As we move out of the Covid-19 crisis both opposing factors in mass house-building press for their requirements to carry greater weight. The big house-builders are calling on the government to relax planning rules to get the construction industry moving. Requirements for decent design and for ‘place making’ get pushed aside to enable the housing developers to build, build, build. To build anything as long as it's a home.
Not quite anything however; it must, for the most part, sell, meet the basic requirements of the house buying public: detached, irrespective of the space between properties, it must have a front and back garden, a car parking space and an en-suite master bedroom.
Opposing this view, a group of organisations; Civic Voice, CPRE, the Architects and Built Environment Design Council and Place Alliance produced a leaflet congratulating the government on the broad thrust Building Better, Building Beautiful outlined in the White Paper. This was a Government promise to up the stakes in the requirement for a better quality of design and build standards. The leaflet said, simply, 'we agree, now get on with it'.
In April, Place Alliance published a report A Housing Audit for England which can be summed up using their introduction:
‘Whilst some limited progress has been made in some regions, overwhelmingly the message is that the design of new housing environments in England is ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’. Collectively, we need to significantly raise our game if we are to create the sorts of places that future generations will feel proud to call home.’
In Ipswich we are very much aware of the differences between developer requirements to get things moving (to their standards) and the wider desire for a new suburb of quality, attractiveness and sense of place. I refer of course to Henley Gate, the proposed Crest Nicholson development of 1,100 homes north of the railway off Henley Road (part of what will eventually be the 3,500 homes – Ipswich Garden Suburb).
It appears that Crest have submitted an application based on a limited variety of their standard house types, laid out as typical twenty-first century estate streets. Nothing vernacular, nothing to suggest Suffolk, very little that could be regarded as sustainable, green or pleasant, just another major anywhere estate by a national house-builder.
Research has consistently shown that high quality design makes new residential development more acceptable to local communities and delivers value to all. The opinion of The Ipswich Society, and of the members of the Conservation and Design Panel is that these proposals fail to realise the tremendous opportunity that this green field site on the edge of an existing community could bring.
For example, in terms of the ‘Landscape’: ‘This is an absolutely critical element of the design and the one which will at least hopefully add a bit of weight behind the ‘garden suburb’ dream. With this in mind it is such a shame that the drawings are contradictory and lightweight in this regard. The ‘dreamy’ images within the Design and Access statement bear no resemblance to the submitted layout plan(s) which in turn do not match the landscape drawing. The level of tree planting looks light and the hedges fronting gardens arbitrary.’
The Place Alliance report was based on a survey of 142 housing developments across England, and was compared with a similar audit carried out between 2004 and 2007. They note that although there has been improvement it was from a very low base. The majority of developments are still overwhelmingly ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ (75% of the audited projects).
Notable findings include:
Character/Sense of place: Developments often had little distinguishing personality or sense of belonging. The opportunity to create a distinguishing ‘personality’ to the new development, particularly when it was detached from the existing urban sprawl had not been realised (true of the proposals for Henley Gate).
Many developments are failing to provide an environment which puts walking and cycling first, failing to deliver the obvious health benefits such a layout could promote. The report also notes the poor integration of storage space for bins, garden requisites and bicycles but notes the overwhelming number of parked cars, particularly the need to park on grass verges, pavements and on cycle lanes.
These issues lead to unattractive and unfriendly environments dominated by large areas of hard surfacing. Walking routes should follow desire lines, the direct route across soft landscaped areas and the whole estate should be permeable, particularly for pedestrians and cyclists.
The best and worse places
Less affluent communities get the worse designs but wealthier communities, where the development generates higher returns, do not necessarily see anything better! And the report notes that ‘good design’ doesn’t necessarily mean higher costs, but does lead to better value in post build surveys.
Place Alliance also found that when building at lower densities, on greenfield sites the outcomes scored progressively more poorly as the projects moved away from the urban core. For developments closer to the urban centre the ‘sense of place’ was already there with the existing community facilities.
The most disturbing outcome of the report is the fact that a substantial number of these substandard developments were approved on appeal, the inspector granting planning permission based on the failure of the local authority to grant sufficient permissions to meet their own housing numbers.
The largest house-builders should set a better ethical standard for the industry at large. They are building developments which will have a profound impact for many decades on the places and communities they are helping to shape, on the social well being and health outcomes of their customers and future occupants, and on the environment at large. The negative impacts of poor design are well known and understood.
[placealliance.org.uk – ‘A Housing Design Audit for England’]