Analysis: Housebuilding beyond the numbers

A Lords select committee fears building more homes is bad news for placemaking quality. The solution could lie with design and the development model, finds Josephine Smit.

Design review has been applied at North West Bicester (PIC A2Dominion)
Design review has been applied at North West Bicester (PIC A2Dominion)

The government’s push to increase housebuilding is putting placemaking at risk, a House of Lords select committee has warned in a report published this month. The National Policy for the Built Environment Committee’s report, Building better places, voices concern that the present emphasis on speed and quantity of housing supply threatens placemaking and the delivery of high quality and design standards.

The report makes a string of recommendations aimed at prioritising quality through the design and delivery process. These include the suggestion that the government makes design review mandatory for major schemes, creating a leaner version of the former Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), led by a chief built environment adviser, to provide design guidance.

Dialogue and design

CABE, which has now been merged into the Design Council, originated the design review process, which has been applied to numerous large-scale residential-led projects. One such project is North West Bicester, where housing provider A2Dominion is leading development. Here design review has helped to integrate a new community, masterplanned by architect Farrells, with an existing town and, according to Jenny Barker, team leader at Cherwell District Council, "challenged the thinking".

RIBA has been a strong advocate of design review, but its policy advisor Mark Crosby acknowledges that there could be a significant obstacle to implementing the report’s proposal. "There is the question of who would pay for it," he says. "It would be difficult for a local authority to say it has to happen on the basis that developers pay for it."

Crosby formerly worked for CABE in the North East, where developers were charged £1500 per scheme for design review. Reaction to that charge was mixed, he says: "We found that initially developers were taken aback, but they soon saw the value of it in the dialogue with the planning authority".

However, design review is not the only tool available to help generate constructive dialogue and establish development quality. The BREEAM Communities standard provides a framework for sustainable development and is winning favour with developers and local planning authorities, says Martin Townsend, sustainability director at BRE Global, which is responsible for BREEAM. Building for Life 12, promoted by Design Council CABE, provides an assessment methodology, using 12 questions, and was praised by Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire Andrew Bridgen in a House of Commons debate earlier this month as offering "a planning process based on what people care about".

Neighbourhood forums could also have an increasing role to play in establishing quality, says David Birkbeck, chief executive of design champion Design for Homes, which was one of the originators of Building for Life. "They are better than design review because they happen at the point of commissioning. They are producing some good quality schemes," he says.

The development model

But Yolande Barnes, head of global research at property consultant Savills believes that quality placemaking has different origins. "This is not to do with design," she says. "What’s important is money and land ownership. This is about long-term patient capital and a land ownership model that allows for participation over the long term. In this country housebuilders build all the houses, while other countries have many routes to market, including build to rent and self-procurement."

Barnes therefore sees quality placemaking coming from players that have a longer-term interest in their developments, including pension funds, local authorities and the private rented sector (PRS). "Companies that are building to let are very interested in placemaking because they don’t want a depreciating asset," she adds.

It’s an approach that has been tried and tested before in the UK, says Barnes: "In building and managing locations like Mayfair, the great estates have proved to have quite a good business model. That ongoing stewardship of an area allows you to produce diverse income streams – from affordable and private housing to different types of commercial."

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