There are sound reasons for compliance with most of the regulations we face in the UK. The problem comes when developers allow them to compromise a commitment to quality, Brendan Kilpatrick writes

There is a concept called the “resource curse”. It is the argument that certain countries that happen to be endowed with abundant natural resources will become plagued by poor economies and corrupt political systems.

A similar thought process has recently been extended to California as something called the “tech curse”. The American state, home to Silicon Valley, is incredibly wealthy and yet areas of downtown San Francisco have been compared to a run-down illegal drugs market. More people leave the sunshine state each year than flock to it.

Brendan Kilpatrick of PRP

Brendan Kilpatrick

This line of thinking can be extended to what might be called the “regulation curse”, which is in play in the UK today. The regulations themselves are not the problem. Rather, it is the consequence of their introduction that is the curse.

A raft of new legislation has come our way in the past five years to transform our approach to fire safety. This legislation is clearly needed, as concluded by the Hackitt review.

More is to follow as a result of the enactment of the Building Safety Act earlier this year. Further policies and proposals have been introduced as part of the UK’s commitment to decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy to meet our net zero carbon target by 2050.

The UK’s health and safety legislation is among the most stringent on the planet

Other guidance, such as the recently introduced Part O of the Building Regulations, has been brought forward as part of a requirement to embed climate change resilience within our built fabric and prevent overheating within buildings (excess deaths in the UK among over-65s during the hot summer of 2022 approached 3,000 in number). The amount of technical data and analysis required to accompany even straightforward planning applications is all-encompassing.

The UK’s health and safety legislation is among the most stringent on the planet. On a recent trip by a group of PRP staff to Berlin, we visited a live mixed-use building site that would be shut down if it were in the UK, such was the high number of basic safety breaches.

One of the consequences of the new regulations is that certain residential developers have become so beleaguered by the time commitments, the technical oversight required and the financial uplift of compliance that they are missing the big picture in relation to quality control.

One would think, with the lessons we have learnt about fire safety and the on-going programme of remediation of dangerous cladding on multiple tall buildings, that we would be more mindful of the consequences of being blind to quality in construction. The regulation curse dictates otherwise.

It is cursing housebuilders, who are attempting to protect margins in the face of the most inflationary environment in a generation, to cut back on “ornament” within their housing schemes – the architectural features on buildings and general specifications within the landscape and public realm.

It is affecting other developers and housing associations who, in an effort to achieve financial viability, are returning the design of their new homes and neighbourhoods back to what they were building in the 1980s.

The regulation curse is breaking the line of commitment to quality that should run like a golden thread from project initiation through to building handover

In both cases, fire safety is not being compromised because it is being legislated for and the consequences of non-compliance are serious. But the quality of expression of built form is not something that be readily addressed through legislation.

With certain notable exceptions, the regulation curse is breaking the line of commitment to quality that should run like a golden thread from project initiation through to building handover. The gatekeepers of quality within some organisations are becoming personae non gratae because of a mistaken notion that they will add to overall costs by insisting on quality. Instead, those with little buy-in to the original quality aspirations of the project are running the rule over delivery.

We may be over-regulated in this country, but this need not be a curse. There is sound reason for compliance with most of the regulations we face.

Some aspects of legislation will require a common-sense backlash to kick in in due course. We like regulations as they imply order. We think we like quality, though we find it hard to measure. But we must find a way of preserving it, and it need not cost more.

Designers enjoy challenges and can rise to do what is needed in a financially constrained environment. But developers, and housing associations in particular, need to be resilient.

New neighbourhoods that should be with us for 50 to a hundred years need to be designed for future generations to be proud of, and that requires a re-commitment to quality, from inception to handover and beyond. The curse can be lifted.

Brendan Kilpatrick is senior partner at PRP