The importance of good design in new residential development has never been so high profile. The strong message from Government is that it wants to see far more homes delivered but beyond that it also needs to see more beautiful places created. But who is actually responsible for delivering such places on the ground?
Previous posts have set down my views on the need for pragmatism when considering the economic, social or environmental value of some of our provincial green belts. A clear distinction has always been drawn with the London Green Belt – partly reflecting my limited detailed knowledge of it.
A key issue has been whether a “no development” stranglehold around cities like Newcastle/Gateshead best meets economic and social objectives. For example the OECD (presumably unaware of Green Belt policy) concluded in 2010 that “space to grow” is one of Newcastle’s key economic advantages over other competitor cities. To the west it’s about 70 miles to Carlisle and to the north it’s 150 miles to Edinburgh. Little did OECD know that a Green Belt boundary hard up to urban edge currently prevents new development to address population growth and economic ambition.
It will take 1,750 years to concrete the Newcastle segment of the Green Belt at current rates of development. If this segment were a tennis court then the controversial Core Strategy draft proposals for a much needed 6000 new units in the Green Belt extension would measure some 80cms x 80cms if they were all in one place – which they are not. The 2014 Public Examination will determine whether 6000 is anywhere near enough.
Turning to the London Green Belt a few weeks ago I completed the London Revolution cycle ride which circumnavigated London – generally all within the Green Belt. It provided a superb two day snapshot of the Green Belt starting in Docklands then from the Lea Valley across the North Downs then southwards via the Chilterns towards Windsor. The second day involved cycling along the South Downs and then northwards via Box Hill and Crystal Palace back to Peruvian Wharf
The overriding perspective was of the incredible value of the Green Belt. Often it felt like cycling through deep countryside despite being only 10 or so miles from the centre of one of the world’s greatest cities. An amazing contrast to more sprawling cities such as Los Angeles, Tokyo or Cairo.
A second impression was the quality and attractiveness of the settlements and the landscape. You were never pedalling long before passing through a quintessential English village or beautiful rolling pastures. A real sense of a valued and cared for landscape. That said the M25 and the arterial motorways never seemed to be too far away!
Whilst a two day cycling ride is no substitute for a proper spatial analysis it did seem that many, if not most, of the many settlements we passed through did have the capability of accommodating at least fifty or a hundred or more dwellings without undue conflict with the 5 famous purposes of including land within a Green Belt. Particularly given the topography and landscape enclosure of much of the route. It also seemed that many of the settlements had enjoyed reasonably regular periods of growth until the 1960s or 70s but that more recent development, on the urban edge, was much rarer. Some felt, frankly, as though they had been preserved in aspic and were lacking vibrancy.
I was left with a sense that many settlements do have easy potential to take some limited growth to meet local housing needs but that Green Belt policy appears to have unnecessarily and inflexibly drawn up the drawbridge. I was also left with a sense, in some places, that most people around the place appeared to be over 50 or 60. Perhaps the beneficiaries of earlier episodes of development.
Going back to the 5 purposes of including land within Green Belt my cycle-by site visit left the impression that the London Green Belt has undoubtedly been incredibly valuable in preventing urban sprawl, promoting urban regeneration, protecting the setting of historic towns and safeguarding the countryside from encroachment. It has also clearly been successful in preventing the coalescence of settlements. Indeed in many places some limited further development would appear to neither cause coalescence nor prejudice any of the other 4 Green Belt purposes.
That said I would repeat again that my initial view based on a cycle ride needs to be seen for what it is – a snapshot opinion without detailed research. An opinion based on a pretty comprehensive on the ground look however.
Of course everyone is familiar with the importance of the design team. The keyword here is integration. Beautiful architecture needs to be integrated with legible permeable urban design, fantastic landscape architecture and multi modal transport planning. No matter the size of the site – any of these design elements can be the weak link which causes a scheme to fall short.
What about the developer? A belief in the commercial value of design and a willingness to commit time to it is crucial. The developers fundamental job though is to deliver the scheme. This task boils down to giving the landowner the land price he requires and then achieving a sale of units which covers all costs. Without the prospect of sales revenues exceeding costs (including land price) the development doesn’t happen.
Which brings us onto the role of the landowner. Given that costs and sales values are broadly predictable within known parameters the key area of potential financial flex on any scheme is the land value. If the sole objective of the landowner is to maximise land sale price then this clearly places more pressure on the competing bidding developers to be prudent on other costs (perhaps including design) in order to ensure that the (largely predictable) sales values clearly exceed the overall land and construction costs.
In contrast where the landowner has wider objectives (perhaps including the creation of a beautiful place) then costs which might otherwise need to go towards land price can be invested in design. If the landowner has this flexibility and makes clear the design expectations at the outset the process for creating a beautiful place is underway. Enlightened examples of this approach include New Hall in Harlow,(William and Jon Moen) Derwenthorpe in York (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) (see photo) Bedzed in Sutton (Public Sector/Peabody) and Poundbury in Dorset (Duchy of Cornwall).
Not all to everyone’s taste but the commitment to deliver a high quality design and a beautiful place is crystal clear. Clear design and planning guidance from the local authority can also help manage landowner value expectations and thereby assist in creating beautiful places.
So next time you think a housing estate looks “pig ugly” think beyond the architect and the housebuilder and ask what role the landowner may have have played in squeezing the pips out of the design budget. In contrast where you see beautiful places remember that the landowner will likely have been just as influential as the architect or developer.
Final plea goes to the public sector. A wave of public sector land is coming forward and surely the landowner should adopt a similar approach to the schemes described above. Simply maximising land price to achieve “best value” would be short termist and wrong headed. Public and private sector landowner commitment to (and investment in) design will pay the country dividends.