, thus be able to mobilise resources quicker.

Planning period by site size. Source: NLP analysis.

Housing delivery rates

It is widely recognised that build rates on sites are dictated by the number of sales outlets and market absorption rates. Self-evidently, large sites will frequently have more than one housebuilder building and selling homes. The larger the site, the greater the number of different housebuilders on-site and the faster the delivery rate. 

Based on our research, we found that, on average, sites of 100 to 1,000 units will typically deliver 60 units each year, while sites of 2,000 or more will deliver over 160 units per annum.

However, it is worth noting that while larger sites have a higher delivery rate due to the number of additional outlets, they take longer to plan and start on-site. There is also significant variation from the average: some sites can be quicker, others slower. And there are fluctuations from year to year.

Housing delivery by site size. Source: NLP analysis.

Our analysis shows that markets really do matter for housing delivery rates. Using estimates of land value with residential planning permissions at local authority level – as a proxy for market demand and economic strength – relatively stronger markets tend to have higher delivery rates.

This raises an important point about absorption rates: in stronger areas, housebuilders are able to build homes at a faster rate and sell them at the value they expect.

Housing delivery rates and market strength. Source: NLP analysis.

Where viable, housing sites with a larger proportion of affordable homes deliver more quickly. For both large and small-scale sites, developments with 40 per cent or more affordable housing have a build rate that is around 50 per cent higher, compared to developments with less than 10 per cent affordable housing.

The relationship between affordable housing provision and delivery rate is complex and rests on a variety of factors including viability and the level of grant or subsidy available to housing associations. On large sites, securing affordable housing “sales” can benefit housebuilder cash flow by providing financial certainty, which can be beneficial, particularly early on in a larger scale development.

However, it does demonstrate that – where viable – a tenure mix that extends beyond just housing for sale can help overcome the natural limitations associated with absorption rates. So the introduction of self-build and private rented properties might similarly increase rates of development.

Affordable housing provision and housing delivery. Source: NLP analysis.

If we are serious about achieving the Government’s target of one million homes built by 2020 – or indeed, deliver the 300,0000 per year that are needed – we need to recognise that it is about much more than just having a headline number of units in plan allocations or with planning permission. We need to understand trajectories of development: the length of time it takes for sites to come forward and the rate at which they deliver homes.

Every site is different, and there is a need for local authorities to understand the barriers and drivers of delivery in their area, seek to allocate appropriate housing sites in response and then closely monitor their progress.

Joe Sarling is associate director of planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners. This article was originally posted on the firm’s blog

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How do North Koreans get to work? A guide to transport in the DPRK

Buhung station, on the Pyongyang Metro. Image: Jodie Hill.

Like so much else in North Korea, the country’s transport can be divided into categories: Pyongyang and not Pyongyang.

In the capital, centrally-run transportation is, compared to other extremely poor countries, efficient, cheap and well maintained. Outside Pyongyang, by contrast, the state has withered away – albeit not quite as Marx imagined it would. The near total collapse of state run transport infrastructure has left room for a wide range of enterprising North Koreans to make their living in the transport sector – provided, of course, a chunk of those proceeds makes its way back to the party.

So how do North Koreans get around Pyongyang?  

Here’s a homemade map of the city’s transport section:

A homemade map of the Pyongyang transport sector. Image: Michael Hill.

Some notes on all this. The names for Subway stations are translations of the Korean names, but bear no relation to their location. I filled in the (unnamed) trolley bus and tram stop names myself, with reference local landmarks; in fact, those systems both stop way more than my map implies.

What’s more, the Gwangmyeong/Bright Future station is closed, and has been for years – out of respect for Kim Jeong Il and Kim Il Sung who are in a nearby mausoleum, which used to be Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang pad. The tramline to Gwangmyeong/Bright Future is also not really part of the public transport network, but is just for visitors to the mausoleum.

Getting about

A subway ticket costs just 5 North Korean Won (9,500 won to the dollar at black market rates). If you need to transfer you will have to buy another ticket, there are no travelcards or season tickets. You can check the best way to get where you are going at most stations (possibly all) contain interactive maps.

Pyongyang subway interactive map. Image: Jodie Hill.

Just press the name of the station you wish to travel to from the list along the bottom, and the route from your current station to your destination lights up. This may or may not be overkill for a network with just two lines and 16 stations.

Incidentally, the logo has the word 지 (ji) which is the first syllable of 지하 (jiha) which means underground. The title just means “Information board”, and the question is, ‘Where are you going?’

Some stations are 360ft (110m) deep, double the depth of the deepest station (Hampstead) on the London Underground.

The escalators at Buhung/Revival station escalator. Image: Jodie Hill.

While this bomb shelter might be useful one day, for now it just means Pyongyangites add ten minutes to their planned journey time – which encourages many people to take the tram or trolley bus instead. When you finally get down to the platform you won’t have long to wait – at most 5 minutes during peak times, 10 minutes off peak.

The North Korean government never misses a chance to propagandise: every station has a theme. For example the station name Gaeson means “Triumphant Return”; it’s situated near where Kim Il-Sung gave his first speech as ruler. Inside the murals depict crowds attentively listening to him. The style is not dissimilar to the grandeur of subways in the former Soviet Union, but with much less emphasis on the workers and modernist art and a lot more on the rulers.

