We need a policy rethink on how changes to housing density assumptions can stop urban sprawl.
In 2010, after several years of study and debate, the UK’s Government Office for Science published Land Use Futures: making the most of land in the 21st century. The product of a major exercise in evidence-gathering and analysis (including a very minor contribution of my own ), it had the bad luck to hit Whitehall desks just as the 2010 general election led to a coalition government that preferred a market-driven framework for land use planning. But the project remains a thorough and important study.
The report identifies a set of sectoral pressures on land, often in conflict, which require to be managed if – to take three examples – natural resources are not to be depleted, food production capacity is to be sustained and house price inflation moderated. These pressures are land for: water resources, conservation, agriculture, woodlands and forestry, flood risk management, energy infrastructure, residential and commercial development, transport infrastructure and recreation. Of these, built development including transport infrastructure has the biggest irreversible impact on the natural environment.
Some development is inevitable, if only because we have a serious housing shortage. The choices are about the location and nature of that development. As noted in my post The Compact City, these choices are political rather than technical. Compact development has many advantages: less land-take, easy access to services and recreation, less dependence on transport, and so on. But planning for compactness, at least in relation to housing, rapidly leads into talking about housing density, and this is tricky territory.
The Land Use Future study concluded that we don’t like high density housing:
Housing densities [in England] are increasing (up from 25 dwellings/hectare in 2002 to over 40 in 2007), and houses are becoming smaller. New houses in the UK are now amongst the smallest in Europe, despite strong evidence that people generally dislike living at high density .
Housing density in Exeter
The evidence underpinning the conclusion that people don’t like high density housing appears to have influenced Exeter City Council’s own planning policies. A supplementary planning document (SPD)  states:
The City Council requires development which is efficient in land use terms but which also creates an attractive, city-living, environment. Recent trends in house building have seen the development of some dwellings which are far too small to be sustainable ( Introduction, para VI).
Reality does not always match the aspiration. The SPD sets out minimum space requirements according to the number of bedrooms and occupants . These may not be adhered to in the face of opposition from a forceful developer. For example, a planning application for 148 new houses at what is now Hill Barton Vale initially proposed a substantial number of 2-bed houses with a gross internal floor area (GIA) of 58m² although the GIA for the smallest 2 storey house type in the Council’s SPD is 83m². Negotiations with the planning department led to the housebuilder agreeing to increase the houses to just under 68m², a proposal accepted by councillors even though the space allocation was still 18% below the Council’s requirements .
This anecdote is not to knock the planning department. The housebuilder argued that the SPD was requiring higher space standards than emerging national guidance, and would in all probability have won an appeal against a refusal by the Council. But it does suggest that the guidance may not be giving enough weight to another of its stated goals, where it summarises the policy requirement as follows:
….for high quality, sustainable housing developments which are of sufficient density to represent efficient use of land and contribute positively to urban renewal (Design Objectives, para 1.1)
Note the acknowledgement of the importance of density.
If towns and cities are going to respond to meeting housing need other than by sprawling outwards, this suggests we need to rethink assumptions about density. The conclusion that people don’t like high density is not sacrosanct; and it may not even be sound. Could it be that the dislike of high density housing identified in the studies cited in the Land Use Futures report – most of which are now over 10 years old – have softened as the difficulties in funding a house purchase have become more acute? Of course high density living has negative connotations, based on history. 1960s tower blocks destroyed communities and blighted whole areas. There is little enthusiasm for them, and cultural resistance is still probably too great for them to be part of a widespread solution.
However, density in parts of the St Leonards district of Exeter reaches 82 dph , yet the district is so sought-after that house prices automatically acquire a hefty St Leonards premium. Over the river there doesn’t appear to be any difficulty in selling or renting apartments without gardens but which are on or close to the river, canal or quays. Further afield, mansion flats in central London have long been prized, despite past problems with management companies. Location, location.
