Boroughs need “a change of attitude” towards small sites, warns London planning expert

6 September, 2018

Four years on from sharing his chilling statistics behind the UK’s “the almost frightening” housing crisis with an archiboo audience, London planning guru James Wickham today remains as sceptical as ever that either government or the market can deliver.

“It’s just gone further and further up the political radar and permeated further into public awareness, but the crisis has really come home to roost,” said James, a partner in Gerald Eves planning and development team, who predicted in his 2014 talk that London would need to incorporate 3.5 Liverpools by 2030 to match rising housing demand.

“I don’t think there is any significant step change in providing more housing, only a growing scepticism that the authorities or the market can deliver”.

And while the Mayor had trumpeted new ambitious targets doubling the level of small sites – defined as plots under 0.25 hectares – he wants developed in the capital to rise to nearly 20,000 in 2019, “he has no power over planning applications on that scale – it will depend entirely on a change of attitude by the 33 London boroughs if anything like that is to be achieved. The Mayor may set policy but he can’t determine planning applications,” warned James.

While he might “wave the big stick on large-scale housing, the boroughs can simply say ‘we don’t give a stuff about what the Mayor says about small sites’”, said James, adding that his contacts inside the HBF (House Builders Federation) were “not terribly positive” on the small sites front, with costs high and skills in short supply.

“The boroughs all have their own targets and are not opposed to getting the numbers up, even through the development of smaller sites. But my view is that where those sites are viable, a developer will have already done it.

“And there is an added hurdle with small sites when it comes to planning – with borough planning concerns about local contexts, preserving local heights and conserving the local character – which kick in almost as soon as you start negotiating.

“If a developer wanted to maximise a small site by building a five or six storey mansion block instead of two to four semi-detached houses, the borough will often say we have policies to protect the local character – these are very difficult obstacles to overcome in planning terms. Then there could be issues with daylight and gardens.”

So what tips would he give the prospective small site developer in London?

“Be very careful about what you are paying to acquire the land because your ability to come out with any kind of profit after satisfying the boroughs’ affordable housing requirements is now much more constrained. Councils are now much less willing to be flexible if you’ve overpaid and will stick to their demand for a set percentage of affordable housing.”

That attitude had hardened as the Conservative boroughs, “massively worried” about Labour in London, were even less keen to be seen as “cosying up to developers”, while moderate Labour councils were increasingly being undermined by the hard Left. “Look at Claire Kober in Haringey!”, he said.

His last tip was to urge would-be developers to “recognise how complicated it has become regarding planning negotiations with the boroughs and to start talking early with local authorities. Put some resources into your ‘planning performance agreements’, build relationships. You put resources into local authorities to talk to you – unless you are prepared to put money on the table, you won’t get through the door.

“And create a bandwidth, as I like to say, to start a conversation, tell them the story of how you have a good architect, a good design, you’ve been to talk to the neighbours, you’ve got around. This has become more important than ever.”


How to Develop Small Sites conference is on September 27th. Details here