When the government told housebuilders to drop executive estates, the reaction was frigid. But some firms have shown that high quality, high-density homes can mean high profits – even if the results can sometimes be a little soft-centred.
"Tawdry little boxes" is how former construction minister Nick Raynsford referred to private sector housing 18 months ago. He was speaking shortly after the government had introduced PPG3 – the key document in the government's drive to improve the quality of the UK's built environment (see factfile).

PPG3 was an attempt to use the planning machinery to stop the 1990s' trend towards sprawling estates of detached executive housing. Identical, land-hungry, low-density, car-dependent, socially exclusive greenfield developments of no architectural merit – the house style of Thatcherism – were bricks-and-mortar summaries of everything Labour was against.

The reaction of the housebuilders to Raynsford's announcement was cool. The Housebuilders Federation mumbled something about "allowing cities to decide their own requirements", and most of the companies kept their own counsel. Since then, however, there have been signs of a remarkable change of attitude. Progressive developers such as Crest Nicholson, Countryside Properties and Bryant Homes have become more and more interested in building PPG3-style developments, and have restructured their businesses accordingly. The ironic result is that one part of the industry is criticising the planning system for pushing them away from their lucrative standard house types while the other is grumbling because it will not let them move as fast as they would like.

Back to the past
Those who hoped PPG3 would popularise the modern housing championed by Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force have been disappointed. When Raynsford made his announcement, he gave two exemplars of high-density housing: Coin Street and Poundbury. The first is a set of contemporary apartment blocks next to the South Bank Centre in London; the other is Prince Charles' model rural village in Dorset.

What the customers made of this choice was revealed by a Gallup poll in September. Three-quarters of the 1025 respondents said they would be happy to live in high-density housing – as long as it looked like Poundbury. This suggested that there was money to be made out of PPG3, a suspicion corroborated by Bryant Homes' retro-style Bishops Mead development in Chelmer Village, near Chelmsford.

By building at a density of 33 units a hectare rather than the current standard of 25, Bryant was able to build up to four more homes on the site than would have been possible two years ago. Consequently, the latest phase is commanding selling prices of £185-200 a square foot, which is 15% higher in real terms than its previous phase of standard house types.

The new homes, designed by architect Reeves Bailey, are strongly influenced by Essex council's design guide, which recommends the building of high-density homes using traditional local materials. The architect designed 18 house types, including townhouses, barns and artisan's cottages, and combined them in different ways to achieve a variety of streetscapes.

Bryant Homes is now aiming to lower the unit cost of these designs by applying them elsewhere. This essentially means bolting on different veneers to match the local vernacular. "Although the houses' footprints will be the same, the first floor elevations might be pargetted render in Essex and tile hung in Sussex," explains Reeves Bailey partner Ian Bailey.

The result is a demonstration that quality and profit can be aligned. "I thought we'd have difficulties selling the homes because of the high density and the fact that they are linked," says John Inglis, Bryant Homes' eastern sales and marketing director. "Initially we lost some enquiries, but we attracted others who weren't interested in living in executive boxes."

Unlikely allies
These traditionalist homes may not win architectural awards, but high-density developments require greater investment in the quality of the urban environment, according to Steve Prismall, head of SPD Architects. "If you offer a three-storey, four-bed terrace townhouse with only one car parking space, you need to offer customers something else to aspire to – such as high specification, a sense of place and an impressive setting. If you don't, you will have to drop the price of the scheme."

This relationship between design quality and profit has made unlikely bedfellows of CABE and the House Builders Federation. Together with the Civic Trust, they are working on an initiative called Building for Life to showcase exemplary housing designs on the internet.

As part of the initiative, FPD Savills is carrying out research on behalf of CABE to compare the value of PPG3-friendly housing with standard house types.

The hypothesis of the research, due out in February, is that if housebuilders put money into good layout and design, they will get a good financial return. "We understand that housebuilders have shareholders to satisfy and they can't spend extra money on quality housing unless they can be sure there is a return," says Robert Bargery, CABE's policy and research manager.

Housebuilders that do not realise how high-density PPG3 housing can increase the value of land run the risk of losing out on land deals, says David Birkbeck, head of the not-for-profit ginger group Design for Housing. "If a housebuilder works out how to increase coverage and value on a particular site, it can outbid the market."

This was the case when Miller Homes outbid the much larger Beazer Homes for land in Sedgefield, County Durham, earlier this year. The original housing plan was for 150 homes, but Miller added more value to the land by winning planning permission for 235 homes. "It will give smaller companies more opportunities to buy land," says Birkbeck.

