We've become used to hearing controversial tales of councils and property developers carving up London’s regeneration schemes with profit first and local needs second: this week it's Earls Court and the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant project.
Our city halls, like counterparts in other great cities, are grappling with the scale of globalisation and its demands. They must deliver housing to satisfy the electorate, outsourcing flagship housing projects to developers to deliver results at scale. Developers argue that having taken the risk of readying the site, funded quality accommodation, and met regulations, there is limited scope for the affordable housing or community facilities that people crave.
As a result, London — like many cities — is lumbered with a system for controlling development rather than one that enables building. Demoralised planners operate in a quasi-legal environment, avoiding the opportunity to inspire physical building designs. Our councils are ignoring the exciting potential of both big developments and smaller brownfield locations to deliver viable, multi-purpose building sites.
Our leaders need not exercise this ‘command and control’ over housing. They’ve forgotten that housing was always delivered through the smallest units — a single street, terrace or building. Communities were built this way over generations without a torrent of planning controls.
Local people will build again if essential conditions are put in place — common networks, agreed design approaches and incentives. These factors result in much wider physical uses for new buildings, a greater sense of place and more sustainable community growth and change.
But European cities haven’t forgotten the lesson of smallness: they’re successfully mixing ‘top down’ and ‘ground up’ approaches to urban renewal.
Their councils are prepared to hand ‘difficult’ sites to self-builders and smaller developers: in these cases, a council is the mediator between different stakeholders, fixing each one’s site infrastructure, its design principles and offering land for smaller developers and self-builders as well as to the big boys. As the facades of the Hamburg waterside or Brussels’ Self-Made City show, these projects provide attractive, sustainable communities that large-scale, identikit housing programmes cannot match.
What needs to change to deliver similar opportunities in Britain?
First, councils need to be the hubs, not the outsourcers, of development. Councils relish their role in promoting economic growth, but they could do more, setting up ‘arm’s length’ and ‘hub’ development companies that can open up wider building opportunities.
There are some UK trailblazers, like the Middlehaven project in Middlesbrough, where the council has moved away from appointing solely big developers, to offer different parcels of land, including self-build plots, for homebuilding. These emerging models have the potential to renew communities and deal with small or brownfield sites where developers won’t tread.
Second, our councils, developers and communities need to more effectively share knowledge on potential sites and new approaches to homebuilding, to make the most of smaller sites. All the information is there but we stopped maintaining assets like the National Land Use database. The mayor’s new Build Your Home database, which consolidates publicly-owned locations for sites for housebuilding, is a step forward but London boroughs need to actively promote opportunities in brownfield sites or incentivise smaller developers and home build ‘pioneers’ to take on new projects.
Taking the idea in a more exciting — and smaller — direction, the Mayor of London’s Popular Home initiative saw developers and boroughs agree common standards for simpler housing — although it needs City Hall to implement this approach. These are green shoots but it doesn’t amount to building with smallness yet.
Finally we need to change behaviours in council chambers, developers’ boardrooms, and in development zones. We don’t need to further reorganise local government from the ‘top down’ or interfere with our planners yet again to achieve this — the elements of making change happen are in place. Instead, we need councils to show the courage to think of smallness as a way forward, relax the rules, and promote small projects alongside the big ones.
And as confidence grows, London councils will literally be preparing the ground for a mix of ‘top down’ and ‘ground up’ developments, where projects like Earls Court could allocate plots for smaller developers and ‘Grand Designers’; such thinking will lead to attractive communities and lasting local economic opportunities. Small changes, made across London’s town halls, brownfield sites and neighbourhoods, will lead to massive small change.
Kelvin Campbell runs the Smart Urbanism social network and Massive Small, a campaign to build online resources and tools for ‘bottom up’ development. He is visiting professor at University College London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and visiting lecturer in Sustainable Urban Development at Oxford University. He wrote “By Design” for CABE — the basis of the UK’s urban design policy for many years.
His organisation is just one group that believes bottom up projects and new development tools should be available for everyone to share. You can support the idea here by contributing to Social Urbanism's Kickstarter fund.