We have seen over the past few months a real government impetus to regain lost ground, since the economic effects of Covid-19, by boosting the construction industry in whatever ways it can.
The Prime Minister pledged £5 billion to ‘build, build, build.’ This has been coupled with changes to stamp duty, to encourage movement on the housing ladder, and changes to Permitted Development Rights to encourage conversions to residential units to counter the housing shortage.
The Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, has clearly shown he attaches significant weight to the provision of new market and affordable housing. This is all good for the economy and for the housing crisis.
Much of this drive will include, and has already included, a major focus on overhauling the planning system, criticised by some for red tape and delays. I am not sure this is a true reflection of all the reasons for a sluggish development market.
Whilst there are backlogs within the planning system, statistics indicate that more than a million homes that have been given planning approval within the last 10 years have not been built.
Much of the cause of this can be put down to financial restraints and economic pressures on developers post-planning approval, and, of course, likely affordability within the marketplace of property if built. Timing can sometimes be crucial.
Whilst the government’s pledge for positive support and their swift response for calls to support the building industries are commended, concerns are expressed in some quarters that there is potential risk of poor-quality build as a result.
In fact, such are the concerns that a campaign group has commenced legal action against the government’s introduction of new Permitted Development Rights. They claim that there should have been much greater consultation and debate before their introduction given, they maintain, the potentially enormous consequences for the environment and the possibility that the changes inadvertently lead to future slums.
The purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development with three overarching objectives – economic, social and environmental. As always seems to be the case, economic and financial focus seems to be the overriding factor, or, as Orwell might have put it, they are all equal, but some are more equal than others.
The government’s recently published White Paper, following on the heels of the report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission at least shows an ambition to create more beauty in new development (the introduction of a ‘fast track’ for beauty is a novel new concept), and to radically reform the planning system, and provide a nationally determined binding housing requirement ensuring more land is available for housing. This all sounds commendable but as always, the devil is in the detail.
However, given the current momentum, should we use this opportunity as a platform for much wider consideration of future designs for living? Has the Covid-19 pandemic taught us something else? Has it changed what we view as our priorities in life?
More people are likely to be working from home and spending longer in their residential unit. In Boris’s proposals for major overhaul of the planning system, should we start at grassroots level?
Are we better focusing planning directed resources on a much wider ethos of ‘place-making’? Designing healthier, happier places to live through consideration of a bigger picture of creative planning design on a larger geographical scale of green spaces, use of outdoor areas and use of natural acoustics where people have personal space to reconnect with nature?
Due to growing population demands in recent years focus has been, and continues to be, on the number of residential units that can be created in small spaces. However, density brings with it other issues such as restricted private space which can lead to aggressive behaviour, frustration and mental health issues.
We have all no doubt experienced irritation from noise nuisance due to the activities of close neighbours and one thing is for sure, we all enjoy the peace of our own personal space.
Whilst space in this populated isle comes at a cost in terms of the pressures of housing an ever-expanding population and consequent increase in land values, perhaps its benefits can be achieved by the wider concept of place-making. If we are looking at a radical shake-up of the planning system, let’s also look outside the box and add a bit of lateral thought rather than just build, build, build!
There is a difference between ‘space’, a three-dimensional organisation of an area, and ‘place’ which also evokes emotional and atmospheric interest and experiences. Whilst this sounds somewhat ‘touchy feely’, there are clearly positive benefits both economically and physically from a nation that is happy and healthy, fit and mentally at ease.
The benefits of greening our environment cannot be under-estimated. Green spaces improve the environment within which we live, are important in the reduction of carbon emissions, add to the biodiversity of wildlife, and provide a focus for community activities, encouraging social interaction and the ‘feel good factor’.
This is not a new concept; providing beneficial green space for the masses can be traced back to suggested reforms in 1898 by Ebenezer Howard. Arguably, one good thing to have come out of the Covid-19 pandemic is a renewed appreciation for the benefits of local outdoor space, nature and the environment around us.
This should be grasped and used to benefit future housing by designing places with character, atmosphere and interest.
Insufficient consideration is given to the importance of the soundscape in the design of residential development. Not all noise is unwelcome.
The introduction or enhancement of natural sounds, such as running water from streams or fountains, and the use of planting that rustles in the wind, can positively impact on well-being and be used to disguise unwelcome noise bringing calmness and tranquillity to a place.
The inclusion of community gardens and allotments particularly encourage sustainable communities, socially, environmentally, and economically. They provide inter-racial, inter-generational spaces for social gathering and exercise, whilst sharing knowledge on growing food and generating respect for precious natural commodities.
Yet, a further indicator of societal inequality, community gardens are not statutorily protected. Most are on unused council land in urban areas, under temporary agreements, and it is often only time before they are seen as another opportunity for development.
The Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to “be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it” followed the 2011 White Paper, The Natural Choice.
The Natural Capital Committee (September 2017) has since advised the Government on the 25-year Environment Plan: ‘a huge economic and social opportunity that can genuinely transform the natural environment, support the growth of the economy, allow citizens to reconnect with the health, wellbeing, spiritual and educational benefits of interacting with nature, …the environment should no longer be regarded as an obstacle to development; rather, a healthy environment is the basis of sustainable economic growth.’
Nine years on, and with another White Paper, let us use the opportunity as a root and branch consideration of what we seek to achieve by way of future development.
*Sandra Graham is a solicitor and planning specialist at leading law firm, Trethowans LLP
This post has originally been featured in Property Investor Today.