For housebuilders taking the PPG3 route, the temptation to recreate faux-Georgian rural villages is hard to resist. "Developers have to be brave when building modern housing, because they know that homes that look like village cottages command more money," says Prismall. Housebuilders are also more likely to convince planning committees of their high-density schemes if they honour local tradition.

But not all local authorities or housebuilders are averse to building homes designed in the 21st century. At the Lacuna scheme in the centre of Kings Hill, West Malling, Sunley Homes and Environ Country Homes are building 175 houses. Environ managing director Anthony Dowse says that Kent council was willing to consider new designs. "The councillors saw Poundbury and were keen on it, but they wanted somethingore modern and less pastiche," he says. Although the approach is contemporary, the scheme still has to adhere to a strict design guide set by the landowners, and the Kent design guide.

In north Kent there is another modern housing scheme that takes reference from local buildings. Architect Buschow Henley won a competition in June to build a modern eco-housing scheme for Countryside Properties and the South East England Development Agency on St Mary's Island, Chatham Maritime. Simon Henley, a partner in Buschow Henley, believes that his practice was chosen because of the authenticity of its approach. "The planners are enthusiastic because it's not a ruthlessly contemporary scheme. We're not wedded to the idea of steel and glass; we will look at the context of the local vernacular," he says.

PCKO Architects masterplanned St Mary's Island and has already designed modern homes featuring traditional Kentish weatherboarding. The urban layout follows PPG3 principles in reducing private car dependency through the provision of well-connected pedestrian and cycle links, semi-basement parking and cycle stores.

Planning vs PPG3
Although characterful high-density schemes are getting built, many are being held up by local planning committees. They are judging schemes according to councils' unitary development plans, which stipulate how dense schemes should be and how many parking spaces they should have. Many UDPs around the country have not yet been updated to include PPG3 guidance, and even though PPG3-literate planning officers recommend high-density schemes, they are often rejected at the committee stage.

However, an affordable housing scheme in Rushden by PCKO Architects recently won planning permission on appeal because of its PPG3 credentials. The scheme for Chiltern Housing Association consists of 14 apartments on the site of a former shoe factory. The planning committee had rejected it because its design, density and lack of car parking space ran contrary to the councils' plans.

The increase in the number of small PPG3 schemes seeking planning permission is threatening to overwhelm planners, according to Birkbeck. "Whereas planning officers may have been dealing with 50 large housing applications a year, they could now have to deal with 500 small ones." He cites the example of Winchester's recent urban capacity study, which has earmarked 2017 brownfield sites for development. These will all need to be visited by a planning office.

The government has a chance to address these issues in the forthcoming planning green paper. "There should be a system of precedent," says Birkbeck. "If a principle is good enough for one local authority, it's good enough for another. Planning departments should also get more resources, and officers should have executive powers."

If the government doesn't tackle these planning problems the drive to transform housing in the UK will lose momentum – and all its good work in creating the PPG3 will have gone to waste.

What does PPG3 actually do?

The Planning Policy Guidance Note that heralded the end of the executive housing estate was launched in March 2000 by former construction minister Nick Raynsford. PPG3 should be taken into account by regional planning bodies and local planning authorities in preparing regional planning guidance and development plans. It may also be material to decisions on individual planning applications and appeals. It states that new housing and residential environments should make a “significant contribution to promoting urban renaissance and improving quality of life”. As well as promoting quality, local authorities should give priority to building on brownfield sites and the conversion of buildings. Its target is to build 60% of additional homes on brownfield sites by 2008. To make better use of available land PPG3 encourages local authorities to increase the density of housing from 25 to 30 dwellings a hectare. The government wants to encourage sustainable patterns of development and PPG3 states that housing should be linked by public transport to jobs, local services and local amenities. The government is keen to reduce short car journeys, which are a major cause of carbon dioxide emissions.

It’s just too good to be true

Bryant Homes’ PPG3-friendly housing in Bishops Mead exceeds the government’s target for housing density by fronting homes onto the street and building three storeys. 1. Architect Reeves Bailey has taken cars off the street by tucking them away under buildings or in rear courtyards.
2. Combining house types of different heights in a terrace has created varied roofscapes.
3. Bryant used clay, concrete and slate roof tiles to make the village look as though it has evolved over hundreds of years.
4. Vernacular touches such as chimneys and fanlights add “authenticity”. The chimneys hide satellite dishes.