Adrian Harvey on how CABE plans to make the rest as good as the best

The findings of CABE’s second housing audit make grim reading. The commission reports that 94% of private housing built over the past three years in the north of England failed to measure up on design quality. A quarter of the schemes were rated “poor”.

The audit’s interest is not in naming and shaming poor schemes, or the developers responsible for them, but to help get it right in future. It shows volume housebuilders and local planning authorities are capable of creating high quality schemes but that these are the exception. In fact, the story of housing in the northern regions is for the most part one of missed opportunities.

One of the most striking findings is the polarisation between success and failure. Some schemes score highly against all the criteria, which assess performance in relation to character and placemaking, highways and pedestrianisation, design and construction, and community and environment. Other developments fail to address the same criteria in any meaningful way.

The challenge is to create a culture in which the commitment to quality underpinning the best schemes can be applied across the board.

The government must emphasise to developers and local authorities that design quality is not an optional extra. Its importance needs to be restated in a way that gives local authorities greater confidence to negotiate improvements and, where appropriate, refuse planning permission if standards are poor. In particular, design must remain a central part of PPS3.

One of the most striking findings in the CABE study is the polarisation between success and failure

Highway design remains a barrier to delivering better quality housing layouts. Most developers will simply reproduce the standard layout required by the local highway authority. Moreover, highways issues are often negotiated in isolation from the Urban Design concept for the scheme. As a result, any design aspirations of the planning authority are in conflict with the requirements of the highway authority.

On the question of skills and capacity we risk oversimplifying the problem. Most volume housebuilders do employ architects in their regional business units. The issue lies in their ability to apply these skills effectively to individual context. To address this, CABE would like to see housebuilders appoint a champion at board level with responsibility for design quality.

On the local authority side the issue of capacity is already recognised and government has put measures in place to improve the firepower of local planning authorities and the skills base of the sector; problems of co-ordination, confidence and culture are the critical factors in the failure to deliver on design quality.

Adrian Harvey is head of policy at CABE