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Counting the cost of high-rise living
Local Government Chronicle – 18 July 2007

Communities in the suburbs are under threat by the demand to replace family homes with flats, says Mark Smulian

Artists as diverse as Sir John Betjeman and The Kinks have celebrated suburbia.

Its perceived cosy middle-class domesticity, typified by Sir John's Metro-land book and the 1970's sitcom Bless this house, has led to an assumption that those living in the suburbs can get by without much attention from their local council - particularly when inner cities and housing estates make heavier demands on resources. But housing shortages and lack of land to build on threaten the character, sustainability and liveability of many suburbs, so they are now in need of councils' attention.

The typical suburbs consisting of semi-detached homes were built when most people lived in family units and there was enough land around towns for new building. But increased demand for one or two-person homes has led to pressure to demolish these suburban homes and replace them with blocks of flats - especially when a builder expects to profit from placing a greater density of new homes on a site.

These are often blocks of flats with about six storeys. The higher density of people per hectare that results can overload local parking spaces, sewerage systems, roads and amenities, and change an area's character.

This angers voters, who complain to councillors about the onward march of flats, and who in turn tell officers to "do something".

Do what, though? Councils decide on planning permission, but the grounds on which they can reject an application are constrained, and there is always the fear that a developer will appeal to the government's Planning Inspectorate, which, mindful of ministers' drive for higher density urban housing, may grant permission anyway.

Councils get caught between government demands for high density building to meet the homes shortage, and voters' demands to leave suburbia as it is.

Some councils have thought creatively about how they can reconcile these competing demands, and have an important ally in the English Heritage quango, of which Lord Bruce-Lockhart became chair in May.

Tim Brennan, English Heritage's senior policy adviser on regeneration, helped produce its Suburbs and the Historic Environment booklet. He says: "We are concerned about the loss of character, as change happens without thought to the problems caused.

Mr Brennan accepts more homes are needed, but argues that liveability and sustainability are at risk when new homes are "just dumped all over the place in long-established neighbourhoods".

John Pounder, associate director at planning consultancy Colin Buchanan, studied suburban change in his previous job at the South East England Regional Assembly. The government began to encourage high-density building in 2000 and since then "we started to notice that developments were going from 30 homes per hectare into the high 30s", Mr Pounder says.

He adds: "We decided suburbs were a big issue because 80% of people live in them. The problem has been an assumption that suburbs could look after themselves and did not need intervention from planners except where they were in decline, but they do." He studied Cressex, in Wycombe, a suburb of mainly middle-class owner occupiers under "real pressure from infill where developers buy homes and want to knock them down to build flats".

The problems are not limited to an area's changed appearance; local services suffer too. People who buy flats tend to be footloose, far more likely to move often and to commute long distances for work and leisure than those settled in houses. "They tend to be people who make less use of local services, so the base that supports those services declines at the same time that the population rises," he says.

Catriona Riddell, the South East England Regional Assembly's director of planning, says: "The emphasis in our regional plan is to conserve what attracts people to live in areas, and most people do want to live in suburbs." The south-east has seen such a huge shift from building family homes to building flats, in particular in the social housing sector, that Ms Riddell says: "Even builders are concerned that the emphasis has gone too far towards flats, but they have been forced into that by government policy calling for high-density development. It harms community stability because flats change hands roughly five times as often as do houses."

Some of the most intractable inner city areas that absorb councils' attention were once prosperous suburbs, before decline set in.

Continued benign neglect as suburbs change and become more crowded, with increased pressure on infrastructure, services and community cohesion could see them become tomorrow's regeneration sites.

Building new homes and flats

Get the balance right

Oxford City Council found in 2005-06 that although more than 900 new homes a year were being built in the city, the supply of three or four-bedroom homes was static, since as many were demolished to make way for flats.

Michael Crofton-Briggs, head of planning, says: "In effect we built almost 1,000 flats a year. That creates an issue of the impact on infrastructure, but it also affects the neighbourhood's perception of itself. People who live in flats tend to be more transient. You get situations where families in a street have grown up together, people feel part of a community and care for it, while people in flats tend to live behind their front door."

Oxford faces pressures from the demolition of large houses in the city's affluent north, and extensions followed by conversion into flats elsewhere. Mr Crofton-Briggs analysed the impact of flats in the city's 15 neighbourhoods against a set of indicators and has since based planning policy on this assessment.

He explains: "In areas with the greatest impact the policy response suggested is that we should resist all future conversions to flats on smaller sites, and that on larger sites we should require that a proportion of them is devoted to three to four-bedroom homes.

"We get some criticism from supporters of flats, but flats can be built in neighbourhoods where there is less impact. It's down to a balance of dwellings."

Conserving areas

Create effective policy

After the 1996 IRA bomb, hard work transformed Manchester's city centre into something the council was proud of. But until recently the suburbs told a different story, says urban design and conservation manager Ron Marshall.

"Pride in the city centre did not extend to the suburbs," he says.

"The city council could see pressures where house builders acquired sites with large individual properties, or several adjacent properties, and wanted to demolish them and build apartment blocks.

"Most planning applications were to replace existing buildings with ones that were architecturally inferior, and higher and larger, so the 'massing' changed the character of an area."

Manchester's chosen weapon was to declare conservation areas on the basis of an area's distinct character, rather than because local houses were of historical interest. It has created eight such areas, extended two existing ones, and plans a further 29, Mr Marshall says.

This policy has displeased some builders, who have fought the council with planning appeals when it has rejected plans to demolish houses and build flats. But Manchester City Council has been successful in most appeals because it has shown that these rejections were on the basis of a soundly constructed policy grounded in local needs.

Mr Marshall says: "The fear is that an area loses its character, so we fight on context and argue that increased massing is inappropriate. It is also true we do not want to see family housing lost. Flats are not contributing to the community because their residents often move on quickly, or they get used as buy-to-lets."