The real life problems of achieving good, large scale, housing design.

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

Many thanks to David Lowin MRTPI, who has provided the excellent blog article below. David is a Chartered Town Planner, the principal of Lowin Associates and 2017 Chair of the RTPI’s South West Region. David is also a Design Review Panel member, attending Design Review Panels across the South West; in Cornwall, Devon (both Plymouth & Exeter), Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire and Swindon.

"In recent times I have been considering the problems in real life of achieving good large scale housing design, particularly from the volume house building sector.

It is not an issue that I have been faced with since the early years of my career in the 1980’s. In those days, before I joined what my current boss in the public sector calls ‘the dark side’, planning applications for housing contained very little information, and outline ones even less. An Ordnance Survey extract with the site edged in red if it was an outline application, and a completed application form, ownership certificate and a set of drawings, house types and layout if a detailed application. No context plan, no design and access statement, no planning statement, no landscape visual impact assessment, in addition it was the early days of the plan led system, so design policy was scarce and there was only really Government circular advice to guide the decision maker. Now here’s the question: were the housing designs coming forward so much worse than today?

I would say from my perspective, no. this is because the drivers for the applicants have remained the same. Those drivers for the volume producers are adherence to a business model. A business model that views the production of homes as the same as the production of any physical good. The producer wishes to know the cost of the product both as a whole and each constituent part, the capital goods employed as well as the labour element. Of course the land cost will vary over the economic cycle and over a geographical area, but the other costs are pretty much known. Next the producer will be able to work out the profit per unit, after deducting finance and administrative costs.

Now the producer who is most normally a limited company will wish to alert shareholders either public or private to the prospects of the firm. The costs and profit will be known per unit of production so setting an output target will allow a forecast to be given to shareholders. Such targets underpin the share price. How does this affect design? ... Well it leads to a very conservative attitude to product design, if the product has sold well in the past, why change it. So volume house builders are often very loathe to introduce new house types which actually respond to a specific areas vernacular design or a specific context. Why should they go down that route and introduce unwanted risk into the achievement of their business plan.

The only reason why they might be persuaded, is not the plethora of supporting material now required since those comparatively document light days of the eighties, it is development management (control) officers. So let’s have a look at these officers, they have just undergone since the recession the largest reduction in funding of any local government department, their morale is generally not great; who’s would be when in real terms your pay has gone down.

They have been subject to any number of departmental reviews, the aim always being to do more with less. In summary, and I recognise it is a generalisation, they are more likely than not to just say yes to a standard product rather than fight to get something better. The manner in which the ever present five year land supply works does not lead to taking on a battle against poor design, and whist the NPPF and adopted local plan policy, where in place does provide support to reject obviously poor design, the cost of an appeal and constraints of local government financing will not make the planning department favoured with the council’s CEO and finance officer if the council ends up at appeal. Then, with the run down of planning departments, are there any staff members who have the necessary experience to prepare and give the competent evidence at the Inquiry?

So, despite the ever growing requirements for applications for large scale housing to be accompanied by large bundles of documents, I believe that the design of volume housing has not improved over the last nearly thirty years.

What is to be done?; well the government has sought to bring in more competition to the house building industry by giving encouragement to small and medium sized house building enterprises, who generally do not have the same business model as the ‘big boys’. However without some form of legislation to break up the oligarchy of the volume companies it will only affect the margins. Similarly the hope that the market by reason of better design selling faster and with a premium price will drive change in the volume suppliers is a vain hope in a climate of overall scarcity.

Can anything be done at the decision taking stage? Well development management staff could be better paid and valued, and local government overall better financed and valued. The public needs to be educated that the difference between acceptable and good design is vast. The latter will promote well-being, both physical and mental; it will build inclusive sustainable communities.

‘So so’ design will promote a place to live, but nothing else. I am unfortunately not hopeful, there will always be exceptional house builders and councils, but from my perspective, having newly arrived back in the public sector, after some thirty years on 'the dark side', the drive to reduce short term costs in local government by such actions as the introduction of alternative providers of development management can only be seen as short term cost savings over the long term health both visual and physical of new communities."

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