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New housing design in England overwhelmingly ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’

Thatched houses on new estate at Augustan Avenue, Shillingstone, is an example of an estate in Dorset that appears well designed and vernacular in style Thatched houses on new estate at Augustan Avenue, Shillingstone, is an example of an estate in Dorset that appears well designed and vernacular in style @Rupert Hardy

10th March 2020

A housing design audit for England reveals that 75% of new housing development should not have gone ahead due to ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ design.

The design of new housing developments in England is overwhelmingly ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’, with less-affluent communities the worst affected, according to a national audit conducted by UCL for CPRE and the Place Alliance.

The report, an audit of over 140 housing developments built across England since 2007, found that one in five of these developments should have been refused planning permission outright as their poor design was contrary to advice given in the National Planning Policy Framework. A further 54% should not have been granted permission without significant improvements to their design having been made first.

The audit also found that:

  • Less affluent communities are ten times more likely to get worse design, even though better design is affordable
  • Low-scoring housing developments scored especially badly in terms of character and sense of place, with architecture that does not respond to the context in which it is located
  • The worst reported aspects of design include developments dominated by access roads and the poor integration of storage, bins and car parking, leading to unattractive and unfriendly environments with likely negative health and social implications
  • Some gains have been made – schemes scored relatively highly for safety and security and were also typically successful at integrating a variety of sizes of house.

Professor Matthew Carmona (The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL) Chair of the Place Alliance, who led the research, said: ‘Research has consistently shown that high-quality design makes new residential developments more acceptable to local communities and delivers huge social, economic and environmental value to all, yet we are still failing in this regard across England.

‘Planning authorities are under pressure to deliver new homes and are therefore prioritising numbers in the short-term over the long-term negative impacts of bad design. At the same time, housebuilders have little incentive to improve when their designs continue to pass through the planning system. Some highways authorities, meanwhile, do not even recognise their role in creating a sense of place for communities. Collectively, housebuilders, planning authorities and highways authorities need to significantly raise their game. This can’t come soon enough’.

And Tom Fyans, CPRE Campaigns and Policy Director, said:

‘The government has presided over a decade of disastrous housing design and must raise standards immediately. This research is utterly damning of larger housebuilders and their failure to build the homes our communities deserve. They must significantly raise their game if we are to create the sorts of places that future generations will feel proud to call home. It’s no wonder so many of our communities feel apprehensive towards new development when the design is so poor. That’s why significantly improving the quality of design is central to addressing the housing shortage.’

Recommendations from the research

The audit proposed a range of recommendations for the government, housebuilders and local government:

  • Amongst these the research found strong benefits in designing at higher densities than is the norm. The government should be more prescriptive in seeking less sprawling densities, as more compact developments tend to be designed more sensitively. It should require highways design that helps to create high quality, characterful places.
  • Housebuilders need to drive greater ambition across the sector in order to advance a more ethical approach to the design of development that prioritises the long-term social wellbeing of their customers and the health of the environment at large.
  • Local authorities need to use proactive design codes – design parameters established for each site – and design review processes for all major housing schemes. Local authorities also need to end the current disconnect between highways design and planning aspirations when it comes to new housing areas.
  • Schemes that don’t meet minimum requirements should be refused on design grounds and this should be supported, without question, by the government regardless of progress towards meeting housing targets in the area.

Dorset CPRE Planning Conference 13th March 2020

The Dorset CPRE feels strongly that housing design is an issue that deserves very careful thought, not only on the part of the planning authorities and architects but also from those who own the land on which such developments inevitably take place.

We are therefore taking the initiative in staging a one-day conference on Friday 13th March, from 10 am at Cerne Abbas Village Hall. We have invited the county’s leading landowners to attend with their agents and chairs of the planning committees. 

It will be opened by Emma Bridgewater, CPRE’s President. We have a full line-up of distinguished speakers, including Ben Bolgar from The Prince’s Foundation, the well-known designer Ben Pentreath, and the internationally-renowned landscape designer Kim Wilkie. Paul Miner, will present the findings of the housing design audit for England. The Earl of Moray will be coming down from Scotland to talk about the town that he is developing on his land near Inverness, and Ben Bolgar has agreed to chair the discussion, from which we hope all will benefit.

We are extremely encouraged that the conference, which has been a year in preparation, will come hard on the heels of the publication of the report ‘Living with Beauty’, produced by the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. This recommends a much greater emphasis on the need for new housing developments to be visually attractive, to take greater account of local and regional architectural traditions, and generally to be acceptable to the local people on whom they have the most impact. This very much coincides with the overall message that we hope our conference will get across to Dorset’s landowners, developers and planners.

Notes to editors

The full report can be found here: A housing design audit for England

The 142 audited developments were broken down geographically as follows: South East, 21; Greater London, 20; East of England, 19; East Midlands, 19; South West, 16; North West, 14; Yorkshire and Humber, 12; North East, 11; West Midlands, 10.

The audited schemes were chosen because they reflect the typical volume housebuilder product. The average size of schemes audited was 382 units (dwellings) and the average site size was 11 hectares.

The research was funded by UCL through the Place Alliance, the CPRE and the Laidlaw Scholarship Programme. The authors acknowledge the support of the advisory group, supporting consultancies and network of volunteer auditors.

The advisory group was made up of individuals from CPRE, Home Builders Federation, UK Green Building Council, Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation, Civic Voice, ARUP, Design Council, Academy of Urbanism / URBED and Urban Design Group. The supporting consultancies were ARUP, JTP, Spawforths and URBED, Matthew Carmona, Amer Alwarea, Valentina Giordano, Anastassia Gusseinova and Fola Olaleye.

Place Alliance advocates for place quality. It is founded on the idea that through collaboration and better communication, we can establish a culture whereby the quality of place becomes an everyday national and local priority. Place Alliance is open to all and brings together organisations and individuals who share a belief that the quality of our built environment has a profound influence on people’s lives. Place Alliance regularly publishes research evidence to help inform a national debate on the quality of design. Its work can be found at: Place Alliance is hosted by UCL – London’s Global University.


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