It’s an unlikely equation, but if developers and planners worried as much about quality as quantity, it would be easier to build Brown’s 3 million homes, argues Cabe’s Matt Bell
Debates about design are full of false opposites: if you like contemporary, you must despise vernacular. If you’re a heritage fan, you must detest tall buildings. Well, here’s another: if we focus on quality, we’ll never hit the numbers. Right?
Here’s another thing. We live in an age where using your judgment has become suspicious. We are expected to arrive at every answer through a process of technical assessment. If the answer is 200Wh/m2, that’s all right, but if your answer’s qualitative or experiential, somehow it’s not valid.
The housing sector exemplifies this nonsense above any other. It’s obsessed with numbers and run largely by accountants. Housebuilders need more confidence to allow professional people to form sound value judgments, not wrap them up in the cotton wool of technocratic data.
This week, the latest Building for Life award winners are announced. They’re an eclectic mix of great schemes, with winners ranging from suburban homes in Reading to a creative eco-ville in Somerset and traditional homes in Cornwall. What all these have in common is that their development teams exercised some degree of judgment about the kind of place they were trying to create.
Design, after all, is about process as much as product. That is partly why the industry struggles to deliver decent places consistently. At the level of each regional business unit, there is intense pressure. The boards serve shareholder value, and regional teams hurtle from one site to the next. There’s no time to consider design during land appraisal or to step back to consider the scheme before they commit to a couple of years in production.
The past 20 years have taught people that new housing is likely to be a scar on their neighbourhood
Take a region like the South-east, a hotspot of demand where the consensus seems to be that we should focus on how many, not how good. Even the unlikely combination of Shelter and the Home Builders Federation spoke as one on the subject earlier this month: it’s not about whether we build these homes, it’s when, where and how quickly.
I beg to differ. Good design is central to any attempt at achieving the volume of housing the South-east requires. Start with the Cabe audit that revealed that 83% of new homes in the region were not good enough. And then consider why the South-east’s county leaders aren’t wild about a Government Office figure of 38,000 new homes a year. You don’t need to be a genius to work out the politics: what price re-election for the councillor who approved more housing without a reasonable prospect of good design?
The past 20 years have taught people that new housing is more likely to be a scar on their neighbourhood than an asset. That’s not prejudice or ignorance – it’s experience. Now we urgently need the homes, entrenched public attitudes are one of the biggest barriers we face. Good design is one of the best means we have to reduce local objections to housing development. Give consumers grounds for believing a neighbourhood will work well and look good, and we have half a chance of speeding up the release of land.
Half a century ago, Aneurin Bevan faced similar a housing crisis. “In the face of so enormous a problem,” he said, “there is a temptation to cut standards, to reduce size, to eliminate planning and design – anything for speed – but this would be a crime for which we, our children and grandchildren would pay for 50 years to come.”
It would be nice to think we can focus equally on quality and quantity between now and 2020. Somehow, the numbers are hypnotic: 13 years, 3 million homes, for 7 million people. But wiser counsel needs to prevail. Something has to lead. Both tactics and history suggest it should be quality.
Matt Bell is director of campaigns and education at Cabe