17. Housing design – Could do better?

The last few months have seen a surfeit of policy and practice initiatives aimed at raising the quality of new residential development in England.  This is to be welcomed when one considers the results of CABE’s various regional housing design audits which, to summarise, concluded: ‘Could do better’.

Housing design, could do better

Collectively CABE’s audits have revealed that more than 80% of new housing schemes are failing to reach ‘good’ or ‘very good’ standards, a factor cited in Homes for the Future, the Government’s recent Green Paper on housing.  In this, the Government declare their intention to “eliminate poor development and ensure that good and very good development is no longer the exception but the norm”.  Key roles are envisaged for CABE and the Academy for Sustainable Communities, but also for the planning system; a new policy context for which was set out earlier in the year in revised PPS3.  PPS3 reinforced the national policy requirement for planning authorities to seek high quality residential design that improves the character, quality and functionality of areas, and which aims to create places, streets and spaces that are visually attractive, safe, accessible, inclusive and distinctive.

Yet in the Green Paper a further motive for the emphasis on better design is revealed.  It states “Too often time and resources are wasted on all sides in reworking the basic principles of schemes after they have been submitted for planning permission.  We want to take this inefficiency out of the system”.  This conflation of design and time in Government policy is nothing new, although thankfully here the old mantra that a focus on design will unduly delay the planning process is replaced by a more positive focus on better design as providing the necessary grease to oil the wheels of the system.

Thus it is proposed to establish and test a set of design benchmarks that could operate independently of the planning process (perhaps even in advance of it) and through which design quality can be assessed.  I myself have suggested (in this column) establishing a new Urban Design Review infrastructure in order to provide more informed and uncompromised decision-making on design.  However, I would add a cautionary note.  To work, this must be a locally based and appropriately skilled process.  A national tick-box system will inevitably lead to lowest common denominator design solutions, and to identikit housing appearing everywhere.

The Green Paper also envisages a major boost to the affordable housing sector, with a commitment to build 70,000 affordable houses a year by 2010.  Given the history of social housing design in the UK, this announcement has been preceded by major initiatives from the Housing Corporation in order to up their game and avoid past mistakes.

In April the Corporation published its Design and Quality Strategy, closely followed by a new set of Design and Quality Standards.  The former envisages an era where, on the one hand, standards will be raised, particularly in the broad sustainability area, so that affordable housing will once again be seen as setting the standards for others to follow.  On the other, it relaxes certain detailed requirements of the previous regime that, for example, prevented affordable housing from being pepper-potted within market housing schemes.  High environmental standards and tenure blindness are the highly laudable twin aims.

The Strategy sets out the high level policy of the Corporation to deliver better design by establishing key design principles, using the competitive framework of the corporation to reward better design, better enforcing compliance, and evaluating the impact of design on residents’ experiences of their homes.  The Standards themselves put meat on the bones of the Strategy by establishing what exactly this means for the different types of housing sponsored by the Corporation.  These represent a radical simplification of the earlier Scheme Development Standards which they replace, using CABE’s Building for Life standards, the Government’s Code for Sustainable Homes, and their own Housing Quality Indicator tool to assess core standards in three key areas – internal environment, sustainability and external environment.

The limitations of the previously overly prescriptive and uncreative approach to housing design have been accepted, and instead a more flexible system that establishes the core ‘must-have’ minimum requirements for good design, alongside a level of local interpretation of the advice, is being introduced.  Despite this, and despite warm words about the need for more mixed communities in the Design and Quality Strategy, questions of mixed use and tenure are largely ignored.  Instead greater mixing provides the carrion-call for a further initiative, the Williams Report on the design and provision of social housing in the Thames Gateway.

The Williams Report concludes that too many mediocre developments are taking place in the Gateway, and that instead we should be building mixed tenure, mixed use, mixed unit communities with a set of standards that prioritise a high quality external environment.  For Williams, the aim should be nothing less than a completely new means of allocating grant funding through establishing long-term partnerships with housebuilders (social or market) and their designers; partnerships that are able to demonstrate to a specially convened expert panel a high level of commitment to design quality.  The carrot would be the security that as long as they continued to deliver high quality development, partnership funding would be secure.  The stick would be removal of partnership status if outcomes fell short of those promised.

Thames gateway, failing to define the place

Such a partnership-led gold standard (particularly on climate change) is also envisaged in a further initiative – this time from Government – which promises to deliver a new Eco-town in every English region, each with 5-20,000 new homes.  As well as 30-50% affordable housing, the Eco-towns will be zero carbon developments with a mix of uses and facilities, each delivered by a dedicated delivery organisation, most likely in the New Town mode.  A core requirement for these will be a commitment to high standards of design across all housing tenures, other uses, and for the public realm; delivered through design competitions for key stages of each town, coordinated through an agreed masterplan.

So far, the details for this initiative remain sketchy, not least on what financial commitment is being made from Government.  Instead, an Eco-towns Prospectus seeking expressions of interest from local stakeholders to put the aspirations and principles into practice has been published.  Building on its Best Practice in Urban Extensions and New Settlements guide, the TCPA have been asked to provide further guidance for promoters and local authorities interested in bringing forward such Eco-towns.  For TCPA members, this initiative will be watched with particular interest and promises to bring a new level of creativity and excitement back to planning.  However, a final more prosaic initiative may yet be the most decisive in its overall impact on design.

This is the new Manual for Streets published, after years of delay, jointly by DCLG, DoT and the Welsh Assembly.  Although just another generic design guide – relating primarily to new residential streets – the real impact of Manual for Streets will be felt in finally tying the Department for Transport (and therefore Highways Authorities up and down the country) into the precepts of good urban design.  In other words it supports streets that are not just (or primarily) designed to accommodate vehicles and movement, but which are instead designed as ‘places’ for users to enjoy whether for play, social activities, walking, cycling, or driving.  Thus at one and the same time the Manual seeks streets that are safe, attractive, inclusive, well connected, locally distinctive, and easy to maintain.

If this can be achieved, the guide will have had a dramatic effect.  As such it will impact not only on all the housing resulting from the initiatives described above, but also on all the other everyday and unremarkable, and, as CABE has revealed, too often unacceptable developments that will continue to deliver most of our housing needs for the foreseeable future.

Overall, much is going on.  In fact it might be argued that there has not been such a coordinated focus on the design of new residential development since the heady days of the post-war housebuilding boom.  Then, like now, there was plenty of initiatives, plenty of policy and plenty of guidance to.  There were also many professionals and politicians who thought they had all the answers as part of what Yvette Cooper in the introduction to the Eco-towns prospectus described as a “nationwide consensus in support of new housing”.

Today, no such consensus exists, but we are wiser (one hopes) after learning the lessons from what worked and, more particularly, what did not, back then.  Lets hope then that if all these initiatives amount to more than simply fine words on paper, that behind them a real consensus does at last exist on one point: that wherever new housing is built, it is built to the best possible design standards that can reasonably be achieved.  The Government is on board, the initiatives suggest that the social housing sector, local planners and even the highways engineers are coming on board.  Perhaps with the right combination of carrots and sticks envisaged above, the private housebuilders might sign up also.  They will have to if ‘Could do better’ is to be consigned to the past.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


October 2007