Is becoming a ‘Compact City’ the answer to London’s growth pressures?

11 July 2019

The Plan recognises that London faces massive and unprecedented growth pressures. The population is due to grow by just under 2m by 2041: this requires 66,000 new homes to be built per annum according to the mayor – Savills estimate 90,000 new homes per annum-  and new commercial space provided for 49,000 jobs each year- a total of 6.9m jobs by 2041.

The Plan introduces the concept of “good growth “which puts the provision of affordable housing and building sustainable communities at its heart, whilst also acknowledging the need to provide a strong economy within London

The urban form chosen to meet these growth pressures is that of a “compact city “, this means that almost all growth is to be focused within the GLA area and none diverted to the remainder of the South East as has been the case in the past in the form of New Towns or other growth areas.

To achieve the growth expectation, the plan seeks to: identify new Opportunity Areas for major growth; divert development pressures from inner to outer London boroughs; increase densities, especially in suburban areas, but at the same time not releasing any further Green Belt or Metropolitan Open Land. There is a very heavy reliance on small sites, with a proposed 38% of housing supply to be provided via small sites.

Whilst the concept of the “compact city“ seems sound, there are huge challenges in achieving the aims of the Plan which call for more radical solutions and debate for in particular:

 1. Can densification and high design quality be achieved on the scale envisaged when other policies still seek to protect the local character of areas; will the continued application of current (arguably outmoded) residential amenity standards frustrate development potential. Are there other more empirically based ways to enhance density?

 2. Is the heavy reliance on small sites realistic when 11 out of 19 London boroughs seek to reject it and will the policy  erode the quality of London suburban and lower density areas?

 3. Would the selective release of Green Belt land create a more sustainable pattern of development: lower density housing in the form of family accommodation;a higher rate of affordable housing; and land value capture to increase sustainable transport investment (e.g. Crossrail2)

 4. Could more be achieved by providing greater flexibility for local authorities to formulate their own design policies; and does there not need to be a greater release of further public sector land at controlled land prices to meet the need for affordable housing.

Our view is that is that a step change of densification in London, can be achieved, not just by tall buildings, but developing at a medium rise scale based on existing urban forms that we know work well. An understanding of where people want to live  - Edinburgh, Bath and parts of London such as Notting Hill come to mind  - and should inform future development, rather than imposing artificial planning standards better suited to more suburban development. It is possible to build high quality environments of increased density without impacting the local character of an area.      

In conclusion it seems that more radical, innovative and creative solutions are required  to meet the good intentions of the London Plan and keep London on top of its game, including a renaissance in the delivery of council housing by the local authorities and selective release of Green Belt land. 

The above issues were debated at LREF, where Nick was on the panel alongside deputy mayor, Jules Pipe.


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Nick de Lotbiniere

Nick de Lotbiniere


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Emilios Tsavellas

Emilios Tsavellas

Planning Central West

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