In England: long-standing densification policies

Anastasia Touati, October 2015

This fact sheet presents England’s long-standing policy of densification, which focuses on issues of sustainable development and soft densification.

Densification is nowadays displayed by the public authorities of many Western countries as a central strategy for the production of sustainable cities (OECD 2012). It is mainly the fight against urban sprawl, which has become a real leitmotiv in recent years in many Western countries such as England, Canada, the United States and France, that has brought back the issue of densities. But if the problem of « urban sprawl » is a real one (Bruegmann 2005), it has not been a major issue as it has been since the early 1990s. Moreover, some researchers show that state policies in many countries have long contributed to suburbanization processes (Bengston, Fletcher and Nelson 2004; Couch, Leontidou and Petschel-Held 2007; Blais 2010). Thus, after the emergence of environmental issues and ecological sensitivity in the 1970s, the 1990s marked a revival of these issues, with the protection of the environment and of agricultural and natural spaces being prominently placed on the political agenda. Even more recently, the current housing crisis in many countries, coupled with the fight against urban sprawl, are the two foundations of a focus on densification actions.

In the European countries that have adopted this sustainable urban development approach, the policies implemented have multiple objectives (combating urban sprawl, limiting car travel, encouraging the use of public transport, promoting urban recycling, etc.). They integrate both urban and transport policy tools, as is specifically the case in England.

The case of England: a long tradition of combating urban sprawl

The United Kingdom has a relatively long tradition of combating urban sprawl. Indeed, its policies for the economical management of land were put in place at the end of the 19th century (Halleux, Marcinczak, and van der Krabben 2012). This trend was then reinforced with the implementation of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. It introduced strict controls on urban sprawl, notably through green belts within which building was strictly prohibited.

A few decades later, the British did not escape the wave of sustainable development. The Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987) published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, gave a new dimension to the protection of the natural environment and its reserves and considered in a new way the modes of urban development. This report calls for a joint rethinking of the economic, environmental and social dimensions of development methods, so that the latter can meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Many analysts believe that the problems posed by the concept of sustainable development must be addressed in large part through better planning of cities (Burton, Jenks, and Williams 1996). Because of the central place occupied by urban centers in the functioning of the global economic order, but also because the consequences of environmental damage are felt most acutely there, cities appear to be a major site for public action in favor of sustainable development (Elkin, McLaren and Hillman 1991). The challenge is to implement policies for managing the growth of cities, but also for organizing and shaping their forms in a way that contributes to sustainable urban functioning. In addition, the idea was spreading that, in the face of global issues such as the greenhouse effect or the increase in pollution, it would be appropriate, among other things, to limit the place of the automobile in the city.

In 1992, the British government signed the Convention on Climate Change and committed itself to drastically reducing its CO2 emissions. The government then relied on a number of research studies to prepare its future law on land use planning. The work of Michael Breheny and Susan Owens was fully included in the preparatory reports for this law. This work attempts to highlight the links between urban morphology, density and greenhouse gas emissions. The main argument in this research is that an organization of the city that reduces the need to travel can generate considerable energy savings (Breheny 1992; Owens 1991). The work of Newman and Kenworthy, which highlights the negative correlation between density and greenhouse gas emissions, was also used in the preparatory studies for the British directive on urban development (Newman and Kenworthy 1989; Fouchier 1995) (see the sheet on the compact city). It is in this context that Planning Policy Guidance number 13 is developed.

A directive to limit automobile travel as early as 1992

The issue of combating urban sprawl was addressed in the 1980s by the Ministry of the Environment, which issued a circular to curb de-densification (Fouchier 1999). In 1990, the Town and Country Planning Act stipulated that local authorities must take account of the content of national directives in the preparation of their local town planning schemes. The focus is on the national policy framework to influence local planning decisions.

In 1994, the British government issued Planning Policy Guidance No. 13 (PPG 13) to limit car travel. The objective is to curb suburbanization in order to revitalize city centers and reduce motorized travel. To this end, PPG 13 advocates dense, mixed-use urbanization around public transport stations. It thus introduces recommendations on how local authorities should combine their transport and urban planning policies to reduce motorized travel, including

The effectiveness of PPG 13, however, has been uneven across the country, as compliance with this national directive has been dependent on the goodwill of local governments. According to Michael Breheny, less than 30% of the local staff interviewed had actually changed their policies to meet PPG13’s recommendations.

Garden grabbing and house conversions: English-style densification

Finally, the case of England is also particularly interesting with regard to the processes of soft densification, by building additional individual dwellings in gardens. Indeed, these processes are relatively important and long-standing in the United Kingdom, due to the strict regulations on the fight against urban sprawl mentioned above. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, these policies resulted in less land being available for housing construction, leading to a sharp rise in land and property prices (Evans 1991). Under the government’s land-use maximization policies, densification processes increased, especially in single-family garden neighborhoods (infill, building smaller houses on smaller lots, etc.). Since the 2000s, policies have been developed at the local level to control the urbanization of gardens, or « garden grabbing » (Sayce et al. 2010). In particular, some municipalities have relied on this phenomenon of housing construction in gardens to meet national urban recycling objectives1.

At the same time, as part of its national urban densification policy, the British government is encouraging the conversion of single-family houses into apartments, another form of « soft » densification (see the fact sheet on the costs of densification ).

1 A research project currently financed by PUCA, within the framework of its program « Towards soft densification and intensification public policies » and carried out jointly by the University of Sheffield and the University of Liège, focuses precisely on the phenomenon, and aims on the one hand to quantify it, and on the other hand to study its socio-spatial consequences, as well as on the evolution of land and property prices.