Kensington & Chelsea – development in London’s cultural heart

Alex Wray

Account Manager

Snapdragon at PLMR recently held the second event of its ‘In Conversation With’ series, an exciting programme where we speak with key figures in local government about planning and development. Last week, Snapdragon at PLMR Account Director, Natasha Kendall, spoke to Councillor Johnny Thalassites, the Lead Member for Planning, Place, and Environment at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC). The informative discussion shed light onto RBKC’s sustainability aspirations, its work toward digitalising the local plan process in RBKC, and its effort to boost engagement in the planning system. 

RBKC is both the smallest borough in London by geographical area and one of the most densely populated. The area’s rich cultural offering attracts millions of tourists every year, and this setting is reflected in the attractive townscape. An extraordinary 80% of the borough is included within conservation areas and this presents a unique challenge to the Council’s leadership as they try to meet the Borough’s housing targets.  

During the discussion Cllr Thalassites’ insisted that the Council remains open for growth, but they must be selective of the sites designated for development and sensitive of the existing surrounding. He referred to Councillors as “stewards of local heritage” who must preserve and enhance the quality of the area. This idea of a beautiful borough is one of the four key pillars of the Council’s planning strategy: alongside values of inclusivity, connectively, and sustainabilityThe latter ‘pillar’ underpins the leadership’s ambitious target to become a net zero council by 2030, and a net zero borough by 2040. 

Planning reforms have been one of the Government’s top priorities since winning the 2019 general election and have proved controversial at local government level. Although the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities, Michael Gove, looks set to row back on plans to make councils designate land into zones for growth, renewal, or protection, RBKC has already begun to identify areas where development would be appropriate. 

Cllr Thalassites shared his thoughts on the Government’s proposals, stating that he’s glad the housing target algorithm has been dropped, but still raised concerns over other areas of policy. He was critical of the decision to frontload democratic input in the planning process but did encourage developers to begin community engagement as soon as possible. He continued on this point to note that he would like assurances that people could still comment on individual applications, rather than only during the Local Plan process as mooted. 

When examining RBKC’s potential site allocations, the majority lie in the north and west of the Borough, so areas such as Kensal Canalside, Lots Road, and Earl’s Court are likely to see the bulk of growth. The Council will also be undertaking its biggest housebuilding programme in decades at Edenham Way, with plans for 600 homes, including 300 for social rent. The Council has also backed several Business Improvement Districts across the Borough including at Kings Road, and Kensington High Street. 

Developers, if interested in any of these areas, should bear in mind the Council’s attitude to development, as explained by Clllr Thalassites. He said that to fully capitalise on the smaller number of sites available in RBKC, the leadership was focused on quality and sustainability. Generally, this means low-rise development in accordance with the rest of the Borough. Anticipating scrutiny, Cllr Thalassites noted that the Council could still deliver high density but, in a manner suitable to the existing townscape, for example through innovative schemes such as mansion blocks, which he argues are one of the densest housing typologies.  

Interestingly, the Council has taken out an Article 4 Direction for the whole of the Borough, which protects against possible Class E to residential development in town centres. The changes to  Permitted Development Rights by the Government have proved controversial (read more on this here) and it remains to be seen whether the Council’s measures will prove successful. One aspect of the reforms that Cllr Thalassites did feel positively about was the introduction of design codes, as he felt they would be useful in safeguarding the Borough’s townscape. 

RBKC was one of only ten local authorities to partake in the Pathfinder Project, a pilot programme to inform the Government’s plans to digitalise the planning system. Cllr Thalassites was full of praise for the scheme and believes that digital Local Plans have great potential. He encouraged developers to use interactive maps in their engagement work as it enables local people to take ownership of the planning process.  

The webinar gave a fascinating insight into the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and attendees will take away vital knowledge about the three criteria on which development is judged in RBKC: its sustainability, affordability, and response to townscape. We are very grateful to Cllr Thalassites for his time and are excited to welcome you to the next event in our series, with Cllr Ken Rhatigan, Leader of Basingstoke and Deane Council. Join us on 30th November at 12.30 by signing up here.  

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