Why Sir Terry Farrell wants a change to daylight advice

The Royal Town Planning Institute gold medal winner says inflexible application of the guidance is forcing housing providers that want to densify development into constructing ever taller buildings.

Royal Town Planning Institute gold medal winner, Sir Terry Farrell
Royal Town Planning Institute gold medal winner, Sir Terry Farrell

Guidelines that stipulate minimum levels of daylight that new buildings should allow their occupants might seem an indisputably good thing. Yet the government is considering whether they should be revised in order to allow towns and cities to densify development, and therefore get closer to meeting housing need. And earlier this month Sir Terry Farrell, one of the UK’s most eminent town planners, echoed calls for the standards to be revisited.

Farrell is the founding partner of architecture firm Farrells, and led a review of architecture and the built environment for the coalition government in 2014. He made the case for change in the approach to daylight assessment in a London lecture given to mark his receipt of the Royal Town Planning Institute Gold Medal, the highest accolade that the professional body awards.

Farrell told the audience that advice on the width of streets, a key component of guidance on daylight levels, needed to be rethought. "There is a prejudice against building too close, which is a legacy of tuberculosis and modernist planning," he said.

He said that this was ironic, given that some of the most prestigious parts of today’s London have narrow streets. "Covent Garden could not be built today," he said. "If your area is a conservation area, and full of listed buildings, the more likely it is that you couldn't reproduce it today" because of contemporary daylight guidance.

Speaking to Planning the following day, Farrell said that buildings could be constructed much closer to each other than current guidelines would allow and still enjoy good daylight levels. "You can overcome the light penetration problem by angling windows and bay windows and so on, and by having lower floors with slightly greater height and therefore bigger windows," he said. "That’s traditionally what terraced housing did in London. All of these things together would mean you could achieve very high densities without tall buildings".

"The wider you make the streets - or the spaces between the buildings, because you can't in the end call many of them streets - the higher you will have to go to get the density required," he said. "You are forced to go high because of the daylight requirements".

Local authorities and applicants most commonly refer to national daylight and sunlight guidance published by the Building Research Establishment (BRE). Farrell said the guidance was often applied too rigidly. "The requirements are mainly advisory, but are treated as obligatory because planning officers are short of time and very often politicians are responding to nimbys," he said.

In May, business group London First and surveyors GIA published a report, 'Unlocking London's Residential Density', which called for specific daylight and sunlight guidance for London and other cities. This would allow for more flexibility in the density and scale of new developments than the BRE's guidelines, they said.

The report echoed government proposals set out in February’s Housing White Paper. This proposed amending national planning guidance to support greater density, particularly by proposing a new approach to deal with daylight considerations.

The white paper also promised a consultation on reviewing minimum space standards, again
with a view to allowing higher density housing in urban locations. London mayor Sadiq Khan’s draft housing strategy has since said that the capital proposes to maintain existing space standards. But Farrell would also like to see more flexibility on this issue.

"Parker-Morris standards created a norm, and I think norms are a good thing," he told Planning. "But exceptions shouldn't be ruled out. There are people living in mobile homes and microflats very happily".

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