Mixed use confounds planners

Architects’ Journal 28 October 2004

BY by BRIAN WATERS [read text below]

It was Peter Rees, the City of London chief planning officer who, at last June’s RTPI national planning conference introduced a session on mixed-use development with the comment: ‘It’s rather motherhood and apple pie’ – and both can make you feel a little sick!

Widely regarded as a ‘good thing’ it often confronts planning with a dilemma. After all planning’s origins are in land-use controls and zonings, and mixing uses undermines that kind of simple approach. A new Mixed Use Forum* met earlier this month, attended by two ODPM officials as well as developers, bankers and professionals. Defining what mixed-use means, Professor Graeme Evans of the Cities Institute focussed on the concentration and diversity of activities which bring new life to towns and cities.

There is less need to travel, a more secure environment and the efficiency of shared facilities such as transport, services and parking. Many of the characteristics of the ‘creative economy’ are facilitated by mixing uses whether in the reuse of redundant premises or in new development.

Lora Nicolaou of DEGW demonstrated that the creation of new employment centres outside the city centre around transport interchanges could shorten some journeys to work but, by adding choices, could increase the overall mileages actually travelled. She saw merit in larger developments having a predominant use to give them focus. She also noted that her wealthy friends were the ones who had the choice of working near where they lived whilst others often had to commute long distances to their jobs.

This may be where mixed-use development at the scale of the live/work unit comes in. Earlier this year, the Live/Work Network was founded with the aim of providing the UK’s first information service dedicated to providers and users of live/work. Their aim is to help everyone involved in live/work development learn more about each other’s projects, provide sound advice based on best practice, and to lobby for a more effective regulatory and funding framework for live/work.

At its first meeting it scored a success when Richard McCarthy, in charge of sustainable communities policy at the ODPM, challenged live/work developers to clarify how they can help the government achieve its objectives. They have submitted their report to him and have set up a website for developers and users**. They call for the creation of a separate use class for live/work so as to help stop units from becoming solely residential and to promote understanding of this type of development. They also want planning guidance on sustainable communities and housing to encourage live/work development.

While councils such as Southwark, Lambeth, Haringey and Merton in London and the Welsh Development Agency are supportive, others are hostile. Cities now enjoying a central area revival also see the benefits of live/work as part of mixing uses: Coventry, Birmingham, Plymouth and Huddersfield included. The hostility tends to arise where experience suggests that some occupiers ignore the employment aspect of the use and it becomes a means of introducing residents into a defined employment area.

This perception may be justified to some extent but goes against current preferences expressed by John Prescott and Ken Livingstone that there is little point in planners holding on to underused or derelict industrial sites which can be better used to meet shortages of housing. The Live/Work Network suggests wider use of section 106 legal agreements to give authorities indefinite control over the mixed use of these units. Ironically the hostility has been greatest in the London borough of Hackney who pioneered live/work development, starting with an ‘experimental’ policy in Shoreditch in the early 90s.

They have this year rescinded their supplementary policy and are refusing new applications despite the regeneration success they have seen in that previously dying area where over 900 live/work units have been created. The density of employment for many such schemes is many times greater than the former industrial shells they replaced and a lively 24-hour neighbourhood has emerged.

Writing in this monthÕs Planning in London*** (‘The bananas republic of Hackney’) Lee Mallett says: “If a building is structurally sound, meets the building and fire regulations, and appears suitable to the user for the purpose he wishes to use it for, and the use causes no annoyance to neighbours, what right does the local council have to dictate how someone should use that property? This is the civil rights issue at the heart of the live-work debate.
We donÕt need another use-class specifically to cover live-work. We should remove the need to obtain planning consent to convert a building from employment use to residential. London is screaming out for more housing, yet Canutes in planning departments all over London resist this with every fibre of their professional beings Ð to the point where you begin to think it’s just a control thing.

So just forget about live-work and let people get on with making London more prosperous instead of trying to preserve employment uses for political ends”. Mixed-use development can go in one of two directions: it can combine vitality with flexibility which not only provides a variety of uses but allows for these to change and mix over the life of a building, or it can be the controlled, frozen arrangement determined by the planning regime at the time of its conception.

*www.mixed-use.com and www.flexibility.co.uk


***from www.planninginlondon.com

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership. Visit www.bwcp. co. uk