Val Bagnall: How Developers Can Unlock Airspace Opportunities

The severity and pervasiveness of the UK’s housing crisis has made headlines for years and whilst simply ‘building more properties’ should be the fastest and most effective way to tackle this, the reality is quite different. The number of new homes required keeps going up, whilst the number delivered fails to keep pace and the problem continues to grow.

The stark reality is that, in the Capital alone, an additional 65,000 new homes a year are needed, according to the target set in the Mayor’s London Plan, whilst less than half of this figure are currently being delivered (28,000 at most). The severity of the situation and the challenge faced in addressing it, is clear.

Developers are naturally at the forefront of pursuing ways to solve the UK’s housing crisis and an increasingly popular solution, due to the evolution of planning policy, is the utilisation of airspace above existing, low rise residential and commercial premises – otherwise known as ‘airspace development’.

“360,000 homes, equivalent to a year’s worth of new national housing stock, could be built on London’s rooftops alone”

It offers an innovative solution to a serious problem, whilst reducing pressure on the greenbelt and – done well – is delivered without any adverse effect to the skyline.

Our research has identified that 360,000 homes, equivalent to a year’s worth of new national housing stock, could be built on London’s rooftops alone. What’s more, 120,000 of those homes could be built above existing council blocks and housing association properties, addressing the shortage of affordable homes for people on lower incomes.

However, local authorities often cite issues of roof height, access to light, the strength of foundations and general disruption as reasons to deny planning.

The reality now though, is that the weight of evidence in favour of airspace development is having a significant impact on tipping the scales, and relaxing the planning rules for rooftop development is something that both the government and Greater London Authority (GLA) appear to agree upon.

Last month, James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, announced that the government would consult on permitted development rights that could allow property owners to extend certain buildings upwards without being subject to the usual planning constraints. The GLA has also included airspace within its draft London Plan.

“Chancellor Philip Hammond announced a consultation on proposed permitted development reforms for airspace development to include the high street”

In July, the National Planning Policy Framework pushed the same agenda, when it incorporated airspace into its revised document published over the summer. It called for planning policies to support opportunities to use the airspace above existing residential and commercial premises for new homes.

In a further boost for developers, the Government announced in October that it had removed restrictions on council borrowing to deliver the next generation of council houses – a move which should make airspace an attractive proposition for council as well as private-sector developers.

Most recently, Chancellor Philip Hammond, announced in the budget a consultation on proposed permitted development reforms for airspace development to include the high street, generating new homes whilst creating windfall payments for owners.

With this groundswell of support for airspace development coming from the planning sphere, more developers are now looking for opportunities to work in this new dimension.

Positively, this isn’t new, uncharted, territory for those developers. The notion of upwards extensions is established elsewhere in the world and the purchasing of airspace in both Europe and the United States is commonplace.

And as airspace development grows in both popularity and acceptance, it does so with strong environmental and logistical proof points. Simply, airspace is sympathetic to the environment and relies on construction methods that cause minimal disruption. For urban planners and developers who seek to conserve an area’s character, upward extensions offer a preferable alternative to vast skyscrapers, maintaining a human scale and easy accessibility. Where a rooftop extension is set back from the existing building’s perimeter, it may not even be visible from the ground at all.

“Prefabricated new homes can be built in a factory’s quality-controlled environment, then installed on a roof by crane over a day or two”

New technology, meanwhile, is making upward extensions ever more practical and affordable. Computer programmes can calculate how much extra weight a building can bear; whole buildings can be assembled off-site using modular construction and lifted into position; and 3D models using Ordnance Survey and Land Registry data can easily identify the rooftops which could provide many thousand new homes of this type.

The quality of modular housing is easier to control than traditional construction on land. Prefabricated new homes can be built in a factory’s quality-controlled environment, then installed on a roof by crane over a day or two. This reduces the impact on the neighbours below and minimises disruption to our under-strain road network.

Of course, questions of finance are commonplace when it comes to developments of any size and scale and the costs associated with delivering solutions that address both London and the UK’s housing crisis continue to escalate in may areas. It doesn’t, however, need to be this way.

Airspace development, in fact, helps to address the funding gap associated with meeting housing targets since it can be a viable means of repurposing existing assets which hold significant value potential. Our own data suggests that this ‘new’ form of land supply could be worth in the region of £54bn.

As a pioneer in airspace development, we (Apex Airspace) have ambitious plans to build many hundreds of new homes in this way. We have signed partnerships with numerous Housing Associations and big businesses; and importantly, we have the scale potential to deliver against the expected growth in this area over the coming years.

Airspace development is a practical response to addressing the current housing need. It has the power to genuinely alleviate the UK’s housing crisis, and provide hundreds of thousands of people with a home, but importantly for the developers who can make this happen, it’s a form of housing delivery that addresses the challenges so often associated with both land supply and financing streams.

Val Bagnall is a Managing Director at Apex Housing Group.

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