Patrick Mooney, housing consultant and news editor of Housing, Management & Maintenance magazine, asks: has good design been squeezed out by our efforts to increase housing supply?
“Too many housing estates are designed for nowhere in particular. They can be soulless and dispiriting.” That rather damning verdict was written by a Government Minister responsible for planning in an official guide to better housing design.
It was in fact written just over 20 years ago by Lord Falconer (when he briefly held the reins as Housing Minister), but seeing it again a week or two back, I was struck by how similar it is to many of the comments I regularly hear made about more recently built housing developments across the country. So can we achieve quantity without compromising on quality?
Good design is often said to be a matter of personal taste but we all recognise that poor or bad design in housing will very quickly have a detrimental impact on residents and local communities and whether they succeed and thrive, or not. The Government’s new Levelling Up policy recognises this issue and even goes further by saying bad housing damages our health, and can contribute towards years being taken off our life expectancy. Therefore good design and construction should logically be something we all aspire to when planning or building new housing schemes.
With so much new housing required to meet our current and future needs there is a lot of pressure on local authorities and developers to get properties built as fast as possible, but mistakes can be extremely costly and none of us wants to see relatively new housing demolished within just a few years of construction. Cutting corners to speed things up rarely produces sustainable and long lasting solutions to any problem, including a housing shortage.
Fast forward 20 years from Lord Falconer’s withering assessment and one of the country’s leading academics and teachers in planning and urban design has made similar criticisms of England’s new housing, describing its quality as “generally mediocre or poor.”
In a report written for the Place Alliance, Professor Matthew Carmona of University College London has concluded that housebuilders are (still) churning out sub-standard housing schemes, creating poor living conditions for residents. He describes bland architecture, with estates dominated by access roads and parking spaces at the expense of green areas and playgrounds. Other failings include few public transport links and a lack of amenities such as shops, pubs and cafes.
Over the past couple of years Professor Carmona has conducted research on volume housebuilding and surveyed 2,500 households on their attitudes and experiences. This had a particular resonance during lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced many of us to stay inside our homes for extended periods. It showed that one in six of us said we were either ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘very uncomfortable’ in our homes during lockdown. People living in housing built in the last 10 years were the most likely to report feelings of discomfort with their home environment, as well as a weaker sense of community.
By contrast, those that lived in properties built before 1919 were more likely than those that lived in the most recently built homes to be comfortable and to feel a strong sense of community. People in the oldest developments (pre-1919) were also twice as likely as those in the newest to say that their neighbourhood met their everyday needs.
Indeed, the data showed a progressive deterioration of the neighbourhood experience of lockdown from old to new, with older neighbourhoods scoring better than more recent ones. But remember every single one of the modern schemes involved in the survey had gone through the planning system, so is it possible for us to change these outcomes or are we destined to keep repeating the same mistakes?
The National Planning Policy Framework was amended last July to allow councils to refuse “development that is not well designed”. A study by University College London found that the Planning Inspectorate, which hears housebuilders’ appeals, is now three times as likely to back councils who reject developments on design grounds. It also found the majority of blocked schemes were in the south east, suggesting that councils in other regions are not using their new powers.
The UCL report highlighted 12 housing schemes rejected by the Planning Inspectorate on design grounds under the new framework. In one scheme the inspectorate found proposals for a block of flats on the site of a demolished car park in Crawley, West Sussex would offer “unsatisfactory living conditions”, which included limited natural light, a lack of privacy, outside spaces close to roads and railway lines and windows sited next to walkways and close to cars queueing on a traffic gyratory system.
Carmona says big developers have been getting their way for decades but the tables are starting to turn. “Volume housebuilders have been able to get a lot of poor-quality development past local authorities. But this research shows councils can be far more confident in their exercise of quality control,” he said.
He argues it is possible to increase the number of houses built without compromising on the design factors that allow a new community to flourish.
“We are in desperate need of housing but it doesn’t mean we should build poorly designed, unsustainable places,” he said.
His solution is that homes should have access to private open space. They should be big enough to comfortably live in, be well lit and have good insulation from noise. Neighbourhoods also need basic amenities, including open space and local shops and residents should be able to comfortably walk or cycle to them. The recent change to the country’s planning rules was part of a package of measures that Ministers claimed would ensure new housing was “beautiful and well-designed”. The Government is setting up an “Office for Place” to help “communities encourage development they find beautiful, and refuse what they find ugly,” so there are grounds for optimism that the tide is turning.
Trying to uphold standards of good design in new housing is the job of council planning departments, supported by experts in the Planning Inspectorate and professional bodies like the RTPI and TCPA. This seemingly onerous task has not been helped by council planning departments being left short of resources and expertise after a decade of cuts. Some restorative help was announced earlier this year when Homes England and the Department for Levelling Up agreed an investment of more than £200,000 in the Public Practice organisation to aid its expansion and increase the capacity and skills of planners in local councils.
It will be interesting to see if the promised reform of developer contributions, from Section 106 to the infrastructure levy will help create better designed and appointed neighbourhoods. The list of potential uses for the levy already includes affordable housing and infrastructure, local employment and training programmes, the provision and maintenance of open space, participating in carbon offset programmes, the production of transport and construction logistics plans, with Biodiversity Net Gain possibly to be added to the list.
We need to learn from the stress test that lockdown has given our homes and neighbourhoods and consider how we might adapt properties we are already living in, as well as building better
homes now and into the future. Good design is needed to incorporate and reconcile what may appear to be competing demands. To coin a phrase, “this isn’t rocket science,” and while it might seem obvious, it is also true that in too many instances we are not yet delivering enough good quality houses in well designed places with appropriate facilities for all residents. These need
to become the norm, not the exception.