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.

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