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UK planning systems must hold housebuilders to account on design

Words: Laura Edgar

The housebuilding industry ‘must stop receiving a free pass’ on design, states a report published today (7 December).

The English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland planning systems must hold housebuilders more adequately accountable.

This is just one of 12 recommendations (see box) set out in Delivering Design Value: The Housing Design Quality Conundrum by a team led by the University of Glasgow.

Lead report author Dr James White MRTPI, senior lecturer in urban design at the University of Glasgow and a co-investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE), said: “Delivering Design Value is the first in-depth study to examine the process of planning and designing new housing in well over a decade. It uniquely features case studies from all four UK nations and is based on interviews with a wide range of people involved in the planning, design, and development process at the local level.”

The report team – from the University of Glasgow; University of Reading and the RTPI – features cases studies in five local authority areas: East Lothian (Scotland), Bridgend (Wales), Belfast (Northern Ireland), South Oxfordshire (south of England) and Rotherham (north of England).

12 recommendations for policy and practice in Delivering Design Value: The Housing Design Quality Conundrum

  1. Housing and neighbourhood design principles should be regulated by the four UK governments in ‘design value standards’.
  2. Creating well-designed places should be a core national planning objective in each of the four nations.
  3. Volume housebuilders should be held to account on design matters.
  4. The four UK governments should encourage and support a more diverse housebuilding industry.
  5. Housing land allocations should be based on sustainable development principles and prioritise brownfield development.
  6. Design governance leadership should be championed in local authorities.
  7. Local plans should be more place-based and outcome-focused.
  8. Masterplans should be produced and enforced for larger housing sites.
  9. Genuine community engagement should be undertaken early in the planning and design process where it can have the most influence.
  10. Design and construction procurement decisions should be more design driven.
  11. Post-occupancy analysis and development monitoring should be used much more widely.
  12. The four governments should provide more direct funding for design governance, especially at the local level.

The research found that the design quality of homes in all four nations “remains stubbornly low”.

"New homes and neighbourhoods fail to meet the aspirations of the national planning policy statements in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland," it states.

Each government, local authorities and housebuilders are all accountable for "allowing poorly designed places" to be created, and the four planning systems "do not deliver better (or worse) design outcomes than each other".

It also found that there is an "endemic" culture of reprioritising design in the housebuilding industry, while another barrier is the extent to which local authorities set out that design is an important local concern.

White pointed out that the housebuilding industry is “dominated by a small number of large and powerful developers that have little interest in creating well-designed places”.

“On the contrary, the research reveals that small and medium-sized developers are motivated by design but struggle to gain a foothold in the industry.”

White explained that governments should identify how small and medium-sized developers can be supported to enter the housebuilding marketplace through tax incentives and changes to the way land is allocated for housing development.

Incoming president of the RTPI, Dr Wei Yang FRTPI, said: “Future planning reforms across the UK must put place-making and design quality at their heart and more must be done to translate positive policy rhetoric on design quality into actionable, measurable and well-funded solutions.

“Local authority planning teams across the UK have seen reductions in funding over the past decade, with design quality suffering as a result. Housing is not simply a question of numbers. A survey of RTPI members carried out in 2019 revealed that at least half of professional planners said they had limited influence on housing design, while an overwhelming 87 per cent said they wanted more of a say. Nearly 80 per cent said they believed design is of equal importance to factors such as affordability and the availability of infrastructure.”

White added: “Future planning reforms must put design at their heart and the four UK governments must do more to translate positive policy rhetoric on design into actionable, measurable and well-funded design governance solutions.”

Delivering Design Value: The Housing Design Quality Conundrum can be found on the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence website.

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