Involving the public at design stage when planning new housing

TL/DR: Going beyond moaning about ‘spreadsheet architecture’

Some of you may have seen the report in The Times about a housing development in Nottingham which got no objections to the application.

This is the Barton Quarter and they describe it as one with “houses of traditional beauty fit for the modern age”. I can see why local residents would have been fine with this scheme – designed in partnership with the Prince’s Foundation – which in a nutshell works on the vision more sustainable communities as envisaged by the Prince of Wales. At the same time it’s worth noting that in some quarters of the construction industry – and architecture in particular, the Prince of Wales is a very unpopular figure. Some of you may recall the boycott call in 2009 of his speech to RIBA, in protest against his opposition to modern architectural designs. Some of that opposition has resulted in high profile modern designs being dropped in favour of more traditional designs.

“Whose vision of Cambridge is being delivered?”

This is the latest question Cllr Sam Davies MBE puts to the city. Is it a place where people call home or is it a space where international investors can make a good financial return on property?

The key tension is land as a commodity. It does not work in the way other commodities work on international markets. Why? Because in the grand scheme of things, the supply of land is fixed.

“If the price of something is high, a free market will supply more until its price falls. We forgot that’s not how land works.”

Ian Mulhern, 12 Nov 2021

In a village/town/city this also means that land used for one purpose can rarely be used for another at the same time. And often this choice influences the land use in the areas around it – for example if you are building a large industrial complex – such as the Cambridge Gasworks below from Britain From Above.

Above – now Tescos on Newmarket Road, the Cambridge University and Town Gas Works.

The brickworks on the other side of Newmarket Road is now a retail park and has been identified as an ‘area of opportunity’ under the emerging local plan. Land values are so high in Cambridge that the cost of more substantial site remediation can be met by the new properties that could be built on that site. This is despite the former landfill that made use of one of the brick pits that is full of undocumented waste, such were our habits in the mid-20th Century.

One planning application coming back into the news again is that of the Romsey Labour Club. Back in 2018 residents successfully campaigned against it becoming student flats.

…so it came back as a serviced apartment block – the planning system Conservative Ministers signed off in 2011 allows investors to avoid making social housing contributions or payments for community facilities if they are building student accommodation or ‘apart-hotels’. So that’s what this applicant has gone and done.

Above – from The Planning Portal: Ref – 21/04559/FUL

Having secured planning permission in 2019, the applicant quickly put the site up for sale. Some describe this practices as Flipping – buying a property and selling it on shortly after at a higher price. As the link above implies, this could be by resolving a legal issue – such as planning permission. The problem for communities is that this practice does what capitalism does – it extracts as much of the financial value as possible from the site through the sale, leaving very small margins for the firm that actually gets the development built. Which means there is little room for good design and sound materials – and even less for using the plot of land for facilities that the community might want or need. Such as social housing or a community centre. Again, the fault is with ministers and their backbench MPs that fail to hold them to account over a system that allows wealthy interests to act like this. Note in this case the existing planning permission expires in early 2022 – hence this application which crams even more units onto the site.

The Community Land Act 1975 – an attempt to stop land speculation

Ultimately repealed in 1983 by Thatcher’s Government, you can read the legislation as enacted from the National Archives here. Did it achieve what it set out to do? You can read Lie of the Land – a very sceptical take from 1977.

Above – this comes from a tradition of independently-produced activist publications and ‘zines over the centuries, a number from the mid-late 20th Century having been digitised here.

The importance of looking back into history is to see what previous attempts were made at solving contemporary problems – because more than a few of the issues raised sound depressingly familiar. In this technological age of ours it may feel like we’re the first to deal with these issues, but the archives all too often reveal a different story.

As we transform our villages/towns/cities in the face of the climate emergency, it’s all the more important that the public is the beating heart of that transformation. That they have the information and skills they need in order to make informed decisions about the future of where they/we live and work. At the moment, the planning system and the international financial system does not facilitate this. How are people in insecure rental and temporary accommodation supposed to get involved in decisions like this? This is why groups like the Acorn Community Union are ever so important. Because the current system of private rental housing is one of the most visible sources of wealth transfer from the asset poor to the asset rich. Given how comprehensive the transformation has to be, the word “Justice” in the phrase Climate Justice is just as important as the climate challenge. It’s also something the students have picked up on – the Zero Carbon Cambridge society having rebranded itself to Cambridge Climate Justice. And as they demonstrated a week ago, housing justice is at the top of their agenda – even, and especially when it means challenging their own University on its financial and investment decisions.

“The truth is that we’re long overdue a properly inclusive conversation about what the development lobby think constitutes ‘the city’ and why they are so confident that the commercial targets of the actors that they represent should take precedence over every other aspect of civic life.”

Cllr Sam Davies MBE 14 Nov 2021.
“Practical steps?”

I don’t know what became of the attempt by residents in Newnham ward to work through the BIMBY Toolkit from the Prince’s Foundation. Things like this require rock solid community groups with the support of a critical mass of people to work well. Parish Councils in one sense already have the infrastructure for this. Urban areas that are not parished (which is most cases), don’t have this. Local government austerity resulted in the removal of community development officers that could have facilitated such things. The mindset from the Government being that a thriving voluntary sector and ‘Big Society’ would step up and do the work unpaid. With the inevitable unequal and patchy approach.

For those looking at the housing challenge from a skills-based perspective, so Combined Authority people, the Prince’s Foundation has a list of links of things tried in other parts of the country.

With a new high profile politician now responsible for housing policy (Gove), it will be interesting to see what he does to progress the Government’s policies on Building Better, Building Beautiful. This incorporated the Living With Beauty report from early 2020 that sort of got swept away in the face of the pandemic.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:


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