London stalling

As the case of Elephant & Castle proves, there is a whole array of issues that can hinder the process of regenerating sites in the capital. Douglas Evans looks at the problems

Planning in the capital is about regenerating communities and underused urban assets. Locations and values demonstrate extremes. However, in some respects London is no different to Leeds or Lincoln. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s Sustainable Communities Plan applies to all, emphasising ‘inclusive’ housing delivery.

Since the Planning Act 1947, public participation has been central to decision-taking. Today, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (P&CA) and Statements of Community Involvement in local development framework (LDF) preparation are subject to scrutiny and binding inspectors’ reports, as are other parts of the LDF process.

Where the planning regime in London departs from the rest of the country is in the form of the ‘London Plan’. This document is years ahead of the new regional spatial strategies (RSSs) that are in the course of preparation elsewhere. While the London Plan was adopted before the P&CA and RSS regimes, it now forms the RSS for London. Indeed, following adoption in February 2004, it is under review to extend the plan from 2016 to 2025-26.

Unique to London, the plan contains a 50 per cent affordable housing target; failure to volunteer requires ‘open book’ accounting to justify lesser provision.

While there is slippage in the review, the consultation on housing targets and the Mayor’s proposal to expand his waste management powers are interesting.

The annual housing target for the capital is proposed to increase from 23,000 houses to 31,090 by 2016-17. This increase is consistent with the March 2006 household projections and is clearly a challenge to the development industry.

In relation to waste, the proposal is that the Mayor, rather than each borough, should determine major applications. This is unpopular with the boroughs, which view waste proposals as being forced upon them. Politics and necessary amendment of the P&CA regime make this change unlikely.

London also has some of the largest areas of deprivation and regeneration opportunities. The establishment of English Partnerships and the various development corporations, together with the overarching Thames Gateway Policy initiatives, demonstrate a positive government commitment to regeneration in and beyond London.

Sustainable development coupled with high quality, high-density inclusive developments are the policy focus for developments in London. Two different examples demonstrate how these objectives may be achieved.

Lots Road/Chelsea Harbour

On 30 January the Deputy Prime Minister granted planning permission for adjoining sites in Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea for 37-storey and 27-storey towers, together with the refurbishment of the Lots Road Power Station. The scheme comprises 802 flats, mixed-use commercial premises and retail development.

This riverside site is one of the last underdeveloped high land value areas of London. Circadian promoted the scheme with a supportive Hammersmith and Fulham unitary development plan (UDP) and a less supportive, in terms of building height, Kensington and Chelsea UDP.

After a number of years of negotiation, the Terry Farrell scheme found favour with Hammersmith and Fulham members, although Kensington and Chelsea refused its part of the scheme. The sole reason for refusal related to the height of the 25-storey tower. The scheme had the Mayor’s support (47 per cent affordable housing), as well as that of Hammersmith and Fulham, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe), English Heritage and Transport for London. During a five-week public inquiry all issues were considered, and the inspector, solely because of his concern about the 37-storey tower in Hammersmith and Fulham, recommended refusal. The Deputy Prime Minister disagreed on the unchallengeable ground of the exercise of reasonable judgement.

The decision made it clear that tall buildings, as part of high-quality development providing affordable housing in conformity with the London Plan, may be acceptable in many locations in London.

Regrettably, Lots Road is under challenge by the River Thames Society (represented by vice-chair Lady Berkeley), on the basis that river uses should prevail over maximising the capacity of the site.

Elephant & Castle

The Elephant & Castle proposal starts from a different base. That is the historic failure of the private and public sectors over 20 years to bring forward successfully regeneration of the area. While the past is littered with failure, success in the future is materially more likely under the current planning regime, reinforced by the Department of Trade and Industry making the area subject to the City Growth Strategy.

The proposal is for a range of social, educational and health facilities, together with up to 1,100 new homes and approximately 4,200 mixed tenure affordable homes. This is to be paid for, together with the new transport infrastructure, by up to 75,000sq m of town centre retail and leisure uses.

The scheme can take advantage of the positive P&CA changes to the compulsory purchase order regime and, subject to the critical issue of viability, developer interest is strong. This high-profile project, with major tall buildings in excess of 135 metres, to provide City development will need to be phased in during the 15-year development period.

Changing vision into economic reality will take time. The Government’s single regeneration budget funding for Elephant Links ended in March and Southwark is establishing a development trust to manage this £1.5bn regeneration project.

The major challenge for the Elephant & Castle scheme is to reconcile Southwark’s expensive public aspirations with the ability of the development industry, in this traditionally low land value area, to secure permission for a development of viable critical mass. The contrast between the years of evolution of the Lots Road scheme, funded from the beginning by the developer, willing to go to the expense of a major public inquiry and defend a legal challenge, has clearly been possible because of the high value of the site.

The Elephant & Castle scheme is towards the other end of the economic scale. Hence the entirely different basis of promotion. However, just as with any regeneration scheme, planning authority aspirations will have to be tempered by the economic reality of land values if regeneration of this area is to bear fruit. The jury is, and remains, out.