The case for 'upsprawling', by Chris Brown

It was both amusing and frustrating listening to James Murray, deputy mayor for Housing in London, and Grant Shapps, former housing minister, debating the new London Plan.

The BBC decided to frame this around garden grabbing and loss of green space apparently to generate, or reflect, a political dispute between the Labour mayor and the predominantly Tory outer boroughs. This matters because there has been a gradual move of lower income Labour voters into these neighbourhoods which have been becoming increasingly politically marginal.

For me though this was a much more interesting debate about unsprawling.

The suburbs in question are mainly inter war, low density, car reliant and mainly attractive to their occupants.

The two main political parties have historically backed comprehensive demolition of predominantly inner urban public housing estates in some cases using labels like ‘sink estates’ to generate political support. Increasingly this mood has changed, estate regeneration has become a publicly perceived evil and the words have changed, in London at least, to Good Growth.

Jeremy Corbyn’s intervention at the last party conference has had a significant impact on turning this groupthink supertanker around with a recognition that these are often people’s long term family homes and that enforced relocation is often politically unpalatable.

Neither party has yet suggested comprehensive demolition of the suburbs despite the apparent logic that, in the face of a housing crisis, it makes sense to replace low density housing with higher density in active travel friendly neighbourhoods close to public transport nodes.

The market has been having a sub optimal go at this through sub-letting of spare rooms and houses in multiple occupation.

The new London Plan doesn’t go as far as comprehensive suburban regeneration but it does make the case for infill (also currently the new vogue approach to public housing estates) in ‘sustainable’ locations – although by taking the government’s definition this could mean a bus stop!

The political reaction from the suburbs has been to scream ‘garden grabbing’ and to dig in for a long fight to protect every green square inch.

Good design is a substantial part of the plan process with design guides being critical.

We all know that low density undermines the viability of public transport and puts key services out of walking and cycling distance resulting in car reliance with car parking then creating a vicious circle.

The idea that we might start assembling small suburban sites by combining a couple of semi detacheds and replacing them with a low-rise apartment building of smaller homes that meet the urgent need for both downsizers and first time buyers feels tantalisingly close.

Some suburban local authorities have long resisted this for reasons including on street parking congestion but the advent of autonomous, renewable energy powered, vehicles might start to change that view.

The plan also makes the case for building housing above industrial estates which, together with retail parks, seems by far the best next step in providing space for new housing in London. And unsprawling could be next!


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