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Flat proposals put focus on guidance
Planning – 7 January 2005

Gradual replacement of older houses with flats is a source of concern for councils and residents, reports Mark Smulian.

It takes quite a lot to get 45 people away from the television and central heating on a winter Sunday evening to attend a public meeting.

But it happened in Southend-on-Sea recently, and all over a mere eight flats and parking places.

Infill development on plots where conventional homes have been demolished or where parts of gardens have been built on has been an issue for many years, mainly for councils that cover suburban areas. But this trend has been reinforced by government demands for higher densities on brownfield sites. It has produced an effect that is rising up local political agendas, driven by public resistance to building on greenfield sites elsewhere.

Objections to relatively small apartment developments take two forms.

First, increased density puts extra pressure on parking, services and amenities. Secondly, if too many blocks of flats are built in place of houses, the streetscape and character of an area will change and may lose the qualities that attracted existing residents in the first place. In the case of the Southend proposal, the owners of an existing bungalow proposed the development themselves, seeing this as preferable to selling to a developer who might produce an inferior plan.

Southend-on-Sea Borough Council has three policies to protect areas of conventional housing: No more than ten per cent of a street frontage may be converted from single family dwellings, the demolition of homes of less than 120m2 is not allowed and no more than ten per cent of single houses can be converted to flats.

"Those policies work together to protect local character," claims Mike Pregnall, Southend's assistant director of technical and environmental services. But a leaflet circulated to residents by local councillor Peter Wexham says the neighbourhood where the bungalow lies has reached saturation point, with insufficient parking, school places or medical facilities.

The issues Wexham raises will be familiar to many planning officers.

Residents of Oxford's Headington area have similar worries, according to www.headington. org.uk, a website that links local groups and acts as a forum for local opinion. "Everyone in Headington is concerned about this," says webmaster Stephanie Jenkins.

"We need flats because of the development of Oxford Brookes University and the huge number of hospitals," Jenkins acknowledges. "But it is the nice old houses with the big gardens that are going, not the ugly 1930s developments. The flats are not solving the local demand, they are actually bringing more people in. Very few of them are affordable so the hospital workers still have to drive in."

Headington has three conservation areas, but the rest of the suburb is easy prey. "The council agrees to plans because it can't afford to lose at appeal, which it will do if it ignores government policy," says Jenkins.

Oxford City Council chief planning officer Michael Crofton-Briggs agrees that the council is forced to tread a fine line between residents' concerns about flats and the government's demands for denser development on brownfield land.

"There is tremendous pressure on land and affordable housing, very tight green belt restrictions and very significant pressures for housing development," Crofton-Briggs reports. "In some areas, mainly the council estates, we get corner plots developed with two-storey side extensions of flats. In areas with bigger plots, in particular in Headington and north Oxford, we are seeing houses demolished and replaced by flats. It causes considerable public concern about traffic and parking and the change in the character of an area."

In parts of the city, neighbourhoods that have traditionally been populated predominantly by families are seeing an influx of more transient single people. The council seeks to protect the supply of smaller family houses and stipulates a minimum size of flats to avoid "shoeboxes". But the changing demography means there is more demand for smaller homes than for the three-bedroom houses that dominate Oxford's suburbs.

Crofton-Briggs admits that Oxford's record is poor on rejected flat applications that are taken to appeal. "The Planning Inspectorate is overturning a lot of our decisions," he says. "Oxford tries to respond to residents' concerns and we are refusing applications where there are sufficient grounds to argue a case at appeal. But we are not being as successful as we would like."

The council has done better in upholding its design policies at appeal where it has rejected proposals that are out of keeping with their surroundings.

But Crofton-Briggs adds: "The trouble is that the inspectorate lets through a greater proportion of these applications than residents would like. We call it residential intensification, though I've been around long enough to use the term 'town cramming'."

With house builders starting to respond to government policy to restrict greenfield development, different councils are adopting different approaches in a bid to resolve residents' grievances. Hertsmere Borough Council says flats and maisonette proposals are considered on their merits, although "permission is unlikely to be granted for proposals in excess of two storeys in localities consisting predominantly of single or two-storey dwellings".

It is not only southern suburbs where flat development is an issue. Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council has issued supplementary guidance after receiving numerous applications for flats in areas of conventional housing. Stockton finds that while flats in the town were traditionally aimed at the lower end of the housing market, the pressure now comes from the top end of the market. The council is seeing quality buildings in areas of traditionally high wealth and status.

As in southern England, such change invites opposition from local residents and pressure groups who have a negative perception of flats, particularly where they are direct neighbours to a proposed site. The council points out that government policy is aimed at providing a more diverse range of accommodation and that flats promote sustainability by increasing density and reducing the loss of greenfield sites. Flats are also likely to be more widely affordable than semi-detached houses.

But Stockton planners also acknowledge residents' concern that flat schemes may exceed PPG3's recommended density of 30 to 50 homes per hectare. They accept that proposals "do not always respect local character or architecture, often displacing older houses of period character and appearance". Their guidance is intended to ensure that flats are well designed and sited in appropriate places. They do not seek to impose a blanket ban, but nor do they encourage an "anything goes" policy.

