Selling off surplus public sector land to provide housing is an excellent policy. It addresses two of the greatest challenges the Government faces – reducing the National Debt and easing the housing supply. This week the policy was advanced by the announcement of “direct commissioning”.

The Department for Communities and Local Government declares:

“This will lead to quality homes built at a faster rate with smaller building firms – currently unable to take on big projects – able to get building on government sites where planning permission is already in place. The first wave of up to 13,000 will start on 4 sites outside of London in 2016 – up to 40% of which will be affordable ‘starter’ homes. This approach will also be used at the Old Oak Common site in north west London.”

The other sites will be Connaught Barracks in Dover, Northstowe in Cambridgeshire, Lower Graylingwell in Chichester and Daedelus on the waterfront in Gosport.

Mark Easton, the BBC’s Home Affairs editor, told listeners to the Radio 4 Today programme:

“For a Conservative Government to trumpet the idea that the state rather than the market should be building and commissioning these homes for sale is something of an ideological shift.”

But this is the private sector building homes to be sold on state land to be sold. It has been state land-banking that has frustrated the housing market.

The change is that central Government will sell at a later stage in the process. This will allow smaller building firms to undertake the work as the sites can be smaller scale and they won’t have the main burden of the planning system. I understand that some of the sites for Starter Homes will be allocated to self-build.

The trouble with large schemes and planning developments generally is their dreary, uniform modernist appearance. The small number of very large builders have conformed to the tyranny of sameness. They have given in to the demands of local authority planning officers due to desperation to obtain permission as soon as possible. That has meant agreeing to a design brief of brutalism.

islingtonThe policy of direct commissioning allows at least the prospect of good design. The Government’s paper last year on Starter Homes was rather encouraging. The eight examples given consisted of seven houses and only one block of flats. The flats chosen (right) were part of a project in Islington by the architect Porphyrios Associates for First Base and Southern Housing.

The Starter Homes paper says:

“A mixed-use scheme in north London including a range of apartments that blends traditional architecture with contemporary design. The buildings have been articulated by a series of discrete volumes that create an enclosed, secure, landscaped courtyard.

London stock brick, stone, render painted in shades of cream and off-white and metalwork on balconies have been used throughout the buildings.

These traditional materials will stand the test of time, and combine to re-energize the best of traditional London architecture.”

An example of well-designed terraced housing came from Poundbury in West Dorset (top right). The architect is Craig Hamilton Architects.  The developer was CG Fry (a building firm producing a lot of excellent traditional new housing) for the Guinness Trust.

The report says:

“Part of a walkable neighbourhood with well-connected streets, the house elevation is simple with non-aligned windows giving a less formal feel. The windows can have flat arches, gentle arches or full arches. Materials can vary from a more generic render (which can be plain or coloured to give variety), or locally found materials or bricks can be used.”

uptonFrom Upton in Northampton there was an alternative from the architects KRT Associates Ltd and the developer Paul Newman New Homes for English Partnerships (left).

It was described as follows:

“This home is brick with traditional six pane over single pane sash windows and slate or black tile roof. This double fronted house can be detached, semi-detached or terraced. The ground floor windows can be two part or three part. Lintels can be flat or arched.”

There were other buildings included in the Starter Homes Design paper I found less attractive. But as Brandon Lewis, the Housing Minister, said in the introduction the key is for developers to at least offer communities a choice of beautiful traditional design:

“Starter Homes do not have to conform to these exemplars that is not the purpose of this document. Where developers want to build something else, which is as good or better in design, and this is approved by local planning authorities this is acceptable. What is not acceptable is the approach that regards the appearance and design of the homes and communities we build as an afterthought….
“Good design should be the default approach to deliver good quality Starter Homes. Developers should work with local planning authorities to deliver the high quality design we all want to see for Starter Homes. The Panel’s exemplars show good design in a local context. Proposals should include visual material, similar in scope to that set out in this document, so that communities can see the quality of homes being offered.”

The Government have got the right approach to this. The popular aspiration is not just for home ownership but to own a beautiful home. In London the difficulty in achieving this ambition is particularly acute.  Zac Goldsmith has made clear that if he becomes Mayor of London it will be central to his mission to make home-ownership a reality for many more people. It is something that under his Mayoralty, City Hall and the DCLG would work together on. In London and the country as a whole there is a vast amount of unused state-owned land. I hope the announcement this week will prove to be just a very modest start.


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