In fact, examples of high density living are found all over Exeter. The streets of narrow terrace houses in Newtown give rise to community spirit: three years ago, many of the residents of Portland Street got together to turn the street into a giant Advent calendar . Across the city, larger terrace houses have been divided into flats, to increase population density. At Shilhay, by the eastern quayside, some 150 dwellings were built in the 1980s on a site of no more than half a hectare, but their design is so good as to attract plaudits in the Devon volume of Pevsner .
Yet new developments on the edges of the city are being planned as if high density is an evil to be contained. The partially completed major residential development at Newcourt – planned to accommodate some 3,500 dwellings – is based on a range of densities in the Newcourt Masterplan from 45 dph to 55 dph. The other major development – the Monkerton and Hill Barton scheme – is predicted to have a greater range of densities. According to the masterplan (page 51) the range is from a high of +65 dph to a minimum of 35 dph. Again, however, reality is different: the planning permission for 350 houses around Tithebarn Lane in Monkerton assumes an average density of 28 dph . Scarce land is being developed at densities less than assumed in the original development plans, and this raises doubts as to whether the 65 dph target will be achieved.
The question for the city’s planning policy is whether to be bolder about promoting high density housing in more places and develop positive new policies which make it work.
National policy, such as it is, is moving towards supporting high density housing around “commuter hubs” but a consultation on the issue has not so far been translated into policy. This builds on work carried out for the Greater London Authority’s 2011 Spatial Development Strategy, which assesses different variables – including public transport capacity – to indicate acceptable densities on development sites. The other variables are: the local context and character of different urban areas; and the number of habitable rooms per unit .
The GLA’s approach is seen as having limitations and research by Paul Clarke has suggested a different approach, which bases density policy around four principles . These are (and I quote):
- Intensity: the measure of an urban environment’s socio-economic needs. Density policy and use classification may restrict the appropriate mix and provision of spaces in urban areas and a new typology that reflects the current conditions of people’s behaviour and user needs is required.
- Amenity: the measure of an urban environment’s demographic needs. There is a need to measure household characteristics, diversity and user needs in separate urban areas.
- Autonomy: the measure of an urban environment’s democratic needs. Aligning user needs with the local provision of employment and services by improving consultation can feed into what communities view as suitable type and density of a development in an urban area.
- Frequency: the measure of an urban environment’s dynamic and mobile population. This examines the need for accessible mobility for transport uses in urban areas. Density policy should take into account accessibility to public transport
Food for thought. As the CPRE briefing note points out:
Despite the criticisms of the London Density Matrix, other urban areas in England can investigate the creation of similar density guidelines formed around the variables of urban context, public transport capacity and habitable rooms per unit/hectare. Ideally, additional variables such as employment density, dwelling type and tenure, site coverage, floor area ratio and building form could be included in a matrix. The creation of such a matrix would aid in the development of brownfield land that better responds to existing urban environments and the needs of communities.
This conclusion is directed at the redevelopment of brownfield land, though the principles could apply to greenfield schemes. In the Exeter context, the now-redundant Development Delivery Plan of 2015 , designed to implement the no longer fit for purpose Core Strategy, identified nearly 800 hectares of smaller brownfield land sites suitable for housing. The average density would be 40 dph, ranging from 130 dph to 24 dph, so some of this will indeed make good use of land. The plan recognises that additional sites will be needed, and gives preference to brownfield, stating that development must comply with other planning policies including the Residential Design SPD, discussed above.
Given the urgent need to provide additional housing, there is a strong case for changing policy to give greater weight to increasing housing density and relaxing those which inhibit it. Building outwards does nothing to address climate change and resource use challenges, because it destroys land and usually leads to people having to travel further. Making maximum use of space on brownfield land has to be an imperative. But it will only provide the necessary social benefits if we change our framework for house building.
