If you have read the Place Alliance report into the state of 142 new housing developments in England over the last five years, I am sure you will agree that it makes sobering reading. The following bullet points give a flavour of some of the findings to come out of this audit:
- Although there had been a small improvement on the previous survey, new housing design is mediocre or poor, based on the assessment criteria used in the audit.
- One in five of the 142 schemes considered should have been refused outright. Even when some of these schemes were refused, they were won on appeal.
- Lower density developments tended to be of poorer quality (it is suggested that this is because there is less incentive to be creative).
- Those who buy the properties like them. Those who live nearby often do not. But both parties agree that these estates are often too car and road dominated.
- Less affluent communities get poorer designs even though the cost differential between a poor and good design is marginal.
Pretty damning stuff. And yet for many of us in the business of looking at planning applications and development proposals, the prospect of commenting on new-build housing developments is not one that fills us with joy. These are often dwellings that are designed by numbers – without the influence of an architect. It seems strange that we spend hours poring over the design details of a “statement building” in a city or town centre, but all too often developments such as these receive little attention, even though in volume terms they have a much bigger impact. Leeds has one of the highest targets for new housing in the country – around 50,000 to be built between 2017-2033. If most of these sites are developed, their impact (for good or for ill) will be huge.
So at Leeds Civic Trust, we have decided to pay more attention to these schemes by adopting the 17 criteria used by the Place Alliance in its housing audit assessment. The difference is that we are using them to consider planning applications rather than completed schemes. With that in mind, we have made some adjustments:
- We have tweaked the criteria to add a few additional areas for consideration. For example, we have added consideration of climate emergency (under criteria 4: Environmental Impact), how the edges of developments are treated and screening implemented (under criteria 6: Existing and New Landscapes) and quality of fencing and walls (under Safety and Security).
- We are also considering adding an 18th criterion, which will consider broader public health issues.
- Although the criteria will guide our analysis of all housing applications, we are unlikely to use it in full for the smallest schemes (the Place Alliance audit was focused on volume housebuilding and so excluded developments with less than 50 units).
- We will also include under each criterion a relevant policy reference – for example, an appropriate section of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), a reference to the National Housing Design Guide or to Leeds City Council’s Neighbourhoods for Living document. This ensures that our observations are underpinned by policy
Using the criteria in practice
The first scheme we looked at was a development of 66 dwellings on Swithins Lane in Rothwell on the outskirts of Leeds. Our overall assessment of the scheme was that it was poor to mediocre – it only scored “good” on three criteria (Community Facilities, Housing Types and Safety and Security). In our assessment we said that:
“the proposal is considered to have low standards and aspirations, particularly with regard to landscaping, sustainability (flood retention strategy, wind alleviation strategy, biodiversity), transport & waste management and context.”
We were also critical of the architectural response (the scheme uses standard housing types) and the way in which highways dominate.
I think it is fair to say that using this criteria-based approach forced us to make a more through assessment than would ordinarily have been the case, and as a result we have produced a much more rounded critique of the scheme in front of us.
Insisting on high quality design
Professor Matthew Carmona, Chair of the Place Alliance, made an interesting remark in a recent blog post in which he critiques the government’s latest planning document, Planning for the Future. He says:
“On the one hand the document espouses a ‘world-class planning service’ and the need to ‘create beautiful and sustainable places’ for everyone. On the other it talks a language of deregulation wrapped up in extending permitted development rights, expanding the use of zoning tools, and giving automatic rebates of planning fees when local authorities lose appeals.”Professor Matthew Carmona
This was written before the COVID-19 emergency had really taken hold. It seems likely that the volume housebuilders will press for a further relaxation of planning rules to get the construction industry moving again and to address the housing crisis after months during which housebuilding plans have been put on hold. And yesterday the Government issued new guidance, Coronavirus (COVID-19): Community Infrastructure Levy guidance, which advises councils to suspend Section 106 (affordable housing) and Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) obligations for small and medium sized developers to help ensure these companies remain viable during the pandemic.
So, in the face of an economic downturn, there is a danger that good design and placemaking considerations will be further downgraded. The role for civic societies in insisting on these values will be more important than ever. The rigour offered by the audit criteria provides us with a framework through which we can demand higher standards in the Post COVID-19 world where there may be pressure to allow standards to slip further.
Director, Leeds Civic Trust