A housing design audit for England released this month has determined that the majority of housing developments in England are poor or mediocre in quality. The audit was conducted by researchers at University College London (UCL) and claims that 1 in 5 housing estates should not have been granted planning permission, while many others should only have been granted permission with a commitment to major design improvements. Often developments failed to meet the criteria of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), therefore undermining central government.
Poor housing has a direct effect on several indicators of social value including physical and mental health (and by association the motivation to increase skills or find fulfilling jobs), wellbeing (including the positive effects of natural and open space), and crime and the fear of crime. Design plays a vital part in the ability of an estate to increase social value or undermine it.
The researchers asked the residents of the case study estates five questions including:
The worst performing criteria of developments were lack of character, low walkability, poor environmental impact and a dominating impact from cars. Readers of this study will come to the uncomfortable conclusion that housing estate design in the UK still has a long way to go before it can be said to generate adequate levels of social value. However, it is heartening to see that the criteria used to assess design quality and function incorporated a large number of pro-social indicators. Under ‘environment and community’ the report considered community facilities (social infrastructure) public transport and environmental impact. Under ‘place character’ it considered if the estates were distinctive and had sufficient natural spaces. Other indicators included safety, connectivity, and adequate play areas.
The implications of housebuilder behaviours became a significant cause for concern when the researchers came to consider why, and more particularly where, poorly designed schemes occurred. There were many more poor schemes in less affluent area although some low-scored schemes were in affluent areas. This may seem obvious as there are lower returns from properties those owners can only afford the pay modest prices. But this was also found to be because it is easier to obtain finance for higher-end housing. The State surely must have something to say about this, otherwise the system will perpetuate bad design for the less well off. Design study has found that design is particularly influenced by context. The more an area suggests under-investment in streetscapes and social infrastructure, the more the new housing reflects this context. The opposite is true for housing designed for leafy, well-invested areas. Again, this tendency just perpetuates the undermining of social value in the lives of those who are likely to already be under pressure for other reasons.
Design matters. It can stop the cycle of negative social value and can influence a reversal of the factors that adversely impact people’s lives. Lower fear of crime, better relations with neighbours, higher levels of pride in the neighbourhood, more participation in governance and communal gatherings all follow when good design contributes to homes that people want to live in. Only when social value becomes an equal and material consideration in planning decisions can we expect this to come to pass. Perhaps reports like these will hasten that day.