Better design for better places: five things I learned
What’s on the government’s agenda when it comes to designing and building new homes? CIH policy and practice officer David Pipe reports back from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government conference on better design for better places.
1. Design and build quality are back on the government’s agenda
A number of government speakers reiterated their commitment to building 300,000 new homes per year but they were also very clear that increasing the quantity of new homes built can’t come at the expense of quality. This represents a substantial change in thinking from a government that was, in the past, focused narrowly on simply building as many homes as possible.
2. The government wants to promote better quality through collaboration
Although we have already seen some changes being made to the planning system, the government is mostly seeking to promote higher standards through partnership working and collaboration. In practical terms this means (for example) that it is working with agencies like Homes England, which dispenses land and funding for new homes, to encourage them to put much greater emphasis on quality when they do this in the future.
Again, this is a substantial change from the approach taken in recent years when these agencies might have been instructed to simply get as many new homes as they possibly could.
3. ‘Good design’ and ‘beauty’ are not the same thing
Ministers talked about a desire to see house builders thinking more about ‘beauty’ when new developments are being designed, and have established the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission to look specifically at this issue. They believe that if developments are beautifully designed, fewer local people will object to them being built.
This makes sense in theory but of course beauty is a highly subjective thing. We all have different ideas of what a ‘beautiful’ house might look like and it is perhaps impossible to design something that would please everyone.
Good design however is different. Design is about whether a development, or an individual home, functions well. There are tangible ways to measure this including, for example, space standards which ensure that people have a good amount of space to live in, the Lifetime Homes Standard which ensures that homes are likely to remain suitable for people as their needs change over time and various ways of measuring how environmentally sustainable new homes are. CIH has previously argued for higher minimum standards in all of these areas and we hope that these could still form part of the government’s plans in the future.
4. Modular house building is here to stay
There was also much discussion of the role of modular homes, or homes built using modern methods of construction (MMC). At the moment only a very small proportion of new homes are built using MMC but the government is keen to increase this and has set up a working group to look at how they can do that.
We heard presentations from several organisations which are investing in MMC, including a private house builder which expect to build around 1,000 new homes a year in this way. All agreed that MMC is here to stay and that it is not a ‘fad’ and all were adamant that the homes they build using MMC will not be built to lower standards. But they also agreed that MMC would supplement, rather than completely replace, traditional construction methods.
5. We need professionals to improve the quality of new homes
We hear a lot about the shortage of skilled construction workers but a lack of ‘built environment professionals’ also poses a major challenge to all of the above. Funding cuts mean that local authority planning departments have shrunk and a great deal of knowledge and capacity has been lost. More generally, several speakers talked of a need to recruit more planners, architects and surveyors, and to attract both more young people and more people from diverse backgrounds into all of these professions.
And of course, we should also be thinking about who is going to manage these homes once they have been built. There should really be clear links between the government’s thinking here and its plans (set out initially in the recent social housing green paper) to promote professional standards for those working in social housing, something we are already discussing with MHCLG.