How the drive to densify development could pan out

Proposed policy changes intended to increase the density of development around commuter hubs may mean extra work for planners and could spark objections from local residents, according to experts.

Transport hubs: government wants higher density development
Transport hubs: government wants higher density development

There is little new in the idea of concentrating development around transport interchanges. In 1992, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham developed the public transport accessibility level (PTAL) measure. PTAL, which scores development sites by their distance to local transport routes, is now embedded within London-wide planning policy to guide development density. Lord Rogers of Riverside was enthusiastic about the principle in his 1999 Urban Task Force report. Against this historical backdrop, the government has announced proposals to insert a less complex version of the PTAL policy into national planning guidance.

Among proposed amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) - the first set of changes since it was adopted in 2012 - the government says it wants councils, "wherever feasible", to require higher density development around commuter hubs. The rules would apply both when councils make plans and when they decide individual planning applications.

In its consultation document, the Department for Communities and Local Government said: "There are significant benefits to encouraging development around new and existing commuter hubs - reducing travel distances by private transport, making effective use of private and public sector land in sustainable locations, and helping to secure the wider regeneration and growth of the local area." Housing is also mentioned as a key driver, although the draft policy encourages increased density across all development types.

In a key difference to the PTAL policy, the government has shied away from minimum or maximum density requirements. It said: "It is important for density ranges to be decided locally to be aimed at local needs. Setting a minimum density would be unnecessarily prescriptive."

The consultation defines a commuter hub as a "public transport interchange ... where people can board or alight to continue their journey by other public transport ... walking or cycling". In addition, the definition extends to "a place that has, or could have in the future, a frequent service to that stop". Dr Malcolm Hockaday, senior director at consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, said the government needs to firm up this definition.

He said: "They don't say what distance from a hub would fall under its definition of 'around'. We don't know if it is a threeor a ten-minute walk.

In addition, if the policy includes bus stops along routes serving train stations then that is going to cause planners a tremendous amount of work drawing up maps. It could also cause problems in some rural areas which are on a frequent bus route - I am not sure policy-makers have thought this through beyond the big conurbations."

Richard de Cani, director of transport strategy and planning at Transport for London, said it would make little difference in the capital due to the existing PTAL arrangements. He said that, thanks to the policy, in the past 15 years, 80 per cent of all housing in London has come forward within 1 kilometre of a station. "Given the London Plan requires boroughs to support higher-density development in areas of good public transport accessibility, and the fact that the government is not proposing minimum density standards, the proposed changes to the NPPF are unlikely to result in any changes to current policy," he said.

However, Mike Kiely, chairman of the board of the Planning Officers Society, said: "There are some locations in the capital where they are less keen to do it than others."

Ian Anderson, senior director at property firm CBRE, agreed that the policy was likely to bring more change to suburban transport hubs. He said: "I think the majority of councils and planners will see it as sensible. However, it could cause tension with residents where you have a suburban mix of housing types. Taller buildings may not be welcomed warmly everywhere in suburbia."

Tom Higginson, director of planning for Network Rail, said: "We know that rail stations play a significant role in Britain, while developments around stations can have the added benefit of providing additional income to help fund the railway." But he warned that any changes would need to ensure that development did not impact on the safe and efficient running of the rail network.

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