Report by Adam Park + Tom Hunt, SCT trustees
Sheffield Civic Trust is calling for a city-wide debate to consider how Sheffield can provide the homes our city needs – now and for the changing profile of the city in the next 10 or 20 years. The rising demand for new housing has been well-documented across the UK, but the Sheffield Civic Trust are interested in bringing local people together to discuss the specific challenges facing Sheffield, and the actions required to tackle these. To kick-off this debate, the Trust invited URBED’s David Rudlin – a leading thinking around future of housing in the UK, demonstrated by his winning entry for the ‘Garden Cities’ 2014 Wolfson Economic Prize (in collaboration with Dr Nicholas Falk). Following on from the Wolfson Prize, David has since been invited by Sheffield City Council to put forward some ideas around where and how new housing might be developed in Sheffield. Because of this dual national/ local perspective, he is perhaps uniquely placed to contribute to this urgent debate, and the Trust were delighted to welcome him to launch our Future Housing theme.
A question of delivery?
Before we delved into the question of how a ‘Garden City’ extension might work for Sheffield, the event was opened with a short film produced by the Wikihouse Foundation – ‘Homes by People/ Homes for People’. The Wikihouse concept was initially developed by the design practice Architecture 00, who were interested in a way of producing a new building system by combining an ‘open source’ platform for sharing designs on the web with technology to ‘print’ houses using digital (CNC) fabrication tools. This idea has since evolved, with the team behind Wikihouse now exploring how ‘custom-build’ housing (tailoring a home to suit your needs, rather than buying a product aimed the ‘average’ buyer) might revolutionise the current housing market. The film raises a number of critical issues, particularly around land values, delivery mechanisms, and the reduction of the home to a saleable asset (rather than part a home or part of a community). It also set a good platform for thinking about how a more flexible and creative planning system might improve the way that housing is delivered.
All of this is particularly relevant to Sheffield, which recently received ‘vanguard’ status for delivering custom-build housing. After a small start (it was suggested that around 90 dwellings could be delivered on former Council sites), Sheffield City Council see custom build as growing into a future method of housing delivery alongside the more traditional developer-led models.
Some lessons from history
This brief foray into an imagined future of custom-builders and printed houses contrasted nicely with the opening section of David Rudlin’s talk, which looked back at the recent history of urban expansion and the Garden City. The need to house a growing urban population and battles over green field land are not new phenomena – which David demonstrated by showing how cities such as Sheffield expanded rapidly into the surrounding countryside in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the wake of this era of rapid urban growth, Ebenezer Howard’s concept of the garden city was conceived as a way of bringing together the best of both town and country into the planning of new homes – by linking the social connectivity and economic activity of the city with the access to nature that many so people crave.
The key theme of David’s Wolfson Prize Entry challenged the very premise of a 21st century equivalent of Howard’s Garden City ideal. Their entry made the case that it simply isn’t possible to create a new town or city from scratch that will match the quality of a place that has developed its character over hundreds of years – such as Oxford, York or Sheffield. The alternative proposal was to ‘graft on’ a sizeable ‘garden city’ extension – effectively doubling the size of a city such as Oxford – by taking a confident bite out of the green belt while creating strong infrastructure links between the new residential districts and the existing city. David made the point that in our thinking around garden cities we ought to be looking more to the city extension of Edinburgh New Town than to brand new towns like Cumbernauld, Welwyn, or Letchworth.
Land value capture
A key challenge of the Wolfson Prize was to generate ideas for the financing and delivery of new homes within the Garden City (it was the Economic Prize after all). Perhaps the most important of these within the Rudlin/ URBED proposal is known as ‘Land Value Capture’.
