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Apr 16 2018
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Posted by Peter Wislocki

Value vs character

Visionary property development isn’t always ‘in keeping’

As a property developer your job is to add value to real estate assets. From my experience, though, ‘added value’ can be a fairly subjective topic. If you take the stance of the property developer who’s a social visionary, added value can come in developing innovative solutions to satisfy the huge demand for housing without obliterating the green belt, or encouraging the use of public transport as a viable alternative to private cars. But what if the best solution is an unconventional one, causing no harm and creating much that is good, but not ‘in keeping’? Indeed, would any world city, from London to New York or Hong Kong, have become what it is today if all new buildings had to be ‘in keeping’?

Design from first principles means planning permission with maximum value

A couple of years ago, we bought a site with planning permission for 3 homes, and went on to build 5. Next we bought the site next door, which had consent for 5 dwellings, and completed 9. More recently, we took an option on a site which the vendors had advertised as a 4-5 unit development, and have persuaded the planners to allow 10 flats. On another occasion, we obtained planning permission for a 5-bedroom, 4-bathroom luxury residence on a Greenfield site whose value was multiplied dramatically as a result.

Sometimes we’ve even surprised ourselves. We once applied for 7 large flats on a beautiful lakeside site, and realised, quite late in the design process, that it might be possible to build a detached house alongside. We knew the neighbours wouldn’t necessarily like this – they were world class Nimbies, and well organised, with friends in high(ish) places – and, simplistically, we saw the extra house as an expendable bargaining counter, to be traded if necessary. But, admittedly on appeal, we got all 8 units through.

In all these cases, our success was based on a thorough analysis of the site constraints and planning policies, and then designing from first principles – not what was expected, but what was possible and optimal. We observed all the rules about set-backs and amenity space, minimum floor areas and parking standards, avoiding overlooking and overshadowing, and generally being good neighbours and responsible entrepreneurs. Our success was not (despite some protests) conspicuously at any other party’s cost.

In-character rule is stifling visionary property development

Before you accuse us of being greedy capitalists (some of the projects I mentioned were for fee-paying clients, though the majority were our own developments) I must emphasise the social benefits of our skills. How do you satisfy the huge demand for housing in southern Britain without obliterating the green belt without increasing densities in established built up areas? And how do you encourage the population to use public transport in preference to private cars if not by building enough homes in one place, making bus and train services viable and attractive? Densities should be maximised so long as nobody is harmed – and that’s what the planning system is there to regulate.

Generally planning rules are fair and sensible. Nobody’s home should be overlooked or overshadowed. Kids should have space to play. Drivers should have somewhere to park. But what about that old chestnut, the ‘in character’ rule? Much as I’d love to claim otherwise, iARCH hasn’t always succeeded in planning. In fact we recently had a heroic failure, having spent months working through countless options, presenting them to planning officers who, on some occasions, even began to get our arguments, and declare their support – until someone more senior (appointed or elected) in the local planning authority decided that, despite not objectively compromising anyone’s interests, what we were proposing was ‘out of character’, and should be opposed. That’s a shame, not only because our client didn’t achieve the financial rewards he was hoping for, but also because a virtually invisible piece of urban wasteland will remain under-developed, and not provide several additional homes at prices which average buyers could afford, in a location ideally served by public transport.

Surely such purely subjective grounds for opposing schemes which are desirable not only commercially, but also socially and ecologically, cannot be defended? This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to make our built environment more aesthetically attractive. Shouldn’t we seek to define rules and principles which will make the planning system fairer, more transparent and predictable?