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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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.