Quality generally costs, most people would agree. But one outstanding exception is Whitehall, where the government wants more homes delivered to a higher standard for less money.
The ODPM is concerned that building rates remain low in the parts of the South East earmarked for additional growth. Communities minister David Miliband recently summoned house builders to explain why completion rates are continuing to lag at a time when the government is focusing so much attention on the issue.
With households in temporary accommodation topping 100,000 for the first time and net immigration rising more than 50 per cent to 223,000 last year, the pressure on ministers is going to increase. But critics fear that the numbers game could simply repeat the mistakes of past building drives, when quantity was sacrificed for quality.
Housing and planning minister Yvette Cooper continues to insist that better quality and higher volumes can be delivered hand in hand. But can they? Worried at the spiralling cost of social housing in particular, ministers have introduced initiatives such as the Design for Manufacture competition to persuade developers to build homes for less than £60,000.
They are seeking ten per cent efficiency savings from registered social landlords (RSLs). To help ensure that associations deliver, the Housing Corporation has introduced an efficiency table, which ranks associations on the basis of how well they deliver value for money.
"The government is keen to get more value out of public investment and there is a pressure to make the grant go as far as it can," says National Housing Federation (NHF) policy officer Nick Powell. "We need to make ten per cent savings from the grant for the same output and that puts pressure on housing associations."
The NHF's fears have been crystallised by the recently revamped bidding process for social housing grant. "The Housing Corporation is asking for a lot of financial data. It has included some factors related to quality, but we are not convinced that they go far enough," says Powell. "There is a lot of guidance around and there is quite an emphasis on quality, but quality and sustainability might not be priorities when the corporation is evaluating bids."
While the number of units can be easily quantified, a well-designed scheme is harder to measure. "We are aware of the constant tension between quality and cost and of increasing pressure from the government via the Housing Corporation to reduce costs that is not tempered by an equally robust view about quality," says Southern Housing Group development director Dale Meredith. "Housing associations are worried about this issue."
Associations have learnt that scrimping on up-front investment often backfires, argues Powell. "We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past and develop schemes that are not socially sustainable. The long-term management and maintenance of schemes can go downhill very quickly if there has not been sufficient input at the development stage."
Associations face further pressure as a result of the government's moves to open up eligibility for social housing grant to private companies.
Powell argues that unlike associations, the reputation of private developers does not rest on their ability to develop good-quality affordable housing.
"They are not really interested in long-term sustainability. They want a quick profit and to transfer or sell it to an RSL," he claims.
But it is not just social landlords that are being encouraged to find ways to build more cheaply. One volume house builder, Redrow, has already delivered its version of the £60,000 home, with dwellings from its Debut range going on the market for as little as £49,995.
Critics argue that Redrow's bargain is not such a good deal when the amount of floor space is measured instead of rooms. Design for Homes director David Birkbeck welcomes moves to cater for neglected first-time buyers, but expresses concerns about what is being offered. "The product will only remain attractive if house prices remain high. In three out of four decades, people would not touch it," he maintains.
Regenerators are worried that poor design could undermine efforts to improve rundown areas. London Thames Gateway Partnership deputy director Stephen Joseph warns: "There is a fear that if you really want to hit the £60,000 target, you are going to have to cut some corners."
But sections of the building industry argue that the problem is that the government is trying too hard to raise standards for the good of its housing supply agenda. Planning and Development Association co-ordinator Roger Humber argues that it is hardly surprising that the growth areas are taking a long time to achieve lift off, given the painstaking masterplanning.
Geoff Peters of house builder Galliford Try says that the government's insistence on higher standards in affordable housing are a further brake on supply. He estimates that it costs up to £12,000 per home to achieve the eco-homes "very good" standard. "They could build ten per cent more if they went for the average. The industry is not yet geared up for the higher standard. To achieve that takes time. The Housing Corporation has to hit the right balance," Peters argues.
Environmentalists counter that the government should have made its sustainable building code, which incorporates higher construction standards, mandatory in the growth areas. Campaign to Protect Rural England London director Nigel Kersey is concerned that ministers' rhetorical commitment to quality in the built environment is not matched by deeds. "It is talking a lot about quantity, but not a lot about the other stuff," he complains.
Kersey's scepticism is founded in Cooper's decision not to introduce a design quality threshold for development in the Thames Gateway, an area scarred by the type of poor-quality housing that ministers have vowed to stamp out. The proposal to establish an architecture centre in south Essex offers some "scope for damage limitation", he concedes. But overall he sees little evidence of change on the ground.
"The rush for supply is going to lead to all sorts of temptation for corners to be cut. We do not see much improvement in the rubbish that is getting through," insists Kersey. Joseph is less downbeat about the quality of schemes coming forward. "The big developments that have come forward are not bad," he contends. "But there is a danger that we will be pushed to deliver when the market is not ready to do so."
Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) policy director Adrian Harvey is "optimistic that the policy framework is there". He cites PPS1, which states for the first time that schemes can be refused on the grounds of poor design. "Housing growth offers significant chances in the South East and East of England, but the quality must be right," he warns.
