HTA’s Ben Derbyshire explains how the newly launched Building for Life will open dialogue and help developers

Ben Derbyshire

Some view localism as a triumph for small government and others regard it as a charter for small-minded nimbyism. Developers worry that planning applications will increasingly be delayed and disrupted by random and unpredictable interventions as deregulation strips away familiar standards and guidance and the process is opened up to the laity.

Everyone has a story to tell - like the urban design officer on one of our recent schemes insisting on fake chimneys for houses with no flues or fireplaces. This kind of thing adds cost and complexity and misses the point completely as to what makes for a good place to live.

Meanwhile, unease has grown as months, even years have slipped by since the custodians of the popular Building for Life (BfL) quality assessment system dropped the baton in the transition between changed governments and merged quangos.

Building for Life had become popular with local authorities and developers alike, as the 20 questions created a common language with the capacity to cut through the Babel of subjective opinion that makes it so difficult to agree on what good looks like.

BfL Mark 1 was not perfect, and did not work well as a desk assessment tool, as Sir Bob Kerslake discovered with the infamous Kick Start campaign in 2009. In some ways it acquired some of the worst characteristics of any of the burdensome bureaucracies of compliance that entangle the industry. Despite this, its usefulness in setting the agenda for what actually matters was greatly appreciated, and housebuilders filled the hiatus following its demise by creating their own versions for in-house use such as Barratt Developments’, Q17 adaptation.

So, its great to report that over the summer of 2012 the joint owners of the Building for Life brand (Design for Homes, CABE at the Design Council, and the Home Builders’ Federation) finally got it together to refine and re-launch the product as Building for Life 12 - twelve consolidated and clarified questions and a new organisational structure. Not a moment too soon, in my view.

The effort has been to use plain English to identify the crucial tests of quality placemaking - especially connections and facilities, coherent, well connected and legible urban design, adequate and effective parking, servicing, boundaries and so on. In line with the NPPF, style is left out of count, but materials and detail should respond appropriately to context.

BfL 12 was launched last week in the middle England town of Coalville, typical of the marketplace for housing development that will benefit from its adoption. To judge from the reaction of the housebuilders and local authority planners to whom I spoke as we toured a local David Wilson scheme (high scoring under the new methodology) it more than amply fills the void left by the demise of its predecessor.

The Building for Life partners have sensibly decided to disband the army of accredited assessors and the emphasis has shifted from the highly questionable premise that this diverse host were really capable of achieving consistent and reliable judgements of quality. Instead, BfL 12 aims to facilitate dialogue and agreement between developers and approvers of schemes, with a small team of BfL experts on hand to mediate where necessary.

This is a much smarter approach, which gives rise to the further opportunity that the tool can be opened up for use as a pre-application consultation tool, because the plain English of the rationalised questions makes the whole thing much more meaningful to lay people. Pressed on this at the launch, the organisers confirmed that a web enabled portal is planned for this purpose, an immensely valuable innovation that will render coherent dialogue in public participation affordable for many smaller and mid range schemes.

In line with recommendations of the Killian Pretty Review, BfL 12 will be adapted to create a simple standardised format opening draft designs to comment from legitimate community representatives in those areas they might reasonably be expected to influence.

I am particularly in favour of this accessible approach. It will be of immense benefit to have a universally recognised agenda for public dialogue about the design of housing schemes. It should help dispel the worst aspects of ill-informed, subjective and sometimes self-seeking commentary that can disrupt and distort communication with the consumers of housing and the built environment. Too often this has been hijacked and even corrupted by the self-interest of public and professional alike. I feel sure that developers will be only too willing to pay a modest premium to benefit from properly validated feedback - a cost which will be amply compensated for in savings derived from increased certainty.

Ben Derbyshire, managing director of HTA