Due to the triple effect of the scarcity of land in the UK, the high demand for housing, and controls of the planning system, the land value of un-developed land (eg. agricultural land or brownfield land) is vastly out of step with the value of land with permission for houses. David shared the startling fact that the average price of a hectare of agricultural land in the UK is £15,000 but that this rockets to £2.3million per hectare if planning permission for housing is granted! In other words, gaining planning consent creates huge value– which is typically shared out in private profit and fees between the developer, the landowner, and the consultants who successfully won planning consent. In their alternative vision, this uplift in land value (profit) would be captured through a levy and therefore retained for the public, and used to directly fund all of the things that are required to make a place attractive, sustainable, liveable, and popular. Alongside schools, greenspace and social housing, this would include infrastructure such as rapid public transit links with the city centre. Capturing the uplift to pay for infrastructure could be a way to address the reasons behind why new developments often don’t receive popular consent from local communities, despite the need for new homes. For example, if capturing the uplift could pay for new transport links then concerns about new development placing pressure on existing roads could be alleviated (especially if proposals involve building on green belt land), and thus may remove some concerns that can block planning consent being granted.
There was lots of interest in this from the follow-up Q+A – particularly around the political momentum required for this scale of change the system of delivery. Capturing land value uplift requires bold thinking from policymakers but the Rudlin/URBED proposal shows that a solution is viable and demands attention.
How many new homes?
Taking into account increasing longevity, inward migration, and changing social trends, most people agree that more homes are required to meet the demand from a growing number of new households. However, the target for exactly how many new homes might be required in Sheffield is still up for debate, and differs depending on the geographic area (Sheffield city, Sheffield conurbation, or Sheffield city region) and the projection for growth of the local economy over the next 10-20 years.
Maria Duffy, Interim Head of Planning at Sheffield City Council was one of the invited respondents at the event and provided details of these projections. Maria explained that both the City Council and the City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) are looking to actively promote growth in the region, with an ambitious target to create 70,000 new jobs in the region over the next 10 years. This is set to have a big impact on the number of new homes required, and together with the ‘natural’ population growth, will require 2000-3000 (or more) new homes to be delivered every year in Sheffield alone. This kind of target is well in excess of the homes currently being delivered, and is likely to require the full range of sectors and providers– including major housebuilders, social landlords and new delivery routes such as custom build.
With draft options for new Sheffield Local Plan due to be published for consultation in the autumn – Maria’s key question to the event was ‘how do we sell the idea of growth and win support from local people’? Numbers matter – but it’s not just a numbers exercise – it’s about creating sustainable places + healthy neighbourhoods that people want to live.
So how do we do it?
Drawing upon the work that URBED have been carrying out with the City Council, David Rudlin set out five strategies for where (and how) new housing on this scale could be delivered in Sheffield:
The first method is already a common practice of small and medium sized house builders, and involves densifying existing neighbourhoods through process of infilling on vacant land and other sites (including large back gardens). While on the surface this appears to be a relatively straightforward way of increasing the local housing supply, it can also prove difficult and controversial as each and every development decision is potentially subject to objections by neighbouring property owners.
The second strategy is another familiar one and describes the way in which developers and major housebuilders seek permission to incrementally extend existing settlements out into the surrounding undeveloped (often green) land. This approach, also referred to as accretion, requires a site-by-site appraisal by planning officers, often in the context of strong local opposition. Because of the way that they are approved and developed, such edge-of-town developments tend to take on a similar appearance; low-density cul-de-sacs of houses that rely on the car as the primary mode of transport and are designed not to stand out.
Finding alternatives to these two incremental suburban strategies involves zooming out and examine the existing city and its urban centres or ‘nodes’ – where there might already be infrastructure in place (roads, shops, schools, tram stops, parks etc.). From these nodes, David showed how you might overlay a series of ‘pedsheds’ (circles with radii of 0.25-0.5 miles that denote the urban area that can be walked by a pedestrian from the centre) and work out which areas are relatively well-served by infrastructure but are currently under-developed. These areas might then be subject to urban intensification (new development or higher density replacement). This strategy Sheffield could use this strategy to identify parts of the city which could be suitable for new housing by drawing a ‘pedshed’ around existing tram stops.
Due to the particular historical development of Sheffield there are further opportunities for large-scale remodelling of former industrial sites might could create new residential districts within the existing footprint of the city. While this strategy offers a range of potential benefits in terms of regeneration and sustainability, it is perhaps a more complex to pull off. This is primarily due to the investment required to bring the former industrial land up to developable standard (particularly in former industrial areas such as Attercliffe) when the land value that will be generated isn’t as profitable as in the green belt example, however capturing the value uplift could still make such developments more viable.
