Brighton. Buxton. Broadway. Bradford. Britain’s most lively townscapes gained their individual character because development was in the hands of local specialists. Today most of the country’s output comes from volume housebuilders, and they work wherever there is a local market.
Since the housing planning guidance note PPG3 came out in 2000, there has been a statutory requirement for an applicant for planning permission to respect “local distinctiveness”. Even towns “without a local vernacular worth mentioning” – to quote a recent planning appeal – are trying to invent one, albeit a century too late. So the national builders now have to deal with local design guides, village design statements and conservation areas.
To complicate matters, the local agenda in town halls is increasingly dominated by environmental sustainability, which demands that building materials be sourced responsibly and that they demonstrate energy-efficiency through low maintenance or the power to generate heat or light.
These twin agendas of proud regionalism and global environmentalism challenge developers who have been driven by the City of London to rationalise their portfolio of designs to ever fewer and simpler house types.
Three housebuilders in the UK are already building more than 10,000 units a year for the first time in history. One of these is predicting there will shortly be three building about 20,000 homes a year. These are likely to be a compromise between the instincts of a central buyer looking for a bulk-purchase cost-saving and the ever more confident demands of more than 300 local planning authorities.
So, a developer of any size needs a supplier with a large range of proven products that can offer innovation to one planning authority and history to another. Over the coming years, such demands will become ever more commonplace as consumers also catch on to innovation. It takes a world-class company to build such a range of product and to satisfy so many competing demands.
Which brings us to Lafarge.
David Birkbeck, chief executive, Design for Homes