How a ‘place-building diamond’ can enhance the new government’s house building programme

Our first priority is houses. In the next five years we intend to achieve – a Government target of 500,000 houses.

Those words were included in the 1966 Labour party manifesto.  Harold Wilson secured an increased Westminster majority that spring.

Not since then has such a large proportion of an election manifesto been dedicated to housing.  This is the first time in six decades that an election has been won by a party whose leading policy offer to the public is to build more homes.  The new government promises 1.5 million of them, including ambitious targets for social and affordable housing.

This is a seismic moment for British house-building, bringing with it huge momentum, but also a degree of risk.  If the government’s ambition is met by the housing industry with ‘more of the same’ we will simply fail on a greater scale than before.

The danger stems from leading with a specific number of properties built.  Unless managed with vision and subtlety, it will lead to new estates full of identikit houses, built at the lowest possible cost, all with the single goal of completion and sale.

This approach resulted in many of the estates that people find so depressing: soulless places created without a focus on the lives of the people who would live in and around them.

This government has the opportunity to embark on something very different.   It can measure success in the creation of thriving communities living in new places, and can work backwards to achieve them with a stated aim of putting people first.

That means establishing a ‘place-building diamond’ of four interconnected groups who, together, can achieve something wonderful in the years to come.  They are:

Developers who can be trusted to stick to their word and put people first.  There are too many places that achieve planning permission through beautiful words and outlandish promises, only for new surgeries, schools and community centres to fall by the wayside as profits push out people.  But there are many out there trying to do their best, and achieving – despite competition and red tape – to do better than the average.  If government truly believes in partnership, they need to work with the people who do good, not just those who are big in stature and big in words.

Local Councillors who ensure that the new places they consent to bring with them new infrastructure, outstanding architecture and a real sense of connectedness to their natural environment and neighbours.

Central Government, who provide clear guidance for each of these groups, driving the development of connected places by aligning their property programme with the demands of Natural England, National Highways, Network Rail and all the other statutory bodies who can help make a good scheme a success.

Local People already living near the development sites. It is the great paradox of the housing market that although the vast majority agree housing is a key factor in determining quality of life, many also oppose the building of new homes nearby.  This can change if neighbouring communities are involved in the design phase and given the opportunity to ask for the amenities and facilities that will improve their lives, from schools and surgeries to cycle paths and allotments.  There is a correlation between the quality of proposed new developments and support from their neighbouring communities.

Ultimately, this entire policy requires perspective.  Those houses built in 1969 have outlasted six governing parties and twelve Prime Ministers.  Some of the 1.5 million homes promised by this government will not even have their foundations laid before the next General Election.  Although this acceleration in house building will be driven by politics, the businesses that build them and the people who live in and around them will be apolitical.

Difficult decisions will have to be made.  Out-sized profits will have to be trimmed to ensure that new places are built around outstanding infrastructure. Businesses will have to act in good faith, putting communities first.

There has been much debate about the benefits or otherwise of a government coming to power with such a large majority.  In this area, it can be a huge positive.  It gives a chance to pause and ensure they get this right.  They can think deeply about the future and make decisions for the right outcomes rather than the right headlines.  It is an exciting time to be in the business of building homes and places. This is a rare opportunity to create a golden age of British housing.  Future generations should look back at this period as one where the public and private sectors worked together, investing not just in bricks, but in the people who will live in and around them long after our time has passed.

 
 

Why ‘development’ is a dirty word (and seven ways to change it)

Read any opinion poll or listen to any public consultation and you will be left in no doubt that we live in a country that desperately needs more homes.

Read or listen to the local reaction to any proposed new housing development and you will be left in no doubt that many people in the local area won’t want them nearby.

Our urban story

This is a relatable paradox.  We all want what’s best for society, but it’s a lot easier for years of construction work to take place somewhere we are not.

This isn’t a new realisation.  However, when linked to the lack of trust in developers (we will return to this), it creates a cloak of negativity around a positive story.  Urbanism should be good news.  It is synonymous with the advancement of civilisations, the development of communities and the evolution of ideas.

Modern societies are faced with existential crises, from climate change and mass migration to the huge loss of biodiversity.  It’s a time when we want to use land more sustainably while more and more of us live alone. This combination means we need more houses more than ever before, but only in ways that solve underlying problems.

The ‘right’ way to build

Rows of houses alone are not the answer, however sustainable their materials.  They only work when they bring people together.  Successful developments should not be measured on the numbers they house but on the communities they create.

Communities, by definition, develop around communal interests and places.  Cafes and pubs, walkways and playgrounds, allotments and open spaces, sports clubs and schools, shops and local businesses.  ‘Infrastructure’ isn’t an inspiring word, but it’s crucial to that end.  If a ‘development’ is driven by the building of houses, it will fail.  Only when the infrastructure comes first, and the place is designed around a future community, will it be welcomed by those who live nearby.

The trust issue 

In 2019, the Royal Town Planning Institute published a research document.  Its subject was large developments; its findings were shocking.  Only 2% of those questioned said they trusted property developers and that number only rose to 7% for local authorities.

Those numbers are unequivocal.  They suggest that something is significantly wrong with the entire sector; a complete breakdown in trust.  The history of false dreams and broken promises is common to so many places.

