Persuading residents to accept local development is not easy, however much it is needed, but the case in favour is about far more than good design, writes David Rudlin
We had our first, actual, physical, face-to-face consultation session recently – real people, draughty community hall, bad tea, the lot. It was a novel experience and brought home to me the power of talking to people in person, even if the face masks don’t help in establishing a personal connection.
The scheme was a development of 80 homes on the edge of a village and the community was torn between those who were opposed in principle to any new homes, and those who accepted the inevitable (given there was a draft local plan allocation) and were prepared to engage in a conversation about design. Although, truth be told, even the latter group did not really want to see any development.
Consultation has become much more difficult in an age of social media and polarised views
In slack moments my fellow consultants and I swapped consultation horror stories, as you do on these occasions. My personal nadir was a hall packed with 300 very angry people in Rochdale, but that’s a story for another column.
We concluded that consultation has become much more difficult in an age of social media and polarised views. For all our commitment to collaborative planning and co-creation with local communities, the truth is that some schemes will never be supported by local people, and that does not always make them wrong.
This is particularly true of housing. We all agree that we need more housing, but it is the prospect of it that often faces the fiercest opposition.
The Building Beautiful Building Better Commission believed that opposition happens because most new housing is so badly designed, and of course they have a point. I am always struck how the landscape and visual impact assessments that we do on our (beautifully designed) masterplans seek to prove that the development will be entirely hidden – you would think that we were doing something shameful!
Well-designed, “provably popular” housing might therefore be more successful in getting the community on-board. But, in my experience, it is not that simple.
Of course, there are also concerns about the loss of green space, cherished views, ecology etc… which cannot be wished away however good the design. There are pressures on local services – no one can get a GP appointment at the moment – and traffic implications on roads that cannot possibly accommodate another car, at least in the eyes of the community.
Important as these issues are, they still do not explain the level of opposition to new housing. In the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework there have been tens of thousands of objections to the proposed green-belt housing allocations and only a handful to the green-belt employment allocations, which are just as extensive and presumably at least as visually intrusive. I think it is because the jobs are seen as being for “local people”, whereas housing is for “outsiders”.
One might be led to the uncomfortable conclusion that people do not like the idea of other people moving into their village or neighbourhood, however well-designed their homes
This is not just the case on green fields. In Manchester, my local community group – who are open-minded and liberal to a fault – nevertheless are firmly of the view that the area does not “need” any more housing. The people saying this are generally well-housed, so it is true that they don’t need housing, but others do.
One might be led to the uncomfortable conclusion that people do not like the idea of other people moving into their village or neighbourhood, however well-designed their homes. I think this is probably unfair but it is clear that we have not got the offer right. As far as communities are concerned, new housing is all negatives and no positives. Opposition is a perfectly logical response.
So we need to make the case for new housing on a far wider basis than just the quality of the design. As I said to the residents in that draughty village hall, 80 new households might have saved the pub from closure and secured the future of the local shop (or town centre in larger settlements).
They will support public transport, provide pupils (and investment) for the school, congregation for the churches and membership for local societies. There will hopefully be some new homes for local people and there may even be some money from S106 contributions to spend locally. Whether this will be enough, I’m not sure – but we need to start making the positive case for new housing.
David Rudlin is principal and a director of URBED (Urbanism Environment and Design), chair of the Academy of Urbanism and an honorary professor at Manchester University