New homes in London: why Mayor’s grand plan to build on small sites won’t work under current planning rules

Work starts this year on a small housing scheme just in earshot of North Circular road.

These 97 mews-style homes in Finchley, north London, represent just 0.15 per cent of the 65,000 new homes the capital needs per year to tackle the housing crisis.

They also mark the start of Small Sites, Small Builders, a new policy that London Mayor Sadiq Khan believes could provide 25,000 new homes a year on sites too small for major housebuilders.

The strategy, unveiled in 2017, is in the draft of the London Plan, the blueprint for future development of the capital.

The big idea is to encourage small firms to build on small sites which, it is reasoned, can be turned around faster and cheaper.

Some 11,000 homes are already being built on this kind of site: but too few, clearly. 

Councils have been asked to identify all potential small building plots and told to take a positive approach to steering schemes of fewer than 25 homes successfully through the planning system.

This, says deputy mayor for housing James Murray, will give developers “a degree of certainty around the planning system” and encourage others.

Man with a plan: James Murray, deputy mayor for housing is implementing the scheme for London small sites development

Public land should also be available. The 97 homes at Beechwood Avenue, Finchley, will be built on a site owned by Transport for London.

The London Plan comes into effect next year. However, Murray explains that the 25,000-homes-a-year aim is an estimate rather than a quota with any time frame.

This does not bode well, especially as the Finchley scheme will have taken two years by the time work starts — not exactly the speedy turnaround outlined in the London Plan.

In addition, building on sites of any size has almost ground to a halt. Homes & Property revealed recently that in the first three months of this year, work began on just 77 new homes in Zone 2, down 97 per cent compared to 2015.

The small sites scheme will struggle to work under the present system — and here’s why:

1. Bureaucracy

Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture, believes the small sites concept is fundamentally flawed.

“The fact is that if you are looking at numbers, bigger sites will produce more units quicker than smaller ones. Small sites are generally more difficult to get out. You tend to have closer neighbours, which makes things more problematic. Developing small sites is intricate stuff. You can’t just roll it out over London.”

“However I agree with James Murray, Deputy Mayor for Housing, that they can play an important role in providing much need new homes and I wholeheartedly support his policies to that effect.”

2. Funding

Nick Pendlebury, managing director of Ipsus Developments, is just the kind of entrepreneurial housebuilder the Mayor wants to encourage. But Pendlebury feels the London Plan has missed the point.

“There are lots of land opportunities out there,” he says. “The real killer is the funding.”

Like most small builders, Ipsus needs loans to kick-start its projects. Before the recession banks would routinely offer 80 to 85 per cent loans.

Now they are offering loans of 50 to 60 per cent, leaving a huge shortfall to find. The result is that where Ipsus once developed sites of 100 to 150 homes, it now builds fewer than 50 at a time, and sometimes single figures. 

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced last year he would make up to £1 billion-worth of guarantees available to banks lending to small housebuilders.

For Nick Pendlebury the funding can’t come through soon enough. “We have to be able to tap into Government money, or the banks need some sort of underwrite from Government, or we can’t do our jobs,” he says.

3. Nit-picking Planners

Some of London’s planners do excellent work under pressure within departments decimated by budget cuts.

James Murray thinks councils should be allowed to increase planning fees to help their funding problems, although this would only increase costs for small developers.

Inter Urban Studios architect Micah Sarut (, would prefer planning requirements for small sites to be simplified, with planners encouraged to take a more commonsense approach rather than grimly sticking to the endless planning rules that exist at national, city and local levels when deciding whether a project is acceptable.

For example, standardised minimum room sizes are often hard to meet on a small site.

4. NIMBY neighbours

The thorniest of all London’s planning problems is, of course, us as residents. Planning regulations exist to protect people from developments that overlook their back gardens; cast their homes in shadow; might blemish the appearance of their neighbourhood, or increase traffic on their streets. 

James Murray would like to see London’s renters stand up for their interests more, rather than leaving the debate in the hands of neighbours and their Nimby tendency of trying to uphold the status quo.

“There is a large population in London who want to see more homes, and particularly affordable homes, being built,” he says.

But if London’s backland and infill sites are to be utilised to tackle the housing crisis, we are all going to have to start putting the common good before our personal niggles, says architect Micah Sarut: “We live in a city. That means we have to share with other people. That is the deal.”

5. Resistance from councils

At the sharp end of the debate is architect Micah Sarut, managing director of Inter Urban Studios. He can barely contain his irritation with London’s planning departments.

“I can’t tell you the resistance I get from every council,” he says. For the past two years Sarut has been negotiating with Tower Hamlets over a bombsite in east London. Its owner now wants to build a single house on it.


Vexed: architect Micah Sarut of Inter Urban Studios locks horns with planners (Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd)

The problem is that the site has been semi-derelict since the Seventies and during its wilderness years, trees have taken root. Building the house would involve taking down “one or two” of the trees, and more would be planted later.

However, the council’s planning department finds this unacceptable and the two sides remain deadlocked.

“You are banging your head against a wall,” says Sarut. “Sometimes I wake up and don’t even want to be an architect anymore. When I first heard about the small sites idea I thought, this is great — but nothing has changed.

“The planning system needs to be revamped for the 21st century and the need to build high-quality homes in large numbers. At the moment it is dysfunctional and completely not fit for purpose.”

In Romford, Havering council has recently turned down another scheme by Sarut. His client wants to build seven houses on the site of some garages.

Initially his client wanted to build nine houses, but the council said he should provide more parking spaces than were planned, so the number of homes was reduced.

In April the development was refused planning permission on the basis that the small access road would not be able to cope with the volume of traffic

The client will now have to try his luck at an expensive appeal.

Sarut suspects councils are more motivated when it comes to proposals for major housing schemes because developers have to pay handsomely towards local amenities in return for planning permission.

“It is about money,” he claims. “A large development will generate a huge amount of resource for the council. One or two units is a loss leader.”

Vexed: architect Micah Sarut of Inter Urban Studios locks horns with planners

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