Enviroment: Planners put the squeeze on cities

Squeezing more homes into urban areas could be the salvation of Britain's cities as well as protecting our countryside from further suburban sprawl. Nicholas Schoon, Environment Correspondent, says there is growing support for that message, but are the m
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A campaign was launched yesterday to talk up Britain's cities as places for successful, aspiring people to live, work and play.

The Local Government Association, which represents the town halls of England and Wales, wants to highlight urban vibrancy and excellent public transport - and step up the fight against crime, deprivation and squalor.

It has launched an Urban Commission, bringing together bodies as diverse as the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the English Tourist Board to lobby government.

A growing number of planners and developers believe the Government needs to make bold policy changes if it is to revive the cities, and the time has never been riper. New planning policies are needed to get more housing development on small, pocket sites and on derelict, ex-industrial land.

Many believe that at the same time, the availability of greenfield sites for housing in the countryside must be squeezed harder. That would make rural homes, and new houses built beyond the existing edge of towns and cities, more expensive. It will satisfy legions of rural dwellers who want no extra homes in their back field. But it will also make housebuilders search harder for development sites within towns and cities.

A group of urban development enthusiasts has been meeting regularly, with the aim of trying to shift government policy in favour of intensified urban development. They include leading councillors and planners, senior officials from the Government's land regeneration body, English Partnerships, and representatives of pro-urban house building firms.

They are building on a series of studies, commissioned from consultancies by central and local government, into how more homes can be fitted into cities - enhancing their quality rather than overcrowding them. These studies cover the conversion of offices and vacant spaces above shops into flats, stepping up the remaking of houses into flats and maisonettes.

One study, done for the Government Office for London and the London Planning Advisory Committee by planning consultancy Llewelyn Davies, has examined how many new homes could be built in the capital using small, under-used or derelict sites such as temporary car parks - all within 800 metres of each of London's dozens of individual town centres. The idea is that each home would be less than 10 minutes walk from a station, several bus stops, a supermarket and a leisure facility. Householders could manage without a car, or with just one vehicle instead of two.

Based on intensive studies in a few boroughs, planners worked out how many new homes could be provided on such sites across the capital. If semi-detached homes with room for two cars were built, there would be room for 52,000. If each had just one parking space there could be 77,000. And if they were car-free developments, there could be 106,000. The higher density development would be at most three or four stories tall, and they would all have gardens.

Since most of the rapid growth in household numbers forecast over the next 20 years consists of single adults, there is a need to increase the number of flats.

``There is an opportunity for cities to reinvent themselves, cutting car dependence and enhancing their qualities'' said Patrick Clark, one of the authors of the report and an associate with Llewelyn Davies. ``There is a heck of a lot of potential there.''

He enthuses about car pooling schemes, where about six city dwellers share about one car between them as part of a larger collective. On the Continent thousands of people now belong to such schemes.

So far, however, the Government has been wary of moving to curb the supply of greenfield land for housing development. It is still considering what the balance should be between building inside and outside towns and cities in response to a forecast demand for 4.4 million new homes in England between 1991 and 2016.