How densely should we build?

Hulton Park

25th April 2016

With land under pressure, increasing the density of housing is one obvious solution, and it doesn’t have to mean cramped surroundings…  

Developers like building large houses because they offer the best ratio on any particular site between production cost and profit.

Councils have to get a lot of houses built, as the Government will take away their planning powers if they don’t, and will not give them the “new homes bonus” it hands out for every new build.

The result is that not only is land being used ineffectively – and more of it is being used up than necessary – but houses are far more expensive than they should be and unaffordable to the younger people most in need of them.

The number of houses on any particular plot is called density. Government guidelines – now withdrawn – were that there should be between 30 and 50 houses per hectare. Our District Councils typically have a “target” of 30 – that is right down at the bottom end of the range – and are often accepting applications far below this.

It is easy to see that, since the cost of land is a key constituent of house prices, houses at low densities are going to be several times as expensive as houses at high ones.

In fact though, even the Government’s old target of an average of 40 houses per hectare is not very much by historical standards, where 75 per hectare would have been the norm.  In case you are thinking that means Dickens rat-infested warrens, or soulless high rises, it is in fact the average density in Kensington and Chelsea today, where people are happy to pay £4 million for a terraced house.

Nor are such densities inappropriate in the countryside. Many, if not most, villages contain small rows of terraced cottages, where farm workers used to live.

Increasing densities protects more of the countryside. It provides cheaper and more affordable homes for local people, rather than executive houses for weekenders and commuters.

That is why CPRE Oxfordshire is putting pressure on Local Councils to introduce compulsory minimum densities on all available sites. We already have too many unaffordable executive homes. Bringing back terraces would minimise land take, provide the less expensive houses that young people need, and help guarantee vibrant communities.
Developers might not like it, but if they knew the rules would be enforced, and it was the houses people need or nothing, they would build what we need.

For further information, please see our new density guidelines below.