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Lower density housing won’t solve issues raised by COVID-19

By Tom Kenny, RTPI Policy Officer

Covid-19 has drawn stark attention to the spaces we live in. Rarely have people with access to high quality private and public spaces valued them more. Nor has it been more of a problem for those without access. Recent polling suggests that both renters and buyers are more interested in bigger gardens and homes than they were before.

Rightmove (2020), Why home hunters are prioritising bigger gardens

This supposed change in preferences for housing has led some to argue that the planning system should provide more permissions for larger homes and gardens at a correspondingly lower density. However, I think it is worth taking this supposed change in housing demand with a pinch of salt and instead focusing on what will really help people meet needs.

To what degree does this polling represent a change in actual housing demand?

Actual housing demand is not just represented by what people say they want, but rather is a function of individual preferences and ability to pay. In reality the latter is far more important in determining what housing most people access. People may want access to a bigger garden and home but can they afford it? The answer in almost all cases is probably not – especially when mortgages may become more restricted. Furthermore, those who have suffered most from lack of access to space during this crisis are likely to also be the least able to increase their spending on housing.

Since most people cannot therefore spend more on housing, how might planning respond to this supposed change in preferences?

Is developing more rural housing sites the solution?

We cannot reduce the density of housing in existing urban areas without increasing prices and reduced supply. Since housing is already unaffordable, or close to unaffordable for many people, this doesn’t seem like a realistic option.

For most people, a more realistic way to respond to new housing preferences for more private space will be to choose to move out of higher density urban areas in favour of more suburban or rural areas. The dramatic increase in the ability of people to work from home may also make this more feasible than it seemed just months ago. Some have suggested that this implies that local authorities should give more permissions for previously undeveloped green field sites. This has often been discussed in relation to locations with good access to cities such as green belts. However, there are limitations to this argument.

It may not be feasible or desirable for people to move to more rural locations

There are also a number of issues with using this supposed change in demand to inform strategic housing and planning policy. Moving out of urban centres comes with obvious personal trade-offs, most prominently loss of access to existing social support networks, employment and services. New homes built in sustainable locations with good access to urban centres will still be expensive even if many more permissions are given. Evidence suggests that those in lower paid jobs are less likely to be able to work from home. So, even with greater home working, it is likely it will not be an option for many of those in highest need.

It is also crucial to recognise that most of the homes people will live in are already built. Only around 1 in ten of the homes purchased this year will be new builds. Estimates suggest that 80% of the homes we will live in in 2050 are already built. Therefore, if we want to look at systematic ways to ensure people have better access to high quality spaces, new build can only be a small part of that.

Finally, there are social, environmental and economic costs associated with less compact settlement patterns. RTPI’s 2017 research on Settlement Patterns, Urban Form and Sustainability showed that larger settlements with higher densities support economic productivity, reduced transport emissions, better public health, and greater social interaction. 2015 RTPI research found that even rural and suburban development near to existing transport hubs comes with increased car usage. Transport for New Homes recently identified a major problem with car dependence in new remote ‘Garden Villages’. It is also more expensive to deliver many services in less densely populated areas.

So how can we meet people’s needs for high quality space through planning?

I am not against either higher space standards for all homes or increasing the amount of development in sustainable rural and suburban locations. The RTPI has long argued that green belt should be just be one consideration amongst many about where new housing should go. However, as discussed above there are significant costs to building outside of existing settlements and on previously undeveloped land.

Therefore, I think that rather than consider how to increase private living spaces, planners should take a broader view of how to improve living conditions in a post-COVID-19 world:

  • Embedding principles of healthy placemaking into practice and policy, as elaborated in recent RTPI research on Enabling Healthy Placemaking.
  • Making it possible for everyone to access high quality public spaces such as parks. In addition to thinking about building affordable housing in the Green Belt we should think about how to improve the quality of green belt and making it more accessible.
  • Considering how densely populated areas can maximise useful public and private space in new development, for example by limiting the amount of space dedicated to roads and parking, or poorly thought out green spaces.
  • Prioritising ways of helping those most in need of improvements in their living spaces.
  • Broadening planning to focus more on transport, regeneration, place-making and other related fields. This will help manage any population shifts towards more rural areas and is necessary to help plan the world we need.



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