Britain needs more houses, and the government’s highly unpopular draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) at least asks how to get them — the right question even if it gives the wrong answer. Anyone who deals with the planning system knows how overblown it has become, and that the cost and effort can exhaust a developer, to the extent that the good intentions of a scheme drain away at the crucial moment of building. The existing planning system may be imperfect but, if it is to be simplified, it needs to be better at eliminating bad designs, not the reverse.
Prodigious amounts of brain power and energy have been devoted to making the well-intentioned suet pudding that is the planning system of today. Brains and energy could be applied to burning off the fat and revealing the plums but the effort might still be in vain. According to Ben Pentreath of Working Group, one of the country’s few aesthetically reliable sources of designs for developers’ housing, there is insufficient market demand for quality (be it traditional or modern in style) to justify an extra 10 per cent or so margin of cost, even if there were sufficient agreement as to what quality consists of.
This truth in itself constitutes a national tragedy, or perhaps it should be described as a black farce. Pentreath compares the situation to food supplies. Whatever the objections to battery-farmed chickens, the market for organic and free range is unlikely to rise above 5 per cent of the total. The problem with housing and other forms of development is that mistakes last for such a long time.
The interwar housing problem was eased by private enterprise, in the form of semi-detached houses, lavishly using up land that was unfettered by controls. We may not feel so hostile to them now, but it was in reaction to this previous threat to ‘concrete over the countryside’ that the existing controls were introduced in the 1940s. One reason for poor-quality new housing — too small inside and carelessly ugly outside — is that building land is so scarce and valuable that there is no margin for that 10 per cent needed to improve the product. Letting go of the reins, though, is unlikely to make it better.
For the National Trust and Council for the Protection of Rural England (among the most vocal objectors to the NPPF), it is the unbuilt country that calls out most for protection, but the same issues of quality apply in cities as in rural areas. Just saying no cannot be more than a temporary solution, and, despite the multiple pitfalls of the existing situation, it is worth remembering that good housing has been produced in living memory by good designers, even when working without lavish budgets, and trying to learn from their successes.
In the 1950s and 60s, council housing in South Norfolk designed by the firm of Tayler and Green, and the suburban estates around London developed by the architect Eric Lyons with the developer Span, showed what magic could be achieved by architects with a good eye for the potential of a site and a care for all the elements, large and small, that go towards making something that sings. It is no accident that between them these architects have dominated the selection of postwar housing for listing. As Ben Pentreath says on the subject of the design codes, seen as a panacea for bad design, ‘The first rule in the code should be to hire a good designer. After that, you don’t need any more rules.’
Herbert Tayler told a story of a Norfolk lady threatened by some of his housing in a nearby meadow. ‘She was not a silly woman or selfish,’ Tayler recalled. But she asked, as many have done since, ‘We have to have new housing, I know, but, well, it’s never very beautiful, is it?’ In the event, she moved upstairs, not to avoid the view of the new houses, but to enjoy them better. Must we despair of this ever happening again?
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