When these avenues have been exhausted an alternative option is the extension – taking that confident bite out of the green belt. However, as the Garden City proposal expressed so clearly, this can only be sustainable if the new infrastructure links, schools, healthcare and so on. As this can only be realistically be funded through large-scale public investment (which may include land-value capture) as well as a mechanism for purchasing the land in the first place. This option is therefore likely to require national-scale involvement from Government and other agencies.
In this section of his talk David also spoke about the concept of ‘open source planning’. This practice, common in other parts of Europe, sees plots on new developments sold to multiple developers (big and small) with rules about what can be built but not with overly prescriptive design guidelines. This approach ensures that a variety of differently designed homes are built and would help to counter the common criticism that new housing estates all look the same. It also has the related benefit of supporting small and medium sized (local) housebuilders and architects.
To grow or not to grow?
Our second invited respondent was Prof Gordon Dabinett of the University of Sheffield, who questioned the reasoning for a housing plan based on a target for job creation. Gordon argued that Sheffield is still predominately a low-value economy in recovery from the collapse of industry, and is therefore only producing certain types of jobs (despite the Universities). It was more important to have an informed debate around what those jobs will be, how they will be created, and what sort of economy this will create – before we think about how house those who might be attracted to the city for work.
These arguments were further developed by Prof Fionn Stephenson, who suggested that it was the quality of jobs, housing, or public realm that mattered over quantity and growth for growth’s sake. Fionn also called for us to consider what continual ‘growth’ means when global resources are likely to become scarcer in the future. This point was picked up by another respondent who highlighted the need to consider the state of the existing stock, particularly the energy efficiency ‘retrofit’ improvements required to bring Sheffield’s older housing up to a better standard.
In response to these points, David Rudlin suggested that city economies are likes sharks – they have to keep moving growing to stay alive – and keep attracting attract people with talent and resources to come and live there – because they bring and generate growth. Manchester was put forward as an example of a growth strategy where there was uncertainly around where the jobs were going to come from – but trusting that if you build attractive places then people will want to live there, and that by implication the jobs will follow.
Whether jobs or homes come first is a bit of a chicken/egg argument but what this exchange highlighted is that it’s important to think about it from the both sides. Sheffield needs to create a lot (high quality) jobs and a lot more homes. Moreover, growth is somewhat inevitable due to current birth rates and increasing longevity – and on that basis its better (and more sustainable) to accommodate that growth in existing urban areas such as Sheffield than the ‘far-flung car-bound suburbs’.
Our final invited respondent, Miranda Plowden of South Yorkshire Housing Association, brought the conversation back to the recent history of development in Sheffield. Miranda referenced the large garden suburbs such as Parson Cross that were built in the 1930s under a different set of circumstances and design principles – but nonetheless might be able to be reimagined or intensified in order to contribute to the garden city idea in the 21st century. This brought a question from David Rudlin as to whether Sheffield had too much green space – particularly in low-density suburbs. Miranda Plowden went on to promote the role of the social housing sector as having a long-term interest in the quality of housing and a sector that needs to be considered alongside the private sector. This linked to important issue of Sheffield as a city that is increasingly polarised into areas of wealth and deprivation – with another respondent questioning how new housing development could try to address that though a more integrated approach to tenures and social groups.
Following on from this fascinating launch event, the Sheffield Civic Trust are looking to host further discussions, and workshops on some of the key themes and questions raised. These might include:
- Housing, economic growth, and regional governance
- Intensifying Sheffield’s garden suburbs
- Retrofitting and adapting our ageing housing stock
- The future role of housing associations and mixed-tenure development
- Sheffield city centre – scope for more than just student accommodation?
- Sheffield Local Plan – exploring options for the green belt
- Attercliffe – the next urban village?
To respond to the write-up of this event, or to suggest your own ideas for themes we should be looking at, please email the Trust at email@example.com, sign up for our newsletter at http://sheffieldcivictrust.org.uk/, follow us on Twitter @SheffCivicTrust and get involved in future the events, debates and discussions.
Trustees Adam Park + Tom Hunt