Here are three planning problems currently crippling London – and some ideas on how to fix them

St. Paul’s, views of which matter more to policymakers than your ability to afford a house. Image: Getty.

London’s huge success as a place to live and do business has brought with it an overheated property market and sky high prices. And this has as much to do with planning as a lack of development.

London clearly needs to provide more residential and office space. Its housing market is already among the least affordable in the country (an average house is worth almost 17 times the average annual salary of a Londoner), and commercial prices are 2.3 times higher than the national average. And as the population is likely to grow by another 70,000 inhabitants each year, without speedy action, the situation will only get worse.

There are a number of planning policies that restrict urban growth and threaten the development of the capital. With demand to locate in London unlikely to abate any time soon, these policies increasingly threaten the economic success of the city, and the benefits they bring to the city are becoming questionable.

1. Protected sightlines

There are a number of protected panoramas, linear views, townscape views and other river prospects that cross over the capital. Many of them converge on St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament, which makes tall buildings particularly difficult to develop in some parts of central London, despite being sought-after locations for businesses.

But protected sightlines can cause problems for development even beyond the restrictions. Last year locals from Richmond (south-west of London) protested against the approved building of a 42-storey tower in Stratford (which is about 18 miles away) on the grounds that, by appearing behind the Cathedral, it was damaging the protected view from Richmond Park to St. Paul’s.

2. The green belt

The green belt restricts land supply in the capital by preventing the city from expanding outwards. But containing growth within the city does not necessarily make it more compact. As our research shows, housing demand leapfrogs to the other side of the green belt, generating longer commutes and, ironically, higher environmental costs.

3. Permitted development rights

Contrary to the two previous points, permitted development rights (PDR) relax rather than restrict development, but this can create as many problems as it solves. Put simply, one feature of PDR is that it makes it easier to convert commercial space into residential units. In London, take-up of PDR has been high in some boroughs, with more than 10 per cent of the existing office stock in Sutton and Lewisham being converted into residential space since the policy was introduced in 2014, as shown on the map below.

Source: MHCLG, 2018; VOA, 2018. Note that the centre of London is exempted from permitted development rights which explains the null or low take up.

It is true that PDR conversions help to increase the housing stock in the capital. But where demand is very high, it can also threaten viable office space, in particular for smaller or more affordable premises, and can even disrupt the night time economy. That the London Plan encourages local authorities to apply for PDR exemption indicates the potential danger of the policy.

A fresh view on planning policies

Individually, all these policies have flaws, and collectively they make the task for London extremely difficult. The capital needs more houses and more offices, but there are no plans to build outwards – the mayor is committed not to build on the green belt – and there are restrictions on building upwards. This creates a shortage of available land for development, increasing land value and creating competition between residential and commercial uses – competition that usually flips in favour of residential use because of PDR.

In order to deliver more developments and respect its planning commitments, London’s current strategy is to densify and redevelop land, which in theory would allow the city to provide more houses and more office space without extending out. This is a welcome and necessary strategy, but it is unlikely to deliver enough to meet the urgent growth needs because densifying is difficult and takes time to achieve.


The best proof of this is that, by pursuing this strategy almost exclusively in recent years, London has consistently failed to meet its housing targets. Last year London boroughs delivered about 39,600 net new dwellings, below the existing target of 49,000 set up by the current London Plan, and significantly lower than the new 2017 Strategic Housing Market Assessment target of 66,000 per year.

So as pressure increases year on year, planning restrictions can no longer be preserved. The green belt and protected sightlines were created decades ago, at a time when land pressure was considerably less acute. But while the social and environmental considerations that led to implementing them at the time are more important than ever today, other social considerations – such as the right to affordable housing – must now be considered too.

In particular, strategic reviews of the green belt should be conducted with regards to current needs, and to subsequently release a limited, controlled amount of land for development. Given the context, this is the only way to provide enough new homes, preserve adequate commercial space and sustain London’s economy.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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Uncertainty is the new normal: the case for resilience in infrastructure

Members of the New York Urban Search and Rescue Task Force One help evacuate people from their homes in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in September 2018. Image: Getty.

The most recent international report on climate change paints a picture of disruption to society unless there are drastic and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. And although it’s early days, some cities and municipalities are starting to recognise that past conditions can no longer serve as reasonable proxies for the future.

This is particularly true for America’s infrastructure. Highways, water treatment facilities and the power grid are at increasing risk to extreme weather events and other effects of a changing climate.

The problem is that most infrastructure projects, including the Trump administration’s infrastructure revitalisation plan, typically ignore the risks of climate change.

In our work researching sustainability and infrastructure, we encourage and are starting to shift toward designing man-made infrastructure systems with adaptability in mind.

Designing for the past

Infrastructure systems are the front line of defense against flooding, heat, wildfires, hurricanes and other disasters. City planners and citizens often assume that what is built today will continue to function in the face of these hazards, allowing services to continue and to protect us as they have done so in the past. But these systems are designed based on histories of extreme events.

