Will Heaven is Director of Policy and Head of Place at Policy Exchange, and Jack Airey is Research Fellow on Place and Prosperity.
Why is there such a big gulf between the kinds of new homes people want to live in and near – and the homes that actually get built?
Most people don’t like glassy high-rises, sprawling concrete estates or architect’s “adventurous” concepts. As polling shows, they want homes that are built in traditional styles: Georgian and Victorian-style terraced housing on tree-lined streets, for example.
This is the puzzle that needs solving. Ugly building is a cause of “Nimbyism” – a pejorative term for an entirely rational defence of an economic asset – which stops developers building as many homes as they would like. It frustrates and slows them down, making their work riskier to take on and more expensive. So why don’t they change the design and style of their homes to suit ordinary people’s tastes?
Admittedly, making popular design and style central to the process of housebuilding will represent a significant cultural shift. For decades, developers have been guided by a single orthodoxy – to add as much value to a plot of land as can be absorbed by the local housing market.
This is rational economics, you might say – and indeed it has made developers handsome profits. Yet where land values are high, as they are in the places homes are most needed, it has also meant new homes being squeezed together as closely as space will allow, and costs cut on design. Little attention is paid to whether new homes add value to the wider place. It is this that often leads to protest and confrontation between developers and local residents.
But there is evidence that a cultural shift, at last, is beginning to happen. In July, a month after Policy Exchange’s Building More, Building Beautiful report was published, the Government issued its revised National Planning Policy Framework. The document, which sets the rules for development control in England, now requires local planners to insist that new homes are built to a high design standard and encourages local authorities to produce design codes and style guides to define these standards. The framework clearly puts the issue of popular design and style at the heart of the Government’s housing strategy. “The creation of high quality buildings and places is fundamental to what the planning and development process should achieve,” it says.
Since this minor breakthrough, there has been evidence of a shift in practice as well. Planners are reportedly basing many more decisions on questions of design and aesthetics. They have much greater confidence, it seems, that central government will back them if the developer contests their decision.
There has also been a change in tone from ministers. Rather than speaking almost entirely in terms of the number of houses built – the aim remains 300,000 homes a year by the mid 2020s – there is now an increasing focus on the quality of what is being built. In his speech to a room full of architects at the RIBA Stirling Prize award ceremony this month James Brokenshire, the Housing Secretary, talked of how he will “pay special attention to the quality of design and style” and of the need for “homes which fit with the world around them”. At Conservative Party Conference Kit Malthouse, the Housing Minister, urged developers to build “the conservation areas of the future”.
Added to this is the forthcoming Letwin Review of Build Out. Commissioned by the Government, the review panel’s analysis is expected to advise radical measures on reforming the land market – the high price of land, as we have said, has a significant impact on the way new homes are built.
This is all very welcome. But there’s much further to go, especially in parts of the housebuilding industry that tend to resist the idea that ordinary people should have a say over what new developments look like – and, for example, whether they are built using local materials. Along with developers, this means architects, planners, landowners, and even civil servants will need to change their established ways of working. The practical and economic case for building beautiful must be made, not just the political one.
In other words, there is a need for more research, open debate and fresh perspectives. We’ll be doing as much as we can to contribute at Policy Exchange. In November, we will be hosting three public events and publishing an essay collection as part of what we are calling “Building Beautiful Month”. With speakers and essayists including Brokenshire, Malthouse, the celebrated Syrian architect and author Marwa Al-Sabouni, the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, and Ben Derbyshire, the President of RIBA, we will be asking what steps developers, architects, planners, and policymakers can take for housing development to be made more popular.
None of this should mean a minister imposing their architectural tastes on the public. We wouldn’t ask a politician for advice on how to dress, so neither should we ask them how exactly to design a house. But it does require the Government and the housebuilding industry working together to overcome the reasons why people object to homes being built in their backyard – and for “building beautiful” to become the new orthodoxy.