Sounding Board welcomes Housing White Paper’s multi-pronged approach

Friday 10 March 2017

Government moves to improve the speed and quality of housing supply in London are a welcome and logical change of direction, focusing on several different measures including a diversified market, not just home ownership.

But the measures, announced predominantly in the Housing White Paper, could be improved with more flexibility around right to buy receipts and addressing the Green Belt question. There could also be a greater or more explicit role for local authorities, though arguably this is beginning to happen anyway. On estate regeneration, the industry could do more to highlight good exemplars.

Those were some of the key messages to emerge from a Sounding Board session in which Andy von Bradsky, DCLG design and delivery adviser, housing-led regeneration, kicked off with a canter through the paper’s key points and progress on estate regeneration, looking at the recent publication of a national strategy and good practice guidance for London. The Sounding Board teased out some differences between the latter two: following David Cameron’s commitment to demolish 100 ‘sink estates’, the national strategy includes more on process, including the use of options appraisals to inform the selection of a preferred strategy and steps into the debate around ballots and whether these are necessary and/or appropriate to ensure residents are at the heart of regeneration. The latter (drat London guidance) focuses more on outcomes and arguably tips the playing field for the analysis of options, with the suggestion that demolition may be considered ‘as a last resort’.

On the White Paper, there was also a welcome acceptance of the need for more diversification, increased speed of supply, higher densities, design quality and the link of infrastructure to housing, said von Bradsky, along with the social and economic needs of regeneration as a planning consideration.

GLA assistant director of policy, programme and services Jamie Ratcliff said it was significant that the strongest welcome for the White Paper came from mayor Sadiq Khan, showing the close working relationship of City Hall with Whitehall. This had already been emphasised by the largest affordable housing settlement secured and ongoing discussions now about more funding for the capital and further talks about devolution. Housing minister Gavin Barwell’s description of there being ‘no silver bullet’ solutions was a commendable one, said Ratcliff, and the White Paper’s proposed incremental and rational solutions contrasted with previous attempts to come up with ‘mad, bad and interesting ideas and policies’.  ‘I’m pretty sure there isn’t some magic solution hiding around the corner’, said Ratcliff. The White Paper was sensible, too, on Starter Homes, with positive noises on the shift of tenure to build to rent, and it had a strong recognition of a place-based approach. Perhaps the only criticism that could be levelled was that it is reasonably light on what local authorities could deliver. This chimed with Deirdra Armsby, Director of Regeneration and Planning, LB Newham, who felt there was a ‘substantial gap’ but that there is also an ‘enormous’ resources issue at local authorities on construction and in-house skills.

Pocket CEO Marc Vlessing, though, felt that although the White Paper was ‘media-friendly’ it avoided one ‘green bullet’ at the last minute. This was the lack of anything ‘meaningful’ on Green Belt. Vlessing reported general industry views that until this thorny issue – now branded ‘our GB problem’ by many – is wrestled with, the government continued to operate with one hand tied behind its back.

And yet, as Executive Director of Regeneration and Housing, LB Ealing Pat Hayes suggested, perhaps even this avoidance was part of a mature response when viewed with decisions taken over the issue such as that made in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, where development has been allowed. Neither was Hayes bothered about little mention of local authority building. ‘If the government doesn’t mention it, you can get on and do it’, he said, and the Green Belt was only part of the solution. The move to recommend ballots around estate regeneration schemes, however, was ‘the last thing you want to do’ and a more permissive regime on local authorities being able to use right to buy receipts would have been welcomed. Those ballots would never happen anyway leading up to an election, said Deirdra Armsby, but perhaps, said HTA Design managing partner Ben Derbyshire, holding ballots simply meant that one must do consultation properly. Pocket’s modular solution in Lambeth was a good example of estate regeneration, but Vlessing said that nobody should believe that in going down the modern methods of construction route the problem of skills and labour supply could be avoided seeing that in his firm’s factory, 90+% of the workforce is Eastern European.

For Ben Derbyshire it was important generally to show ‘what good looks like’, but in a meaningful way which moves away from pure aesthetics – what kinds of housing and development improve neighbourhood wellbeing? Derbyshire has proposed the ‘big small housing expo’, and is approaching deputy mayor for housing James Murray with his plans, along with a proposal to run a competition in Derbyshire’s first term as RIBA president. This competition will focus on the procurement of exemplary schemes in a bid to turn around Nimbyism, after simply identifying good built exemplars.

Local authorities, though, are ‘not very good at building things’, said Daniel Moylan, councillor, RB Kensington and Chelsea. The real problem with the housing it builds is that it has no money to maintain it – by contrast, concrete towers such as the Hilton near Buckingham Palace, or Trellick Tower have proved their popularity and quality with good maintenance. Ealing, indeed, is retaining its two biggest tower blocks because they are well built, the residents like them and it would be difficult to make better use if their small footprint. So, the big challenge for local authority-built housing is to go somewhere near the 200-year life expected from private sector schemes. Neither does the rent freeze help this aspect, said Peter Eversden, Chair, London Forum of Civic and Amenity Societies. This position on maintenance also tallies with as-yet unpublished work that has been undertaken by Savills, said its director of world research, Yolande Barnes. ‘We’ve done work on this that shows clearly that some of the things we’re building to replace the tatty old towers that were costing a fortune and were not properly maintained are actually going to end up in 30 years’ time costing more than the things they replaced’, she said. ‘I think it’s a huge issue’. In a world in which we are, in Barnes’ view, at ‘peak real estate’, with little capital growth to come, the issue of service charges will come right to the fore to a much greater degree. Simple buildings like mansion blocks will be a far cheaper consideration than ‘pavilions in the park’ and the costs associated with extensive communal space and facilities, whose ongoing maintenance will be a ‘nightmare’ in 20 years’ time.

Grosvenor director of development, urban neighbourhoods, Katherine Rogers agreed, suggesting that we are storing up problems for ourselves in expensive maintenance in future. Over the years, Grosvenor has acquired a lot of capital receipts to maintain the buildings it has to the right standard.

Technical standards around BRE guidance on daylight should also be looked at again, suggested Fred Pilbrow, Founding Partner, Pilbrow & Partners. Great cities, he added, were about mixed use. Planning, though, forces us to look at the ‘end state product’ and an artificial conclusion, said Malcolm Smith, Global Leader of Masterplanning and Urban Design, Arup. Perhaps it would be better to adopt a little more of the ‘curated intensification’ approach and curatorial process taken by the Dutch. This could be especially useful in estate regeneration and in talking to communities with an ‘early win’, armed with agility to change along the way. Neither do estates have homogenous characteristics, added Armsby. ‘they are very, very difficult projects’, she said. ‘I’d be amazed if anyone going into an estate renewal consultation at the outset from a local authority perspective didn’t already have an option in mind. That’s how it is.’

The proof of the pudding on estate renewal will be who will provide the next exemplar in London, said Executive Chairman, London Communications Agency Robert Gordon Clark, with South Acton perhaps the closest in existence.

The curatorial approach, suggested Sounding Board chair Robert Evans, was something that the planning system was pretty poor at generally, not just as it relates to housing. But generally, Evans said, it was key to talk not just about housing per se, but places, with houses as part of a more mixed environment. Ultimately, he added, the idea of celebrating good examples was perhaps something the industry should do more of. 

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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