Nothing has frustrated me more over the past eight years as a local councillor than the way the debate about new housing has been presented as anti development (due to it being ugly) or pro development (due to the need for more homes). The potential for beautiful new housing is ignored.

Thus I am most heartened by a new report from the Princes Foundation for Building Community which offers strong evidence that the public can be won over in support of development if it is attractive. The message is rather NIMBYs – or indeed uncritical YIMBYs – a pro development majority can be created with the BIMBYs – Beauty In My Back Yard.

The findings of what most people want will not come as a surprise. There is a dislike of more high buildings by 83 per cent – with only 12 per cent favouring the prospect. The figures come from collating interviews with 8,000 people in “planning workshops” around the country.

Traditional architecture with its quirkiness and distinctive is preferred to modernism of homogeneous buildings with blank walls.

The report says:

“The evidence from interviews and conclusions, from spontaneous answers and the questionnaire is remarkably consistent and clear. People want development that makes it easy and pleasant to walk about, that respects the historic form and style, contains green space and constrains traffic that maintains a strong sense of place. People prefer streets, blocks and squares to large and tall buildings. Mixed use and mixed communities are valued by most.

This is not a matter of box ticking according to some bureaucratic mathematical ratio. In terms of green space for example:

“Perhaps the best conclusion to draw from the evidence is that people do very strongly want some green space but they want it to be well defined (a park, a square, whatever is appropriate), leaving most of them free to live in a more conventional urban form which also addresses peoples’ dislike for sprawl. The desire for green space would appear to need to be aligned to all the other strong preferences (or dislikes) emerging from the evidence rather than contradicting them.

“Ultimately each community should be able to decide on how much, and in what form, green space should be incorporated into designs. The trade offs between green space and massing, for example, are best decided on by the community who will ultimately be affected by these built environment choices.

A huge opportunity to make our land more pleasant comes with estate regeneration. The opportunity is generally being sqaundered:

“A far better model of estate regeneration is needed – one which benefits existing residents, which genuinely welcomes community feedback into the design process itself and which produces housing which speaks to preferences and housing need.

“Our work on housing estates has identified a desire for quality green space, better integration and a strong neighbourhood identity.
people do not desire large buildings which are overbearing and which do not speak to their local context.”

It adds:

“Although something approaching a more traditional street pattern is in some instances being reinstated, we are also often repeating the mistakes of what is being torn down: buildings that struggle to engage appropriately with surrounding urban fabric or to meet the preference and housing needs and desires of many residents. New blocks are often much bigger than their predecessors with an average increase in density of around 170% and an average increase of 227% in height in a recent sample.

“In order to ‘sell’ these enormous blocks to local planning officers, developers (be they private or not-for-profit) have made much of large areas of open space, despite vast tracks of ‘green space’ in existing estates suffering from well-documented underuse. It is not always the density itself that undermines the quality of these developments, but rather the architectural design, urban layout and public space design.”

The report concludes:

This report helps us understand how we can move from a NIMBY (Not-In-My-Backyard) to a BIMBY (Beauty-In-My-Back-Yard) attitude towards house-building in the UK; how to create the right processes which genuinely engage residents and build the type of housing that is actually welcomed by communities: appropriate, sustainable and beautiful. At present too much consultation is spurious and too much of what we are building is repeating the errors of the past.

“We have reached a point in the UK where people appreciate the need for more housing, especially in the face of unaffordable housing for younger generations, but we need quality designs and collaborative consultation to translate this understanding into support for new schemes around the country. We will only be able to build enough homes to ease the UK’s current housing needs once communities feel that their concerns will be heard and new developments are beneficial, not detrimental, to where they live.”

So much of the concern about the risk of “concreting over the countryside” and “saving the Green Belt” rests on the assumption that new must mean ugly.

The problem with housing as there isn’t a proper market operating – due to the constraint on supply. This is part of the concern about immigration. However we are not “full up” in the literal sense.

One recent analysis found that only seven per cent  of the UK is urban. The report added that “urban” doesn’t mean built on – for instance there is more space devoted to golf clubs than housing. Only a fifth of the urban space is covered with buildings. So only around one per cent of the UK is actually built on.

The problem is that people are resistant to development as they assume it would be ugly. Yet it doesn’t need to be. The Princes Foundation offers an alternative.