Academician Derek Latham AoU shares his thoughts on the proposed policy changes
Those involved in the process of creating our towns and cities – architects, planners, developers and housebuilders – know that the current planning system is broken by excess bureaucracy, checking of inappropriate detail, and delay. Planning staff appear overwhelmed and do not have the time to see, or plan for, the bigger picture, the vision of a better future. Hence we are served with more of the same ‘anywhere estates’ throughout the country. The system reactively checks whether applications are too bad to refuse rather than seeking to create an upward spiral of quality.
The ‘Planning for the Future’ proposed policy changes clearly seeks to address this with a clearer, rules-based system, similar to that used to create exemplary urban development in continental cities. Clarity, early in the development process, will remove the uncertainty that a host of planning consultants and lawyers feed off in the multiple stages of current planning procedures increasing costs and exacerbating delays.
It seeks to champion quality by proposing a fast-track system for beautiful buildings utilising local guidance for developers to build and preserve beautiful communities. Sadly, beauty is not a word most people associate with development, yet it is not only the basis for original architectural theory, but it is also a practically realisable goal, as can be seen from developments that have utilised design panels involving communities in ‘charettes’ to express their communal vision of how to create a beautiful place.
Contrary to the expectations of some, this is realisable at a viable investment level, and can, if undertaken online by skilled facilitators, involve a wide variety of residents. It is this process that must challenge and agree the designation of areas proposed for Development, Renewal, or Protection, so that the community decides for the benefit of all, and not just the well-educated and affluent few who want to stop development near them. This will enable the community to protect their heritage, and their local green spaces as if they were ‘mini green belts’, increase the density of development on brownfield sites and champion street trees. Their participation in creating Local Design Codes will require development to exceed a quality threshold for the creation of the new places they and their children will live in.
The emphasis, as in Europe, is upon extensive community involvement in the creation of a vision for their place, whether to respect the local vernacular in more sensitive areas or a vision of a utopian future in the inner city. The proposal to create these initial plans within 30 months will be welcome by communities who despair of serial consultation processes occurring over many years with apparently minimal influence. Exploratory work by Yorkshire Forward just after the millennium, and more recently, The Academy of Urbanism, creating ‘Town Teams’ from local people to lead the development process, illustrates how successful an emphasis upon action and speed can avoid ‘consultation fatigue’ and engender not just support, but eager anticipation of a better future. To be achieved this will require an increase in capacity of forward-thinking planners and urbanists at a scale not seen for decades. This is possible but will require national and local government commitment and funding.
For too long, through successive governments, we have failed to provide, not just the quantity of housing needed to alleviate the housing crises, but in particular the right kinds and amount of social housing. The proportion devoted to first-time homes, shared ownership and social rent is to be largely decided by the local authority. The proposal to create a simple national levy, understandable by all, could remove the protracted section 106 negotiations which can delay the start of development not just by months but by years. Again, clarity will reduce costs and increase implementation.
The current development industry, with a few exceptions such as the redevelopment of Kings Cross goods yard, lacks innovation due to its dominance by a few large housebuilders and investment institutions. The proposal to support and allocate space specifically for, not only more small-to-medium builders, but individual or group self-help housebuilders, will encourage innovation and a competitive increase in quality. However, this will need to be matched by surveyors representing the financial institutions revising their currently backward view of valuation to support investment in quality and sustainable design rather than just replicating previous out-dated and inefficient dwellings
Living in a carbon-neutral eco-house, I particularly appreciate the proposal that ’all new homes should be zero carbon ready’ in order to reduce the immense impact the building industry has upon our carbon emissions, though the detail of how to achieve this through enhanced building regulations is yet to be worked out. Indeed, much of the control of the delivery of quality design will fall upon building control officers and this will need to be recognised and achieved through education and training.
These policy proposals are ambitious and implementing them will be a challenge. In particular, the intended increase in the number of houses to be built each year will have a greater impact on some areas rather than others. This is unavoidable if we, as a government are to provide sufficient houses where they are most needed – the best way of improving affordability and assisting economic recovery. I fear this may be the reason for much of the criticism of these proposals as fellow members of the House realise the impact this will have upon their constituencies. But, if we are to resolve the housing crisis, this has to happen anyway. Better, I say, to achieve it through a modern community-led strategic plan for creating beautiful places to live, rather than the current incremental method, nibbling away of our countryside by developers providing soulless, standard housing with insufficient infrastructure in places people only move to through lack of choice.
Derek Latham AoU
The Academy of Urbanism will be making a response to the white paper. If you would like to contribute to this response, please contact Stephen Gallagher at [email protected].
The Academy also encourages all members to respond individually.