Pumps, for example, are sized based on historical precipitation events. Transmission lines are designed within limits of how much power they can move while maintaining safe operating conditions relative to air temperatures. Bridges are designed to be able to withstand certain flow rates in the rivers they cross. Infrastructure and the environment are intimately connected.

Now, however, the country is more frequently exceeding these historical conditions and is expected to see more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Said another way, because of climate change, natural systems are now changing faster than infrastructure.

How can infrastructure systems adapt? First let’s consider the reasons infrastructure systems fail at extremes:

  • The hazard exceeds design tolerances. This was the case of Interstate 10 flooding in Phoenix in fall 2014, where the intensity of the rainfall exceeded design conditions.

  • During these times there is less extra capacity across the system: When something goes wrong there are fewer options for managing the stressor, such as rerouting flows, whether it’s water, electricity or even traffic.

  • We often demand the most from our infrastructure during extreme events, pushing systems at a time when there is little extra capacity.

Gradual change also presents serious problems, partly because there is no distinguishing event that spurs a call to action. This type of situation can be especially troublesome in the context of maintenance backlogs and budget shortfalls which currently plague many infrastructure systems. Will cities and towns be lulled into complacency only to find that their long-lifetime infrastructure are no longer operating like they should?

Currently the default seems to be securing funding to build more of what we’ve had for the past century. But infrastructure managers should take a step back and ask what our infrastructure systems need to do for us into the future.


Agile and flexible by design

Fundamentally new approaches are needed to meet the challenges not only of a changing climate, but also of disruptive technologies.

These include increasing integration of information and communication technologies, which raises the risk of cyberattacks. Other emerging technologies include autonomous vehicles and drones as well as intermittent renewable energy and battery storage in the place of conventional power systems. Also, digitally connected technologies fundamentally alter individuals’ cognition of the world around us: consider how our mobile devices can now reroute us in ways that we don’t fully understand based on our own travel behavior and traffic across a region.

Yet our current infrastructure design paradigms emphasise large centralized systems intended to last for decades and that can withstand environmental hazards to a preselected level of risk. The problem is that the level of risk is now uncertain because the climate is changing, sometimes in ways that are not very well-understood. As such, extreme events forecasts may be a little or a lot worse.

Given this uncertainty, agility and flexibility should be central to our infrastructure design. In our research, we’ve seen how a number of cities have adopted principles to advance these goals already, and the benefits they provide.

A ‘smart’ tunnel in Kuala Lumpur is designed to supplement the city’s stormwater drainage system. Image: David Boey/creative commons.

In Kuala Lampur, traffic tunnels are able to transition to stormwater management during intense precipitation events, an example of multifunctionality.

Across the U.S., citizen-based smartphone technologies are beginning to provide real-time insights. For instance, the CrowdHydrology project uses flooding data submitted by citizens that the limited conventional sensors cannot collect.

Infrastructure designers and managers in a number of U.S. locations, including New York, Portland, Miami and Southeast Florida, and Chicago, are now required to plan for this uncertain future – a process called roadmapping. For example, Miami has developed a $500m plan to upgrade infrastructure, including installing new pumping capacity and raising roads to protect at-risk oceanfront property.

These competencies align with resilience-based thinking and move the country away from our default approaches of simply building bigger, stronger or more redundant.

Planning for uncertainty

Because there is now more uncertainty with regard to hazards, resilience instead of risk should be central to infrastructure design and operation in the future. Resilience means systems can withstand extreme weather events and come back into operation quickly.

Microgrid technology allows individual buildings to operate in the event of a broader power outage and is one way to make the electricity system more resilient. Image: Amy Vaughn/U.S. Department of Energy/creative commons.

This means infrastructure planners cannot simply change their design parameter – for example, building to withstand a 1,000-year event instead of a 100-year event. Even if we could accurately predict what these new risk levels should be for the coming century, is it technically, financially or politically feasible to build these more robust systems?

This is why resilience-based approaches are needed that emphasise the capacity to adapt. Conventional approaches emphasise robustness, such as building a levee that is able to withstand a certain amount of sea level rise. These approaches are necessary but given the uncertainty in risk we need other strategies in our arsenal.

For example, providing infrastructure services through alternative means when our primary infrastructure fail, such as deploying microgrids ahead of hurricanes. Or, planners can design infrastructure systems such that when they fail, the consequences to human life and the economy are minimised.

The Netherlands has changed its system of dykes and flood management in certain areas to better sustain flooding.

This is a practice recently implemented in the Netherlands, where the Rhine delta rivers are allowed to flood but people are not allowed to live in the flood plain and farmers are compensated when their crops are lost.

Uncertainty is the new normal, and reliability hinges on positioning infrastructure to operate in and adapt to this uncertainty. If the country continues to commit to building last century’s infrastructure, we can continue to expect failures of these critical systems, and the losses that come along with them.

The Conversation

Mikhail Chester, Associate Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering, Arizona State University; Braden Allenby, President's Professor and Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Arizona State University, and Samuel Markolf, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, Arizona State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.