It was great to speak at the Building Better Building Beautiful conference in Birmingham last week. The packed agenda ensured over 400 delegates and a huge number of interesting issues were raised. Superb day and cap tip to MHCLG.
As a housebuilder it slightly felt like being in the away end but there was huge value for Barratt to take away.
First and foremost was the commitment of Homes England to drive out Building for Life 12 as the means to help consider design when the public sector is selling sites or determining planning permission. There is a commercial interest here as Barratt has been using BfL12 for several years. In fact, despite being only c.8% of new homes built we have won more BfL12 design awards than the rest of the sector put together.
As with every design conference the walls and videos were adorned with exemplar housing schemes, many of which were in London. Indeed three of ours were showcased at Cane Hill, Derwenthorpe and Hanham Hall. But my pitch to delegates was that whilst every development needs to be good, not every scheme needs to be exemplar. Indeed how could they when two of the sessions focussed on how to drive up build rates via MMC and standardisation.
Effective local plan policies and/or masterplans, plus a capable housebuilder can deliver good design on every single site, especially if BfL12 is deployed effectively. But if you want an exemplar scheme you also need a committed, willing landowner as well. If a landowner (or the agent or land promoter) is solely interested in maximising land price, then the land market process will likely prevent exemplar being delivered. No matter how good the housebuilder or the LA.
Every site deserves good design but does every one require exemplar? No period of history has delivered exemplar on every site, and especially not when there has been a need to much increase the production of new homes.
Barratt agrees with George Clark who told the conference that if MMC is seen solely as the route to reduce costs then we have a problem. If MMC increases quality, increases speed and reduces costs as well then we have a solution.
For Barratt good design is more about culture than policies or standards. We believe that good design will help sell our product and contribute to customer satisfaction. As such we invest the time and the effort required to achieve BfL12. The culture starts at the top and permeates downwards. Driven always by our customers – the people who pay our salaries. The people who want our MMC homes (20% of volume) to look like our traditional built ones.
Standard house types came in for the usual panning all day. But Barratt has over 100 house types, all architect designed and with variants to cover modern, Victorian, Edwardian, rural and suburban sites. Many of the UK’s favourite places were built via standard house types and lazy stereotyping is perhaps unhelpful. Some of our poorer schemes have been where unqualified LA officers have interfered with our classically proportioned and architect designed elevations.
And when you are building 17,600 homes a year, reducing mistakes leads to happier customers. Forcing complicated unfamiliar designs, on our workforce, tends to lead to more mistakes, slower build and reputational risk.
Much was said about stewardship throughout the day. No one is going to disagree with the benefits of stewardship when looking at Letchworth or Welwyn. But stewardship (whatever that actually means) must not be regarded as a straight line to good placemaking. There are many public sector built estates which show there is no direct correlation.
The best people to steward a placed are the residents. There are no stewardship organisations in Gosforth or Otley but they are wonderful well managed residential areas. Yes, for new build, a residents management charge to maintain open spaces, will usually be required due to LA cuts. But the idea that stewardship trumps the creation of a design that residents love is folly in my view. Not that anyone said that!
And the best quote of the day was from Paul Watson, former Director for Development at Solihull MBC. Paul reminded us that quality is different from beauty. Something can be loved, cherished, full of character and extremely attractive, without being considered beautiful by anyone. Poor quality is never loved.