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The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

How to build better places

25th April 2015

Urban places are popular. Think of where the world likes to go on holiday, and it is the great cities that attract millions of visitors. It isn’t only the larger international ones people want to spend time in either. Small, densely packed urbanism seems just as popular – found in towns like Rye on the south coast of England or Bruges just across the North Sea.

There’s also no denying that Britain, and southeast England in particular, is in need of a lot more urbanism for its rapidly growing population. Well that’s OK then, all we need to do is create the types of places that we pay good money to spend time in, and we can provide enough new homes to alleviate the shortage. It is a central conundrum that if urbanity is popular, then why can’t new urban places be popular?

But everyone knows it doesn’t work like that, or at least it doesn’t seem to have worked like that for the last seventy years. Milton Keynes supposed rehabilitation aside, none of the centrally-planned post-war New Towns has become a byword for aspirational living. A RIBA report found two thirds of people would not even consider buying a new home, despite their obvious advantages of improved energy efficiency and maintenance costs. This is pretty staggering – imagine another industry where the majority of consumers shunned the latest product for the older version.

Why are people so turned off by developers’ products? Well, they score very low on the features that people rate highest. Research from Savills shows that a property’s ‘external appearance’ is surpassed only by ‘neighbourhood’ in a potential home buyer’s considerations. Modern homes tend to be ‘featureless boxes’ located in dormitory neighbourhoods that lack the facilities and feel of established areas. Interiors rarely compensate for this – the UK has officially the meanest floor-space for new homes in Western Europe, 21% smaller than the average and half the size of a new build in Denmark. Look outside again and there’s little cheer either. The spacious front and back gardens of the typical 60s Bellway suburb have given way to shared car parks, metre-deep front gardens and back yards designed to be just about big enough for a child’s trampoline.

What people want, and what developers and local authorities want, has never been more divergent. Most people would prefer to live in a house rather than a flat (in a recent poll only 3% expressed a desire to live in a block with more than 10 units), but the percentage of new houses being built has fallen from 81% to 57% of total new builds after 2002, representing a massive increase in flat building.

Tall buildings are also unpopular. 56% of Londoners would not be happy to live in a tall building, versus 27% who would (Ipsos-Mori, 2014), yet the number of buildings of 20 or more storeys planned for the capital is in the high 200s, which is an increase of over 1000% on what was built in the past five years. The vast majority of these are residential. Of course there’s demand out there for such high rise towers, but no-one pretends that these are anything other than investment products.

The housing crisis is a many-headed hydra and can be tackled in a great many ways. Thinking about the whole planning system itself, a radical change would be to reconsider the principle that development is not allowed unless specific permission is granted. For landowners to have absolutely no right to develop unless it is allowed by the planning authority has come under great strain and vulnerable to centralised political interference.

Protection of neighbours and the environment could be achieved by laying down a set of parameters to which landowners can refer in advance, confident that they can build unchallenged. This is normal in many parts of the world. To be able to develop so long as plans comply with a local plan would liberate thousands of small builders and provide better peace-of-mind to communities. Statutory rights to light and other amenity could be more vigorously defended, this would establish a direct relationship between neighbours to enable negotiated development.

Blandly calling for ‘high quality design’ in a document like the London Plan clearly has no impact in the current circumstances. Other countries have more innovative ways of ensuring good design. In Norway for example, a percentage of the build cost of certain public buildings must be spent on art, loosely defined. It would be similarly possible to stipulate that a certain percentage of build cost be spent on a building’s façade – a much easier and more certain way of ensuring quality design than vague appeals buried in the volumes of planning bureaucracy.

Buildings whose scale, massing and height are far above the average of a particular neighbourhood could easily come under much more assured and objective evaluation. After all, they are concrete measurables which could be subjected to threshold tests for local referenda, specific regulation, or compensation for affected neighbours. Instead of being items to horse-trade over between developers and planners whilst everyone else sits on the side lines, a resident-led local plan could decide how they are treated so landowners know in advance what would be acceptable. Good design could be encouraged through the tax system, with reliefs for buildings that are popular in a community, or premiums for those that cause detriment.

As Alain de Botton has pointed out, we know what makes for good urbanism. But by the confluence of many complex factors – which are by no means all covered in this article – what we get can often be its opposite. The result can sometimes be as disastrous as the Woolwich Central development, recent winner of the architecture’s ugly prize the Carbuncle Cup. To behold Woolwich Central is to disbelieve that the UK actually has a planning system at all. Short-term need for volume and the short-term investment horizons of big developers has become a toxic mix and is putting the fabric of communities at risk.

Creates Streets is a social enterprise encouraging the creation of more urban homes in conventional, terraced streets rather than complex multi-storey buildings. We do this via research, arguing for policy change and consulting to developers and landowners. We are members of the Government’s Design Panel. Find out more about our work here.

James Wildblood runs a business consultancy having previously run a retail business. He has recently finished a Masters at UCL specialising in urbanism and architectural history.


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