Jim Bennett on how to lure a demanding public to the Thames Gateway

Keeping pace with the aspirations of the iPod generation is a constant challenge. Gateway People, the Institute for Public Policy Research’s study of the Thames Gateway, ought to provide a wake-up call to the housing industry that the gap between what they offer and people’s aspirations is frequently wide.

The designation of the growth areas in the South-east means that we need to understand what motivates people to move to a particular location. If we are focusing development in four particular areas, how can we make sure that this is where people will want to live?

IPPR’s report on the Gateway, carried out with prospective residents, aimed to reveal the aspirations of those who were likely to move to the Gateway. What sort of homes do they want? In what sort of neighbourhoods? What are their expectations about local facilities, public services and transport?

The findings shine a light on a complex set of trade-offs that people make between proximity to family and social networks, wages, housing costs and travel costs. Underpinning these were a set of preferences, which on the face of it are pretty basic. People don’t want the earth, they just want to live in well-built, well-designed homes in neighbourhoods with communal green space, easy access to shops, schools and public transport.

Economic growth will depend on the ability of areas of the Gateway to change their skills profile

The surprising aspect of the research was that although these expectations were quite modest, the perception of most was that this was not what housing developments provided. People felt that they tended to be monotonous, that homes were small and characterless, and that the quality of construction of some homes was poor. These views were clearly informed by observation and experience.

These findings have serious implications. Although there is unlikely to be any shortage of demand in the short term there is a risk to the long-term sustainability of the Gateway if it is not able to attract people with higher incomes and, therefore, greater choice. The objective of creating sustainable communities requires that the growth areas are able to attract a range of household types and incomes. For some parts of the Gateway, economic growth will depend on those areas’ ability to change their skills profile, by attracting higher skilled residents.

This should sound alarm bells in the boardrooms of the housebuilders. We can all point to the exemplar schemes, but while there are a still a hundred Becktons to every Greenwich Millennium Village, these views are unlikely to change. People’s perceptions will only change when all housing developments meet their aspirations.