House Builders Federation (HBF) public affairs manager Pierre Williams agrees that building flats on the sites of former houses ties in well with government policy. "It is difficult because of the government's drive for higher density and brownfield land use," says Williams. "If ever-increasing density is required this is likely to become a bigger issue. We appreciate that development should be appropriate for the area where it is situated."

In the HBF's view, public opposition to flats is the result of one form of nimbyism feeding on another. If the government says it wants brownfield sites used and then constrains the supply of greenfield ones under public pressure, house builders will take what brownfield land they can find, a definition that includes sites where houses can be replaced with flats.

"People don't understand that this is happening as the result of a policy driven by entrenched nimbyism across the country, but that is the reality of it," says Williams. "The government says it wants sustainable communities.

So it has to allow house builders to build the types of housing wanted by households of all kinds. Simply building small units in flats is not sustainable. We need to be allowed to build homes of all kinds."

SOLIHULL: SUPPLEMENTARY GUIDANCE SHOWS HOW PROPOSALS CAN BE IMPROVED

Straddling Birmingham's leafy eastern suburbs and a clutch of villages encased in the West Midlands green belt, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council is one authority to have seen a big increase in flat proposals over the past three years.

"We have approved supplementary planning guidance (SPG) to control it, because we cannot put up a blanket ban," says director of planning Paul Watson. "We try to define the streetscape and put the onus on developers to prove that their plan will not disrupt the area's character."

Solihull's SPG stresses the need for flat developments to fit their surroundings.

"The redevelopment of existing buildings and the development of land in residential areas can provide an attractive punctuation and relief in an otherwise bland, monotonous and unremitting run of similar property," it argues. "In other instances it can offend the unity and character of a locally distinctive street or neighbourhood and create problems for residents of the area."

The council sees its policy as filling the gap created by a lack of clarity in the interpretation of government guidance at local level. Watson points out that PPG3 allows regard to be paid to respecting local distinctiveness and says his council has successfully relied on this advice in a number of appeal cases. "We do allow high-quality contemporary design," he adds.

Solihull encourages densities of between 30 and 50 dwellings per hectare, "but not at the expense of the quality and local distinctiveness of the environment", and seeks to balance local character with high-quality contemporary design. Where buildings that do not merit formal protection are demolished, the council considers it "both reasonable and desirable to ensure that the overall character is maintained".

The SPG admits that defining "local distinctiveness" is difficult when every street has different characteristics. However, a common feature is the steady rhythm of streets with strong building lines, matching building plot widths and repeated architectural motifs: "This has created streets which have a pleasing homogenity and a character worth maintaining when new development is considered."

Solihull's guidance includes four case studies of proposals to replace existing homes with a variety of flat developments. For each project, the document provides drawings and descriptions of alternative designs and layouts showing how these schemes could be modified to make them fit in more easily with the character of their surroundings.

One case study focused on a proposal to replace nine houses with 78 flats in three-storey blocks with limited surface parking on a prominent corner site close to Solihull town centre. The previous two-storey buildings were typical suburban houses with front drives, side garages and long gardens. The scheme was approved on appeal before the SPG was published and is now largely completed.

In the council's view, higher density has been obtained at the expense of several fundamentals of good urban design. The building line has been lost and the rhythm of the relatively narrow plot widths replaced by an undivided area of greenery surrounding large isolated blocks owing little to the character of the homes they replace.

Planners were also concerned that too few parking spaces were provided.

While conceding that the scheme complied with PPG13 in this respect, they felt that parking provision did not reflect the reality that the flats are likely to be occupied by car owners, leading to on-street parking problems close to a busy junction.

Another case study involved a proposal to replace two detached houses with a three-storey block of flats modelled on neighbouring Edwardian semi-detached houses in Dorridge, an outlying village separated from the main urban area by green belt territory. The site is on a street with a wide variety of building types and two examples of poor urban development on either side.

Solihull planners agreed that the submitted scheme, a partial copy of the original buildings, represented a fairly sophisticated attempt to design something in tune with the local typology. Use of the roof space to provide small terraces screened from the street was an intelligent touch demonstrating how existing forms can be reinterpreted without greatly affecting the street scene.

But they also felt that the building's reduced height has led to a "squashed" appearance. The front doors have been moved to the centre of the building elevation. An underground car park needs a large sweeping ramp in the front garden, whereas a straight ramp from the street would have had less impact and would be easier to negotiate.

The depth of building on the plot has been increased substantially to make space for more flats, giving an impression of visual bulk. This greater building depth also raises concerns about overlooking, bringing habitable rooms on the upper floors significantly closer to the gardens of neighbouring properties.

Despite such reservations, the proposal was agreed on appeal and the flats are now being marketed. The planning department acknowledges that the agreed scheme "generally respects the character and local distinctiveness of the area", but insists that application of its guidance would have resulted in greater improvements.



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