Opinion: Grow the non-speculative, non-profit sector

That is what government needs to do through its policies if it is to optimise the social, environmental and economic outcomes of housebuilding and placemaking, writes Chris Brown.

The holistic value - social, economic and financial - of building good quality places is a topic of huge importance, but one which is surprisingly under-researched, given the £50 billion or so invested in it every year in the UK. So, the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) event on the subject last December was very welcome and well attended by a broad range of stakeholders including government, though, sadly, not the big speculative housebuilders.

Matthew Carmona, professor of planning and urban design at The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL, presented his place value wiki. He made the important point that the nearly 300 pieces of peer-reviewed evidence in the resource aren't just his, or somebody else's, idea of what good design is. They reflect real positive outcomes on the various recognised dimensions of value. The Quality of Life Foundation (QoLF) – a new independent body led by architect Sadie Morgan - was not part of this event, but it has recently undertaken, though not yet published, work, which identifies six themes for quality of life in places: ownership, movement, belonging, caring, nature and interaction. QoLF is shortly to undertake some primary research.

Combined with the similarly unpublished CaCHE research - led by Flora Samuel, professor of architecture in the built environment at University of Reading, and Tom Kenny, policy officer at RTPI - into delivering design value, we were presented with a masterclass of the available and emerging evidence.

Much of the currently available evidence is used as standard practice by urban designers, the importance of street trees, for example. Matthew's simple, evidence based, ladder of place quality approach to identifying aspects of urban design that local authorities and communities should, "avoid, beware, aspire, require," went down well with the audience.

Barriers to delivery

The discussion highlighted a couple of big barriers to delivering high quality, valuable places. The first was the inability of valuers to even assess the financial value of new places, based on their designs, or even prior to first sale once the schemes are completed, due to the backward-looking methodology of valuation, something that big data might resolve. The reliance of the new homes market on mortgages, and therefore mortgage valuers, means that it is often some years before their real value, high or low, becomes evident in transactions.

The second was the focus of the speculative housebuilders on profit, rather than a more holistic definition of value, including social and environmental value. It's not because they are evil, just that the economic system in which they operate means that any increase in costs that is not more than covered by an increase in house prices means that they don't get to buy, or therefore develop, a particular site in a competitive market.

One conclusion is that the motivations of the organisations that undertake development are probably one of the key determining factors in the quality of the outcomes. A financially driven organisation will deliver social and environmental outcomes to the minimum required by the law. A community organisation, or one with a social purpose, will deliver much, much more.

The policy conclusion is that governments with the objective of trying to optimise social, environmental and economic outcomes should drive much harder to grow the scale of the non-speculative, non-profit housing delivery and placemaking sector.

Chris Brown is executive chairman of Igloo Regeneration.


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