Busy housebuilders are ignoring the detailed specification of landscaping that is so important in making a scheme a success

Ben Derbyshire

Planning minister Nick Boles is an avid supporter of Building for Life 12 – the latest version of the popular housing design assessment tool - because he understands two fundamentals of housing development. 

First, the public, fed up to the back teeth with poorly designed potato-cutter estates, are crying out for a benchmark of quality by means of which standards can be raised – hopefully to the point that neighbours might support rather than oppose new developments. 

Secondly, the 12 principles that underpin Building for Life are almost entirely about the layout of homes and space between buildings. In other words, although Vitruvius’ three principles of “commodity, firmness and delight” in the design of the buildings themselves are important to a successful scheme, the space between them is as important – some would say more important.

But we need to guard against the spread of a depressing phenomenon we have spotted, accompanying the bounce back of the housing market. In the pell-mell rush to take advantage of the return to growth stimulated by Help to Buy, housebuilders are neglecting implementation of the all-important detailed specification of landscapes and planting that should mature to become the hallmark of well established neighbourhoods of which everyone can be proud. 

It’s all too easy to see how this can happen. The industry is overstretched all over again – suppliers are taking advantage of a bull market, buyers are desperate, site managers are on bonuses and planning departments are understaffed.

In the rush inadequate, often wilting, garden centre procured planting adds no value to the end product

So what happens? The carefully designed landscape schemes that are painstakingly negotiated as part of the planning approval process, and which would no doubt contribute to the coveted 12 green lights required for a scheme to earn Built for Life status, are quite simply completely overlooked when it comes to implementation.

Despite the fact that it is neither costly, nor complicated to create a well judged and sustainable landscape setting for a scheme, it does take an expert to design it right, it takes planning and forethought to procure all the elements and it takes the right species, of the right maturity and a little appropriate aftercare to establish a verdant and biodverse environment. 

And all that is too often dispensed with in the rush, leaving inadequate, often wilting, garden centre procured planting in its place that adds no value to the end product.

What’s to be done? At HTA we are leading a working group at the Landscape Institute focusing on the importance and cost effectiveness of landscape to the creation of value in housing development. 

Apart from practical advice about how to go about it, the Landscape Institute will be publishing encouragement from housing industry luminaries such as Berkeley’s Tony Pidgley, Barratt’s Mark Clare, Crest Nicholson’s Chris Tinker and Countryside’s Richard Cherry, endorsing a charter for good practice. Berkeley Homes, for example, go all the way to Hamburg to buy their semi-mature specimens.

As a taster, here is the contribution from Richard Blakeway, GLA’s deputy mayor for housing & land. He says: “The setting for new homes is as important as the homes themselves. Prioritising and focusing on the detail of landscape, planting, layout and design are integral to making great places to live. Successful design can be seen across London from emerging major new developments at Barking Riverside to Cane Hill to smaller in-fill sites in inner London or estate regeneration from the Aylesbury to Kidbrooke. The sense of arrival at a special place which can come from a well thought out, sensitive and beautiful landscape is fundamental to ensuring that new housing, especially at scale, is a good thing that enriches our neighbourhoods.”

Apart from nailing their colours to the mast of quality landscape design, hopefully these words of encouragement will demonstrate, not only how homebuilders like Berkeley, Barratt, Crest and Countryside can deliver reliable quality to obtain increased value, but show how others will get the point and follow. I hope so.

Ben Derbyshire is managing partner of HTA Design