Nov 19, 2017 Last Updated 2:18 PM, Nov 16, 2017

Pellings looks at the challenges of developing infill sites to meet housing needs

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The housing crisis in the South East has many armchair commentators keen to give their view on how it should be fixed and how ‘infill’ development is a potential solution without having to build in the green belt, says Nicolas Maari, Head of Architecture at Pellings.

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In January, the Conservative Government’s long-awaited White Paper, ‘Fixing Our Broken Housing Market’, indicated that it would give greater support for infill development.

In practical terms, a good place to start is for the council to examine its database of property and landholdings, if it has one, or in the absence of that, to identify vacant land through a GIS system.

The next hurdle is for the council to ascertain whether it is even viable for them to be developed. There is often a good reason why a site hasn’t been developed in the first place, such as utilities running under the ground, and why they may have been used for parking or garages instead.

In areas on the edge of town, they may form part of Metropolitan Open Land where planning consent is likely to be refused or where woodland is affected by Tree Preservation Orders.

Site capacity may be affected by the Public Transport Accessibility Level studies. Where they are not close to bus routes or train/tram lines, there will be the need to provide more car parking which will restrict the number of dwellings that can be built on the site.

From a strategic point of view, consideration needs to be given on whether an infill scheme would provide a short-term solution but block a wider comprehensive redevelopment of the area a few years down the road.

Density and space

Any development in an urban context must bring the existing community on-side and confront social and cultural attitudes towards density and space.

The average density of Metroland is said to be around 25 dwellings per hectare which – when compared to the density of residential parts of, for example, Hong Kong, at 2500 dwellings per hectare – is a difference of a hundredfold. However, London is not Hong Kong, and therefore community concerns have to be addressed and taken into account.

Often residents may not be happy about children’s playgrounds and garages being redeveloped even if they have been underutilised. However, if they are offered additional benefits in an S.106 agreement, such as improvements to the public realm, a new community centre, or better street lighting, then there may be a greater incentive to accept infill development. These will come at a price and may impact on the viability of a scheme.

Once planning hurdles have been overcome, the most important criteria for assessing viability even where there is occupier demand, which one assumes is mainly the case in and around London, is whether it is possible to procure construction contracts.

A council may need professional help from asset management and procurement strategists at this point. Unsurprisingly, many of these sites may be scattered across a borough and may therefore be unappealing to one larger contractor. Many medium to larger contractors have a healthy order book and whilst a £10m contract may be attractive if it is located in one area, if spread out in £1m to £3m bite-sizes they won’t benefit from economies of scale.

Handling management

If a council is to procure contracts on several smaller sites, it is worth considering whether they have the expertise and manpower to handle the added management aggravation. After all, a site with potential for three dwellings can be just as management-intensive as one that could accommodate 20 properties.

The obvious solution is to decide on a strategy of packaging sites to make them attractive to contractors, perhaps putting closer sites together and procuring separately for sites that are further apart.

Of course, where a decision is made to put a site on the smaller end of the value scale out to tender, it may be less attractive to the larger contractors. There will then be the need for a risk assessment, but including smaller contractors in tenders can bring greater competition.

Another consideration is local authority financing as it is easier to allocate funds to one project than it is to several projects, where timing of scheme delivery will be more uncertain. If the funds cannot be allocated in one financial year then the entire process of allocating them in the next will have to take place all over again.

Infill development provides a great opportunity to deliver a significant number of new homes and contribute towards repairing the ‘broken housing market’, but the challenges in bringing them into operation are certainly greater than on greenfield sites and so they require the skills and resources that may have been lost through local authority cut-backs, which the wider industry can provide.

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