When the former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1971 was asked to comment on the impact of the French Revolution, he is famously quoted as saying it was "too early to tell". This should be the mantra of anyone asked to comment on the impact of Coronavirus. It is too early to be able to predict, or measure with certainty, the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on our society.
What we do know is that this is the latest pandemic in a historic pattern, the difference being that globalisation has increased the range and speed at which a virus can spread, and it is likely to happen again. This, in turn, has led policymakers to adopt a response of lockdown and containment to ease the pressure on health services and hopefully see a vaccine developed; it is a response that is likely to be repeated for future pandemics and outbreaks.
Lockdown has been introduced into a society reliant on just-in-time supply chains, which de-prioritised storage space – resulting in scenes of supermarkets running out of basic items – and in recent years has forced people into smaller and smaller units of accommodation. In a drive to boost housing numbers, it can be argued that space and genuine sustainability have been sacrificed, leading to some poorly connected and unsustainable new dormitory settlements and urban extensions.
While I can’t predict the planning impacts of the Coronavirus crisis, I can add to those advocating a new strategy for planning our communities, one based on a patient approach that prioritises genuine sustainability and homes over residential units and short-term profits. In a recent report, Adam Architecture and Farrer & Co outlined why a patient approach to creating communities is vital in placemaking, to which I must give credit for my personal conversion away from thinking in terms of units and towards homes and communities.
As identified by the work of the Letwin Review, the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, as well as recent work by Policy Exchange, there are considerable problems with the UK’s current approach to planning for housing. I would summarise that problem as the prioritisation of quantity to the detriment of quality of dwellings and public realm.
This government’s current policy for England of ushering in a period of mass housing construction to deliver 300,000 new homes by the mid-2020s, is characterised by short-term, profit-first thinking, which has only exacerbated the housing problem. The most recent incarnation of this approach has been schemes such as help to buy, as well as the expansion of office to residential permitted development rights.
Encouraging housing supply is not in itself a problem, as it is clear that there is a housing crisis of numbers. There is, however, also a crisis of product. According to research from the Homeowners Alliance, 63% of UK adults worry about the quality of their homes and 45% are dissatisfied with the snagging process. Research by Shelter tells the same story, and the Home Builders Federation also found that over 45% of people would not consider buying a new-build home. The problem is a crisis of quality, which is a side effect of a purely numerical focus on supply.
Policymakers must ask themselves, what is the point in having a
five-year housing land supply and meeting the housing delivery test if, when all is said and done, the end result is a product that 45% of people do not want? With the government’s announcement of a new Planning Bill and its ‘build, build, build’ approach, we have an opportunity to reshape the system, something the government says it is willing to do.
This crisis can be put right by promoting schemes that prioritise community and introducing a better route to planning permission being granted for applications of all sizes, focused on quality. What’s more, the model for good placemaking does exist in developments such as Poundbury and Derwenthorpe and is one which can be replicated for smaller developments.
At a macro level, this housing quality crisis can only be resolved with time, thought and by shifting towards a concept of socially responsible profit that recognises the complexities of housing demand and good placemaking. This can be described as a patient approach, which addresses the community as a whole – including its public spaces, potential renters and buyers – and prioritises quality and sustainability over quantity.
The overall aim is to produce economically, socially and environmentally sustainable places that go beyond meeting the need for a place to sleep; by accepting higher up-front costs and lower profits in the short term, the approach can be characterised as being socially and environmentally responsible. Additionally, by prioritising good design that both respects local history and embraces local supply chains, it can be considered as a vehicle for social mobility rather than inhibiting change.
For example, one way in which the approach works in practice can be seen in schools. While some developers will see the requirement to provide a school as a burden, research shows that educational investment is a huge opportunity for communities. People are willing to pay a premium if they know a good school is being developed, and therefore investing in one can boost the profitability of a scheme. The best schools also increasingly deliver not just on pupil education, but on community leisure, culture and recreational activities too.
Reform of the planning system is needed to facilitate a patient approach – especially for smaller schemes – but as can be seen from existing schemes it is possible in the current framework. What we also need to see is reform of other areas.
Developers and local governments need to accept a deferred approach to financial returns and pursue long-term returns – it is not a path open to all. There also needs to be an overhaul in attitudes to social housing, streets, retail, spaces and social infrastructure.
To facilitate this, local planning authorities need to be adequately resourced and empowered to contact landowners to persuade and incentivise them to put forward sites or facilitate them to do so together. While this clearly does not need to go as far as nationalising the land promotion industry, it is more about freeing local authority planners to be able to be planners in the fullest sense of the word wherever possible.
On a separate note, new entrants and landowners trying to act independently should not be disadvantaged when attempting to access publicly-backed funding streams – such as those administered by Homes England. There should be greater funding available to smaller developers to enable development – by way of grants or low interest loans – which is of genuine high quality and helps meet the aspirations of the relevant local plan.
Financial pressures on housebuilders and landowners necessitates a path of least resistance approach to generating revenue. This is not a criticism – house builders are not place makers and their business model is about building, something they do well. However, the application of a patient approach, which looks to also create the communities which will be the future Letchworth and Poundbury, can be widened with a few reforms to the development rather than just planning system.
Firstly, local authorities should be empowered to approach and open a dialogue with landowners, including offering incentives to bring land forward in the call for sites. Developers with a proven track record of reliability, trustworthiness and delivering quality should also receive recognition within the planning system and in the processing of their planning applications.
In addition, the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) should be modified to reward quality and commitment to being socially and environmentally responsible and a government-backed national infrastructure investment fund, perhaps drawing on a percentage of CIL receipts from around the country, could provide financial support to projects which meet certain criteria.
This could include criteria around quality and sustainability, and for those areas where land values make it difficult to meet development plan aspirations, provide additional support. Reform around taxation, so that landowners are incentivised to defer profits to secure enhanced quality housing, could also hugely benefit the planning system.
To some extent, the need for provision of healthy spaces and places in development is already accounted for in development plans and, going forward, is secured through the draft Environment Bill and the proposed requirement that all planning permissions require a biodiversity net gain.
This is indeed a welcome addition, but one which makes me wonder whether more can be done in relation to community density and the provision of healthy places and spaces given the opportunity of an upcoming Planning Bill.
Obviously, we cannot legislate for what is beautiful, but if we can legislate for a proposed 10% increase in biodiversity net gain, then it cannot be too hard to also agree legislative provision on space. There is already the national space standard, which remains solely within the planning system as a form of technical planning standard. This could be given further force following the example of the Housing Act 1985, which legislates for when overcrowding of a house is taking place. Why, therefore, can the same not be considered for development of land?
I freely admit that the suggestions outlined above are more about keeping a discussion going than the end solutions. However, with a new Planning Bill on its way and a thrust on ‘build, build, build’, now is the time to apply lessons learned from the past – both the good and the bad. As such, our mantra as an industry should be as follows: Build, Build, Build, More, Better, and Beautiful.
Related competencies: Sustainability, Development appraisal, Masterplanning and urban design, Spatial planning policy and infrastructure