So how to change this perception?  There is only one way; to build brilliant new places that exceed, or, at the very least, meet expectations.  This is easier said than done, but it is the very basis on which GummerLeathes was founded.  Our aim was to do the right thing and to do it so well that we could create wonderful developments across the country.

A business is only as good as its people.  We sought not just to work with the very best people in the profession, but only those who shared a set of values guiding their entire approach.  Together, we have gone further and created seven principles to ensure that we create great places within which communities can thrive.

 

  1. PEOPLE COME FIRST

Developers should not be judged by the places they build but on the lives of the people who live in and around them.  That starts by asking what they want.  Consultation should not be an exercise in lobbying or negotiation.  It presents an opportunity to listen and learn, and, crucially, to begin by working with local residents rather than despite them.  Local people should help determine what is built, which facilities are included, how the place looks and the ways they will get around.

The impact on people is often forgotten during the development itself.  Neighbours and early residents of the new place can be impacted by noise, dust and traffic.  This can be carefully considered at the outset to minimise the negative aspects of development on people.

 

  1. NATURE MATTERS

The earliest conurbations were built on hilltops and by waterways.  They were defined by their environment.   It is crucial that the new places of tomorrow remember that key principle. Urban sites can and should link seamlessly with nature.  Existing green spaces, animal habitats, streams, rivers and canals should be intrinsic to design. Putting communities first is not just about the people who will buy houses, but the animals, insects and birds who already live there.  In that way, ‘continuity’ can be something tangible and beautiful.

 

  1. COMMUNITIES THRIVE IN OUTDOOR SPACE

Houses, however great they look and feel, do not create communities.  Walls, by their very purpose, separate and divide.  Towns and villages that have grown organically over time, have developed spaces where people gather informally.  These may be near shops and amenities or on dog walks or street corners.  Some have been planned (like ‘boules’ courts across France), others developed through routines.  Others buzz with activity on sports pitches and along purpose-built cycle paths.  Ultimately, communities develop when strangers feel at peace and where conversations strike-up naturally.  It’s not enough to design a place with a ‘hall’ or ‘facility’ to tick a community-box.  The Master Developer has the ability to design somewhere conducive to sociability and interaction. Somewhere whose streets and squares create a flow of enclosures and sequences rather than separated units. Somewhere that serves a community purpose and looks great.

 

  1. PRIORITISE THE PEDESTRIAN

Towns and villages that grew before the Industrial Revolution tend to have narrow streets and places where people can congregate naturally.  Those developed more recently have wider, straighter roads and pedestrians are often forced to take convoluted routes to local destinations.  The reason is simple: the domination of the car and prioritisation of our ever-faster-paced lifestyles across 150 years of planning.

The only way to create the community-friendly places of the past is to design them with the pedestrian (and the cyclist) in mind.  Is it easy and safe to walk to the local school, the shops and the café?  Is there any incentive for the driver to leave the car at home?  Are roads designed to allow swift and efficient entry and exit from the place without dominating?  Are we allowing people to develop healthy lifestyles? In the ongoing battle for control of town centres, the car will always win unless the pedestrian is actively championed.

 

  1. VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE

There is nothing less inspiring than driving past a housing estate with rows of identikit houses.  Our most beautiful towns and villages are anything but uniform.  Old sits next to new; pubs and community buildings nestle comfortably in residential areas; stone, brick, concrete and thatch are compatible neighbours.  The buildings within them are ‘mixed’ in every sense, from their architecture to their purpose.

There is no reason that new places cannot be designed to be equally characterful and eclectic.  Why not walk down a street where the library and the pub sit alongside houses and apartments, and where the weekly shop can take place on the walk back from the school drop-off?

For planners and developers, this is a lesson learned by walking the streets of the excavated Roman city of Pompeii.  Residents lived above shops.  Front gardens were social hubs.  Streets led to the amphitheatre and the forum.  This was mixed living within a clear plan.

 

  1. BUILD LOCAL

Arriving in a seaside town in Cornwall, we would be a little thrown by a street filled with walls of brick and flint.  Walking through a town in the Yorkshire dales, we would be equally surprised to see houses painted in bright pastel shades. The wonderful architectural historian and writer, Alec Clifton-Taylor, described the link between places and their local materials as the ‘pattern of England’.  Places feel natural when they are built using locally sourced materials, enabling the seamless integration of new and old.

 

  1. LIKE PEOPLE, PLACES NEED TO BE NURTURED

Designing, planning and constructing a great-looking place is a wonderful start.  But it is just the start.  Imagine arriving in a town for the first time and you will quickly lose sight of the wonderful architecture if the walls are covered in graffiti, the grass in the central square is uncut, the recycling units are over-flowing, children’s play areas and parks are run-down leaving teenagers, inside and alone, bent over their screens.

In short, it is not enough to build a place, we have to plan for its ongoing maintenance and development.  How will communal areas be protected and conserved? How will the council work alongside the landowners?  How will events be run, promises be fulfilled and visions realised?

A new place is for life, not an asset to be signed-off and forgotten when the developers move on.

 

Let us know

These are things about which we have thought long and hard.  We desperately want to get them right.  Thank you for reading this far and, if you have the time, we’d be so grateful for your thoughts, particularly if you sense there is something important we’ve missed.