As another Minister takes over housing, James Parker asks just what is going on?

Shock horror, a relatively unfamiliar MP is now in charge at the Housing Ministry.

You probably hadn’t heard of Chris Pincher until he took over from the short-lived (by most other government Departments’ standards at least), Esther McVey.

Despite the more prominent McVey’s own construction credentials from her upbringing, and her being fairly active in areas such as promotion of MMC in her few months in the job, she was given the boot in Johnson’s reshuffle.

1 in 5 developments should have been refused outright, due to their poor design

James Parker James Parker Editor of Housebuilder and Developer

Lacking focus and strategy

This is the tenth housing minister in 10 years – and they wonder why the industry doesn’t have a concerted focus or strategy on buildings the homes needed to meet demand.

It’s almost as if the government thinks that the industry will do everything it needs off its own back to holistically fix its delivery problems, and that a Minister is mere window dressing. Or perhaps it’s just too afraid of it.

This is in the context of some fairly damning recent criticism of current housebuilding, although emitting from the normally anti-development body formerly known as the Campaign for Rural England (CPRE).

Working with University College London, the body produced, at the end of January, a ‘housing design audit for England.’

Stark reading

While the report acknowledges a “small overall improvement” in housing design nationally since the last design audits of 2007, it still makes for stark reading.

In reviewing 140 housing developments since then, the authors conclude that one in five “should have been refused outright, as their poor design was contrary to advice given in the National Planning Policy Framework.

In addition, half of the rest shouldn’t have been given permission without ‘significant improvements to their design having been made first.”

Less affluent communities are 10 times more likely get poor-quality design.  Developments which failed on design were particularly bad at responding to their context and providing a sense of place, and schemes were often dominated by roads at the expense of people.

Common sense?

It’s really common sense that if you design a group of houses with little public space and very hard to negotiate access, with cars given the priority and bins scattered randomly outside, people will not be singing a development’s praises.

While developments still raise hackles among existing residents in particular, making achieving planning even more difficult, it’s a truism to say that developers have to do better.

The problem is, with demand drastically outstripping supply, there is nothing within the market itself that will force the design and masterplanning offenders to improve; they will simply build what they need to in order to achieve the absorption rate, at the size and shape buyers and planners will tolerate.

Design works

Professor Matthew Carmona (The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL) Chair of the Place Alliance, who led the research, said: “Research has consistently shown that high quality design makes new residential developments more acceptable to local communities and delivers huge social, economic and environmental value to all, yet we are still failing in this regard across England.”

Carmona added that under-pressure planning authorities (already understaffed and under-resourced) are “prioritising numbers in the short-term over the long-term negative impacts of bad design.”

He asserted that in the light of this, housebuilders have little incentive to improve when their designs continue to pass through the planning system.”

At the same time, he said that highways do not even see themselves as having a role in place-making for the local community that will have to house a new development.

We need a bigger stick

The CPRE may castigate larger housebuilders for their failure to do better, and demand they ‘raise their game,’ however expecting them to do this of their own volition is naïve in the extreme.

No one is going to make them improve designs, at the cost to their profits that will entail, without a national, enforceable strategy.

The government is surely the only place this can come from, whether through a comprehensive body like NHBC, or a new, more all-encompassing ‘design police.’

The CPRE does make some concrete proposals, beyond Government needing to “be more prescriptive in seeking less sprawling densities” and requiring highways design that creates “high quality, characterful places.”

It sees stronger planning as the answer – refusing schemes that don’t match up – but to what standard?

The CPRE says ‘minimum requirements,’ but if that’s Building Regulations, surely it’s a pretty low bar given the idea of enhancing ‘a sense of place’ it is talking about.

If it’s the National Planning Policy Framework, then giving planning authorities more clout to enforce all aspects of this will be kryptonite to many housebuilders, but it won’t even happen until the Government beefs up planning authorities.

Local authorities need to use “proactive design codes” – design parameters for each site – and “design review processes” for all major housing schemes, but what this means in practice, isn’t clear.

Where to next Mr Pincher?

In the end, the researchers think that it is housebuilders who “need to drive greater ambition across the sector in order to advance a more ethical approach to the design of development that prioritises the long-term social wellbeing of their customers and the health of the environment at large.”

This will happen in pockets, but whether it can in a co-ordinated, large scale way, is doubtful.

We are a long way from the goals of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s report – yet another recently released, no-doubt well-meaning document – the legacy of the recently deceased, and controversial right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton.

Rather than planting millions of trees (laudable though that is), the focus should be on how we incentivise housebuilders to give more space to people and community, and this means more money, unfortunately for the Government.

With the lack of any in-built levers for elevating quality, but a massive 300,000 homes target to chase, this is the point where a full-bore national design strategy could navigate the balance between commerce, speed and quality that the industry won’t do on its own.

The revolving door of Housing Ministers, the latest of which is the mysterious Mr Pincher, doesn’t provide confidence that such a strictly enforced strategy is going to be a government priority. However, never say never.

James Parker is editor of Housebuilder and Developer