Housing design - new Government Commission but old idea?

New Commission established to tackle poor-quality design of homes and places 20 years after the Urban Task Force was established for a similar purpose.

In November 2018 the Government established the “Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission” and published its draft terms of reference. The purpose of the Commission is “to tackle the challenge of poor-quality design and build of homes and places, across the country and help ensure as we build for the future, we do so with popular consent”.

The Commission will gather evidence from the public and private sector to “develop practical policy solutions to ensure the design and style of new developments, including new settlements and the country’s high streets, help to grow a sense of community and place, not undermine it”.

This initiative is reminiscent of the Richard Rogers led Urban Task Force which was established in 1998 by then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. The purpose of the Urban Task Force was to “identify causes of urban decline and establish a vision for cities in England, founded on the principles of design excellence, social well-being and environmental responsibility within appropriate delivery, fiscal and legal frameworks”. Their findings were set out in the 1999 report “Towards an urban renaissance” with more than 100 recommendation which linked better design with sustainability and the strengthening of democratic local leadership and increased public participation.

Following the publication of the Urban Task Force’s report the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and its functions included design review and preceded the establishment of the localism agenda which also followed on from the Urban Task Force’s report.

Since the days of the Urban Task Force and CABE there have been several revisions to the planning system through legislation and policy (such as the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 which implemented provisions relating to spatial and sustainable development, the Localism Act 2011 dealing with decentralised decision making, the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework and the consolidation of guidance in the “living document” Planning Practice Guidance) and building regulations. These have sought to address sustainable development, local decision making so that people can influence the development of their local areas, the demand for housing, particularly affordable housing, urban regeneration, land assembly, new tenure types, the facilitation of co-living and purpose built private rented sector accommodation (notably through London Plan policies) and similar related matters. However, an enduring problem appears to be the ability of national and local government through policy and legislation to deliver quality housing and places.

Comment

Some cities successfully regenerated through the Urban Development Corporations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the Urban Task Force had addressed the need for a coherent well thought through approach to deliver an “urban renaissance”. However there appears to have been a dearth of ideas as to how to deliver such aspirations, possibly as a result of the localism agenda pushing decision making to the local level where there is often less resource in terms of human resources and financial resources to deliver “big ideas”. The Nationally Significant Infrastructure Regime has recognised, by implication, that nationally important infrastructure is not best addressed at the local level and has moved the decision making up to the national Government level. However, housing led development and place making initiatives are not part of that regime (although may be part of other infrastructure proposals including mixed-use commercial led schemes) and for the time being are likely to remain outside of that regime.

Hopefully the Commission will be make proposals that when implemented will make important steps in tackling the ongoing issue of design quality in housing and place making.

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