The trains themselves were made in West Germany in the 1950s and 60s. There are allegedly some new trains – but they look suspiciously like their older counterparts given a lick of paint and an electronic information board. The old East German stock has been moved onto the national rail network. While these days powercuts are much rarer than in the 1990s (when, for long periods of the day, the subway didn’t operate at all), a torch and something to read might be advised just in case you get stuck.

The central figure is Kim Il-Sung. Image: Jodie Hill.

The ‘showcase’ station is Buhung (“Revival”):

Images: Jodie Hill.

The others are much the same only without the chandeliers and with much dimmer lights.

Above ground

While electricity is hardly plentiful in North Korea, compared to oil it is pretty abundant. Therefore, buses have gradually been phased out: now trolley buses and trams then form the backbone of the transit network in Pyongyang. As regular as the subway, but with a bigger network and not requiring a long escalator ride – or walk, as the escalators often break down – this is the most popular way to travel around Pyongyang.

The ticket price is again just 5 won (about 0.4p). The trolley bus vehicles were mostly manufactured domestically, while the trams are second hand from communist era Prague. Power cuts are much more frequent on the trolley buses and trams than on the subway: passengers on an affected service are expected to push.

The rail network is rarely used for commuting. Even for those way out in the plush satellite town of Ryeongsong (at the far north of the map, and home of Kim Jong-Un and many other top party cadres), those not high enough ranked for a car take the trolleybus rather than the train to commute to work.

Venturing out of the capital, the official transport network shows signs of near collapse. As far as I am aware, the only other city with a tram network is Chongjin, but it’s hardly extensive – a one line system, eight miles long. It suffers from much more regular power cuts than its Pyongyang counterpart, and relies on hand me down trains from the capital. Many cities have a trolley bus service on paper – but most have no service at all or, at best, a skeleton peak hours service only.

The national rail network is worse. Before you can even get a ticket you must apply for permission – a process that can take days – though nowadays this can be circumvented with a bribe. Tickets are cheap, usually just a few hundred won (a few pence), but with frequent power cuts, journeys take even longer than the 12mph average speed suggests they will. While Kim Jong-Un’s travel habits are unknown, both his father and grandfather liked to travel by private train, and this would lead delays of 24 hours for people travelling in the same area. Freight takes priority over passenger rail, and virtually the entire network is single track and with no sophisticated signalling equipment, meaning trains often have to wait for a long time to let others pass.

A map of the network. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

As a result of these problems lot of passenger traffic has moved onto the roads. Enterprising Koreans who have obtained licenses, as well as state operated enterprises (particularly people associated with the police), have bought second hand buses from China and now use them for inter-city transport.

Reports vary about whether travel permits are required for bus travel, and about how hard they are to obtain. Prices fluctuate due to changes in the oil price and vary wildly by region. A journey from Nampo to Pyongyang (about 30 miles) costs $5. A journey of similar length between two cities in the north east costs around $15, while in the north west just $2.

Journeys are not comfortable. North Korean roads are often unpaved, always potholed, and the buses were not in great condition even when they left China. Nevertheless they link the emerging market economy together.  

North Korea road map:

A map of the network. Blue routes are all paved, others mostly unpaved or paved a very long time ago. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

For shorter journeys, taxis are now an option in most medium sized cities and even in some rural areas. There are at least four taxi companies operating these days in Pyongyang.

North Korean won won’t get you very far though: taxi drivers want dollars (two of them), to take you anywhere plus another 50 cents for every kilometer you travel, about three times the cost as in North East China. The only network outside Pyongyang I know in detail is one run by a state-owned enterprise in Chongjin, which recently imported dozens of almost new taxis from China. Payment is accepted in North Korean won, Chinese RMB and US dollars; a 10 minute journey costs 1 dollar.

Taxis are beyond the means of most North Koreans, though. The backbone of North Korea’s transport infrastructure is formed by bikes.


Bicycles were illegal in Pyongyang until 1992, and this ban was strictly enforced – but since it was lifted, bike use has really taken off. In smaller towns they often serve as a status symbol as much as transport, much as cars do for many in the west. The wealthiest now ride electric assisted bikes imported from China, though the Ford of North Korea is the Pyongjin bike company, which has cornered 70% of the market according to the leading North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

It is still technically illegal for a woman to ride a bike, but this ban is not strictly enforced. (I know of one woman who used to ride her technically illegal bike to her technically illegal small business, a bicycle repair shop.) Legally, every bike needs a license plate, and each rider needs take a test and get a license – but this too is mostly unenforced.

It is illegal to ride on North Korea’s mostly empty roads. This ban is not enforced in most cities, but is in Pyongyang, where the government has started creating cycle paths on the pavements as well as a bike hire scheme. If you can’t afford a bike yourself, a ‘bicycle carrier’ will give you a lift for about five US cents per kilometre – although, like a land based Ryanair, you have to pay more for bags. Both customers and workers in this sector tend to be very poor.

North Korea’s transport mirrors the North Korean economy. Pyongyang just about manages to present itself as a communist city. Outside the capital, though, secret policeman, state-operated enterprises and sole traders make a living – and sometimes a fortune – keeping the country moving among the remains of a communist economy which never delivered.

With thanks to Michael Spavor of Paektu Cultural Exchange and Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours for helpful conversations.  

Michael Hill wants you to be his third twitter follower so you can see more versions of the Pyongyang transport map.