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Raising design standards in new garden communities

Supplying the highest standard of delivery on housing and joined up infrastructure was the subject of our third panel debate at our February forum. Clearly it is challenging for councils to tackle the UK government demands in this area and most have told us of the value of Future Cities Forum in holding informed discussions to provide insight, knowledge and consensus.

Tom Perry, Design Council's Head of Architecture who joined our panel and workshop discussions commented:

'We did a piece of engagement on the workshops at the forum today and it's instructive as we have multiple skills round the table how quickly we started to build consensus.'

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has been a recent advocate on raising standards of design and calling for wider involvement in architecture and planning decisions.

Tom stated how important this is along with implementing design codes:

'I think design codes will become more important. There is not a huge history of these in the UK but where I live in Hackney, there were design codes for the Victorian housing. There were rules for roof and window heights and wall thicknesses. The concept of design codes is not new. But do we have the skills and resources to handle them properly. Ultimately for us it comes down to engagement. I have been involved in the co-design and consultations for many developments including new towns and even cities.

'Where we have seen it work best is where communities come together and work for a shared vision. It's about making sure design goals are measurable which means when the developer comes back with revised plans they can be checked against what the community asked for. We have to become much better at engagement in this country. The approach to-date is generally one of 'show and tell'.'

Director at Stride Treglown Architects, Dominic Eaton who also joined the panel agreed and applauded the energy and design detail of earlier incarnations of garden towns and cities:

'As architects there is always the opportunity to value-engineer and bring costs down. We shouldn't be afraid of asking for quality of materials and saying it is going to cost more because we are creating a legacy.

'Our office in Birmingham is part of the 'garden village' development for the Bournville Trust that was created over 100 years ago. It's delightful. Designed and planned, the landscaping has matured well, and there is a lot of attractive detailing on the houses which are simple but beautifully done. Why is it that we can't seem to do this now? The Re-imagining the Garden City Competition (run by Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation with RIBA and Homes England) was an opportunity for us to put those principles back into action.'

Housing Minister Rt Hon Esther McVey announced in January that the UK government was putting a further £5 million towards the garden communities programme which proposes 200,000 new homes across 21 settlements. The North Essex share of this is £550,00 and the consortium of four councils (including the County Council) is working to deliver three new settlements - which will not be town or city extensions - along the A12 and A120 which link Tendring, Braintree and Colchester.

Essex County Council's Director for Strategic Commissioning Health and Place, Steve Evison, commented during the discussion that just more road building was not the answer to quality designed villages or communities:

'We know how to do roads. Essex County Council is a very big authority with the biggest network in England in terms of distance. We probably default to roads at bit too easily. How do we change the housing and infrastructure conversation away from the default position that x number of houses equals x amount of tarmac? I think the seeds are there and it is starting to change but there needs to be a stronger move to sustainable modes of transport.'

Head of Smart Places, Kim Faithfull-Wright of Costain, commented on the need to extend 'smart city' principles into new developments in the countryside and garden communities:

'If you do it well and put in the right connectivity and mobility both in terms of people and the physical and digital connectivity, you can create places which are not ghettoes but rather places and ecosystems that people can live and work in and travel through. You need the right funding and the right vision. A smart city is not an end goal in itself. Rather it is a constantly evolving and agile place that moves with the times. You can only do that by having a strict plan and vision.'

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