Leaving the creation of this new housing to the usual private sector developers is unlikely to be successful. For one thing, they prefer greenfield land and would adjust their prices upwards for building on brownfield. For another, we can see (at Hill Barton Vale, for example) that the housing built is what the housebuilder wants to build – which may not be what people want. “Wider still and wider” is the touchstone of the housebuilders, filling the land with their off-the-peg volume housing designs.
Given that there are both advantages and downsides – actual and perceived – to higher density living, engaging people in designing their own environment should have much greater priority than now. Freiburg’s high density Vauban is a success because the developers and volume housebuilders were kept at bay, replaced by high levels of community participation in housing design and co-operative builders. People may welcome the opportunity to trade off a life in lower density housing on the edges of the city for a well-designed apartment or high density house much closer in – but no one has really asked us. The “Autonomy” point in Clarke’s four principles has never carried much weight in England.
And, as again in Freiburg, high density housing needs access to community facilities and attractive public transport – the private car becomes a serious hindrance when land space is at a premium, not least because the requirement for parking spaces. Talk of “commuter hubs” is not directly relevant to Exeter’s in-city density planning because most traffic is generated from outside the city, though I aim to explore this in a later post. But extending the penetration and the frequency of the bus network into new city developments will improve mobility options; and the higher the housing densities the greater the potential market for bus travel.
Increasing densities need not be restricted to brownfield. Although the pass has been sold for much of the major housing development area in to the east of Exeter’s central area, there are still substantial development phases at Monkerton not yet planned in detail. Together with the more central brownfields, there is scope here for designing and implementing creative policy change.
The decision to draw up a new strategic plan to replace the Exeter Core Strategy provides an opportunity for a radical policy rethink based on a real public debate about options. That opportunity should be seized.
 This is a vanity reference, because it’s not directly relevant to the theme of this post. The paper in question is Defra Land Use Project – Demonstrator Case Studies, available at as Discussion Document Dis5 at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140108140803/http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight/our-work/projects/published-projects/land-use-futures/reports-and-publications or at www.quantera.co.uk/governance/publications/index.html
 Page 24, with additional detail and supporting references on page 188.
 Residential Design Guide Supplementary Planning Document, available at https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/planning-policy/supplementary-planning-documents/residential-design-guide-spd/
 In the Building Design section, paras 9.38-9.40
 Exeter City Council planning reference 14/2062/02, searchable at http://pub.exeter.gov.uk/scripts/Acolnet/planning/acolnetcgi.gov
 Dph = dwellings per hectare. The 82 dph figure is from the Monkerton and Hill Barton Masterplan available at https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/major-schemes/monkerton-hill-barton-masterplan/. There is some debate as to the best measure of density: dwellings, households or people per unit of space:a useful summary is a paper for the Land Use Futures study by Professor Katie Williams entitled Space per person in the UK: A review of densities, trends, experiences and optimum levels, downloadable from http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140108140803/http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight/our-work/projects/published-projects/land-use-futures/reports-and-publications
 See the newspaper report at http://www.exeterexpressandecho.co.uk/exeter-street-giant-advent-calendar/story-20241756-detail/story.html
 See page 427 of Devon, by Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, 1991, The Buildings of England series, Yale University Press.
 Exeter City Council planning reference 14/1090/02, searchable at http://pub.exeter.gov.uk/scripts/Acolnet/planning/acolnetcgi.gov
 The Campaign to Protect Rural England – which has done some good work in protecting Urban England – has produced a briefing note entitled Better Brownfield as part of its Housing Foresight series. The briefing, on which I have drawn in this post, which includes at section 3 a very helpful review of new approaches to using housing density measures. Available at http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/housing-and-planning/housing/item/3877.
 Clarke, P. (2007) Metricity: Exploring New Measures of Urban Density, cited in the CPRE briefing note. Downloadable at www.ucl.ac.uk/urbanbuzz/downloads/projects_17/Metricity_Publication.pdf
 Available at https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/planning-policy/emerging-plans-and-guidance/ Policy DD7 refers.