"Things are better than they were five years ago," Harvey believes. "Local authority planners are realising the value of design. In a number of areas, good urban designers are becoming the norm. Today's minimum standards are higher than those in place just a few years ago." But he says that the government should police the higher standards that it has put in place.
"There has to be leadership from government. Design and delivery must be equal priorities, otherwise it will not work."
One encouraging sign is that local authorities are taking a number of initiatives to promote higher-quality development, such as the appointment of senior councillors as "design champions" (see panel) and an emphasis on quality in supplementary planning documents and site briefs. But such efforts need to be reinforced in day-to-day development control decisions. "It would be unfortunate if the emphasis on design were to fail to make a significant impact on how developments are carried out," says urban designer Tony Michael.
At last month's Campaign for More and Better Homes conference, senior ODPM growth areas official Henry Cleary said that the government has earmarked extra cash to ensure better quality in areas like the Thames Gateway.
"Part of the top-up is to ensure that the quality of the homes is better, such as by bringing in CABE to look at the places and design," he explained.
If Cleary needs evidence to convince the Treasury that such investment is money well spent, Igloo Regeneration chief executive Chris Brown points him in the direction of University of Cambridge research showing that quality places breed economic success in a global economy. "The evidence suggests that people key to our economy want to be in the places, particularly the cities, that have culture and infrastructure," says Brown.
Even the CBI agrees, judging by president John Sutherland's speech at the conference. "One of the factors that distinguish successful places a strong sense of place, and that depends on the built environment," he maintained. "As the UK focuses on higher value and skill activities, it will depend more on highly-skilled people. Those kind of people tend to have higher lifestyle aspirations."
The message from the captains of industry is that attention must be paid not only to the quality of individual buildings but to the wider built environment. Chancellor Gordon Brown may feel little need to listen to built environment experts, but the arguments for investing may be more persuasive from the business leaders whom he has spent the last decade courting.
DESIGN CHAMPIONS: HOW TO MAKE YOUR MARK
By Tony Michael
As a councillor, you have been appointed as your authority's design champion.
You probably have no formal training in design, but you believe that you can make a difference. So, where to begin?
- The planning system has to design and plan the town. The architect has to plan and design the building. If the planning system tries to design the building, or the architect tries to plan the town, this is a recipe for disaster.
- Stop thinking about a building's "style". Unless repeating a particular architectural idiom is essential, which is fairly rare, allow the architect some freedom. Insisting on crude ersatz Victorian or Edwardian elevations will only make future generations laugh. Encourage good creative designs.
- Urban design is not just about space between buildings. It is about shaping and creating developments and the activities and uses that go on in them. It is about integrating heritage into the fabric as well as the streets and open spaces, and about the character and make-up of a place.
First, you must secure a budget for specific items. If you do not get this, resign, stating publicly that you cannot operate unless sensible funds are available. The budget needs to cover:
- Heritage grants for repairs to good buildings. Start small, keep the scheme simple to administer, get staff used to working with small grants to householders for quality repairs, then slowly build up. You should get ten or more times the funding from the private sector for every pound of public money.
- Environmental improvement funds to enable the council to deliver on-the-ground improvements, particularly in conservation areas.
- Highway upgrades. Some of the ugliest work in the public domain is done by people with no design understanding working to basic budgets.
Giving the planning office funds to improve highway projects produces better quality.
- Send planners on urban design courses. This will not make them full-scale urban designers, but it will give them a far better understanding of design. Target architects to qualify in planning. Urban design is not architecture and they must not waste time trying to redesign another architect's elevations.
Once the budget is in place, what next?
- Get some sensible and precise urban design policies into the development plan. Concentrate on the points listed in PPS1, such as scale, height, massing, access, building lines, gaps, trees and neighbour protection.
Back these up with supplementary guidance on the design of house extensions, small infill developments, neighbour protection criteria and shopfronts.
These need to be short with clear diagrams.
- Area appraisals should be graphic rather than reams of text. Avoid wasting scarce resources on enormous tomes that end up on the shelf and mostly help appellants' lawyers. The most important thing is to have a programme of improvement works for each area, not just paper plans.
- Get planning staff to produce graphic briefs for as many significant development sites as possible. These have to explain the basic urban design forms that would be suitable for the site. Remind staff that they should never "negotiate" with applicants. Their task is to exchange information with applicants and offer skilled design and planning advice. Producing design briefs at the start is much easier than trying to claw back a poor design on which the architects and clients have spent hours.
- Try to avoid letting architects unqualified in town planning loose on "masterplans". They do not know enough about the way towns work and see it all as large-scale architecture. Encourage applicants to use good local architects.
- Use your influence to produce good design in your council's own developments.
Planning staff are usually sat on by client and finance departments, so they cannot be relied on to tell you that an emerging scheme is no good.
Some of the worst examples of neglect of historic buildings and crude development are on council-owned land.
- Use the council's considerable powers as a landowner to reject badly-designed schemes, since planning refusals can be overturned on appeal. Councils' own schemes have to set high standards.
- Set up a design panel, because you may need independent skilled design advice, and a design award scheme. Be seen to put your head above the parapet when it comes to good design, even if it means being out of step with fellow councillors. The public will feel that you doing something - for them.
Tony Michael is a town planner and architect, specialising in urban design.