National audit slams house builders and government for failure to create adequate public space and “sense of place”, suggesting poor design is getting through on appeal. Christine Murray reports
A national audit of housing developments claims one in five masterplans should have been denied planning permission outright, with some evidence that poor design is being approved on appeal.
A Housing Design Audit for England by Place Alliance evaluated the public atmosphere and layouts of 142 large-scale housing schemes in England. The report slams large developers and government for failing to create decent neighbourhoods with quality public space and a “sense of place”.
“This fatally undermines the government’s own policy on design in the National Planning Policy Framework. It sends a message that design quality does not matter,” the strongly worded report states.
The report also links well-designed places with a 75% average uplift in price, making a strong case for the value of good design, especially given infrastructure such as roads, public spaces, gardens and playgrounds must be provided anyway.
It states: “Arguably the cost differential between ensuring a scheme is well or poorly designed will be much less and typically a relatively small percentage of the gross development value.”
The Housing Design Audit for England, funded by UCL and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and led by Bartlett professor Matthew Carmona, assessed 142 housing-led developments across England against 17 design considerations.
In a damning indictment of house builders, three-quarters of developments were rated as very poor, poor or mediocre when it came to their character.
Six elements are described in the report as “pervasively problematic”, including the quality and quantity of public, open and play space; the character and distinctiveness of the development; car parking; highway design; the architectural response; and the provision for storage and bins.
“Profitability does not seem to be a major factor in determining design quality in new residential areas”
“Public, open and play spaces were often poorly located and designed and failed to create a social focus. Housing units were frequently of a standard type with little obvious reference to the local context or little attempt to create something distinctive,” the report states.
“All these elements undermined the quality and character of the environment which often had little distinguishing personality or ‘sense of place’.”
Interestingly, the housing audit reported inconsistencies within and between house builders, with design audit scores for projects by the same developer varying widely on the scale from very poor to good.
Brownfield sites, housing built at densities greater than 50 dwellings per hectare and projects in more affluent areas tended to be the best designed, although this did not always correspond to a greater return on investment (ROI).
According to the report, there is an untapped opportunity to increase values in less affluent areas: “The implication is that just because land values are low, this does not mean that good design cannot be ‘afforded’. Such locations may be the most profitable to develop.”
“Comparing ROIs to the average design audit scores for each region shows little obvious correlation. Given this, profitability does not seem to be a major factor in determining the delivery of design quality in new residential areas
“The large majority of this expenditure relates to the elements that will inevitably always need to be provided – roads, footpaths, play areas, gardens, street lighting, parking, external walls and windows etc.”
In the detailed findings, the report states that 38% of the housing projects were judged to have made a poor or very poor architectural response to the local context: “Whilst inevitably subjective to some degree, these aesthetic factors are critical to the way in which housing development is perceived and a sense of place is created.”
More than a third (34%) of projects were judged to have very poor or poor character, defined as “how all the components of the place fit together to establish an identity that is clear, positive and distinctive”.
“It reflected an absence of any attempt to use the components of development in a manner that created a coherent place as opposed to a collection of houses, roads and car parking”
The South West and Yorkshire and the Humber were deemed to be the worst performing regions when it came to creating places with character: “Overall the character of development was often poorly developed with many schemes feeling generic.”
“It reflected an absence of any attempt to use the components of development in a manner that created a coherent place as opposed to a collection of houses, roads and car parking.”
Outside London and urban cores, street legibility and street definition were deemed to be poor, with 70% of housing judged to be, at best, mediocre.
The report states: “With legibility, places become memorable. This does not imply that everything has to be special, but that there are some landmark elements that stand out, be those architectural, landscape or urban space features.
“A legible environment can encourage the external environment to be used more for walking and play, and can enhance the character giving qualities of the place.”
The report also hits out at highway design, stating that too many housing projects “still allow the design of road infrastructure to dominate the design of the three-dimensional street space, rather than designing infrastructure appropriate to the spaces and places they wish to create”.
The audit recommends “a place-based approach” to highway design and posits the mandatory adoption of the Manual for Streets or “an equivalent place-focused guidance on highways design” to ensure that placemaking takes precedent over car and road infrastructure.
“The need for a walkable and cycle-friendly environment are fundamental to delivering ‘place value’ for communities, whilst car-dependant roads dominated development and poorly designed and integrated parking are amongst the factors most likely to undermine it and should be avoided.”
Finally, bins and storage are named as big contributors to a failed sense of place. “Whilst this may seem like a very detailed concern, the absence of appropriate storage for modern bins that allow for the separation of rubbish and easy handling by collectors can have a significant detrimental impact on the character and quality of the street scene.”
The report casts doubt on the reliability of resident surveys in assessing the quality of housing design, suggesting residents will not offer an unbiased view. “Residents who have recently made, for many, the biggest investment of their life in a new home are unlikely to garner a completely objective and dispassionate response.”
“For this reason, resident satisfaction is not regarded as a reliable measure of the quality of the built environment.”
The report does, however, remark on the strong correlation between ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ design and resident dissatisfaction.