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Future Cities Forum first pre-election debate report

Above: contributors to Future Cities Forum's first pre-election debate (clockwise from top left) Nick Ffoulkes of Sheppard Robson, Dr Lucy Montague of MMU, Professor Yolande Barnes of UCL / The Bartlett, and Alex O'Byrne of Volterra

Future Cities Forum was delighted to welcome Professor Yolande Barnes, The Bartlett Real Estate Institute, UCL, Nick Ffoulkes, Partner, Sheppard Robson, Dr Lucy Montague, Senior Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University and Alex O'Byrne, Partner, Volterra to the first of our pre-election discussions.

Questions asked included what the UK government has achieved in terms of housing provision, whether funding has been enough to create resilience for high streets and town centres, and how devolution might help grow appropriate skills training.

Professor Barnes began by talking about why the housing crisis is simply not a numbers problem:

'The government claims that they have hit their target of building a million new homes, but whether they have really met their yearly targets is another question. What has been demonstrated is that we have become fixated on numbers of housing units, but it is more complicated than that. We have 28 million households in the UK, so in adding a million as the government says it has, means that's only an extra home for every 28 or 29 people in the country. We need to talk about the sort of homes that are needed and how the future government can build the required number of units, without blowing the carbon budget for 2050.

'I think we are right to talk about inter-generational living. The housing market is an asymmetric one. At what point is a nation fully housed? Demand always rises. Can any of us really claim we are living in our dream home? We all need to live in a decent environment and 'home' is about more than walls, it is about when you step out of your front door. It is about real places that people want to live in and we have to get away from the units game. There is an expectation that we will live in smaller units but I think that's wrong. We certainly need to re-use land in a more efficient way and talk about intensifying. Land is expensive and that is what creates un-affordability.

'I don't think we necessarily want to focus on living in family groups all the time, but how we can mix our communities. How can we re-purpose suburbs for empty nesters and younger generations? We need a multiplicity of solutions where systems are designed to enable much more than the speculative house builder. It is different in other countries with more self-build is going on - perhaps as much as ninety per cent in Austria for example. There needs to be intelligent use of land with new and different ways of doing things.

Yolande commented on the newly passed Leasehold and Freehold Reform Act 2024. She said she started looking at leasehold reform in 1992 and has found that some myths are being repeated:

'The whole issue around leases is that politicians use the topic both as a silver bullet and something to blame. It always makes big headlines. But we have identified the wrong problem. The multi-occupied housing in cities that we find in new shiny buildings has huge service charges, Actually these charges should really be higher still with the 30-year costs of refurbishment that will be needed. It will become a major issue for owners, landlords and occupiers and the annual service charge will not be off-set by capital gains. That is a problem that needs addressing. 'Common hold' is a solution but has not been taken up. As Corbusier says we have created 'expensive machines' to live in.

On calls for the government during the run up to the election, to digitise the house-buying process. Yolande commented:

'There are possibilities to digitise that could make the whole buying and selling process much more efficient. You can embed a huge amount of data into a four-way digitised entity, that can hold the history of a house and even enable you to experiment with the future of your home. Of course the Land Registry would have to become digital as well. It is a really interesting prospect but primary legislation for ownership of land is needed to prevent the big data companies from stealing land digitally.'

Image: CGI of Globe Road, Leeds, courtesy of Sheppard Robson

Sheppard Robson has many decades of designing both housing developments around the UK as well as student accommodation. Partner Nick Ffoulkes described how the practice spends a lot of time looking at solving the challenges of complex urban centres and developing strategies for the best mix of housing:

'I have twenty years plus as an architect working with different collaborators and it has been rewarding. In the practice we tend to see some common themes around capacity (from the business case, design, securing planning and delivery) as well as diversity of offer and approach. It is a challenge that we need to get to grips with for differing uses and typologies in urban centres. Above all we need to have a long term view. At the moment with the election there is a high national debate but we need to talk beyond that and have a longer view and in a more imaginative way. We need to work with communities and the environment, understand the key aspects and needs of our towns and city centres. This longer approach considers society and technology. As architects we are optimistic. We deal with challenges every day and are used to working with change. We are fortunate to see progress and there is change.

'On the levelling up question, we have seen the evolution of cities away from the London bubble. Large regional capitals will always have critical mass that will drive them. I see the challenges in the towns outside those capitals. Cities such as Leeds get discussed a lot and they have a strong knowledge economy through the universities and infrastructure with a large degree of housing.

'The big thing is about integration with student housing. There is always a desire to go to zonal but mixing uses is far richer and it is where people want to spend time if this is done. The purpose built student accommodation may be suitable in some areas but we are advocates of different types of housing and we talk more about 'dwellings' where you can provide a variety of choice. Again one always thinks of the undergraduate but the student cohort is really varied and sometimes post graduates are married with families and so have different needs.

'I think it is important to have the ability to adapt over time and in bespoke housing it is slightly more difficult to have that adaptation. We need a variety of different models for long term sustainability and the choice is critical. We need different houses at different times of our lives, perhaps where we can put down roots and build a sense of community.

'Our housing project at Globe Road in Leeds is a build to rent scheme of 800 dwellings and a variety of different types including houses, apartments and studios, shared and co-living. It is Get Living's view on how to have a more diverse community and build a sense of place. It is a place where residents care about the public realm outside their home and the part of town they are living in, they have connection and community and it is these residential projects which I believe are the most successful.'

Above: We are Waterloo Bid street cinema - shows how culture can bring back footfall to high streets

Some commentators believe that voters will be changing their party allegiance in the run up to the election on the issue of development in towns and city centres and around the sustainability of high streets, which have been struggling since before the pandemic. People are very concerned whether the government has invested enough during levelling-up to ensure that their local town centres are sustainable. The Conservatives have now announced a further £20 million of levelling up funding to be given to 30 towns across the UK if they win the next election.

Dr Lucy Montague is Special Advisor to the House of Lords' Built Environment Select Committee in their current inquiry into high streets in towns and small cities, and Senior Lecturer at Manchester School of Architecture. In 2023 she co-authored the book 'High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis': the result of a 3-year research project investigating the future of the high street through 100 case studies.

She joined the debate to discuss how future governments might change policies to ensure the sustainability of high streets and town centres.

'The high street is not dead but going through a transition as it has done in decades before. There are concerns around those high streets that become more resilient and others that do not. What we have round in our research is that where progress is strong there is a bold local authority that has the skills to lead the way. Often they have acquired their local shopping centre when it has failed and worked with various stakeholders and the community to change its use. The big example of this is at Stockport, where the local authority has been very clever and where the local Debenhams store was sold and given over to the demand for housing and hospital services. It drew footfall into the town centre and also created active travel. The local authority displayed all the skills to do this.

'I think there is this idea that high streets equal retail but it doesn't have to be. It is the crisis in big retail that has led to the collapse of high streets. Many local authorities have thrown lots of money at trying to keep their department stores open, but they have actually needed diversity for resilience. This will not be the last change on the high street, but for now it seems that it is better to have, for example, health and education services on the high street and it works better that way for the community to make these services accessible. Often education provision on the high street means that other quarters such as cultural centres can be grown off the back of it. You have to understand what opportunities there are locally and realise that one size does not fit all.

'My work for the House of Lords enquiry has a focus on towns and small cities. Cities are not without challenges but towns are worse off. We are looking at what the current government has done for high streets and what they say they are going to do. What has been so good about this enquiry is that we have interacted with a wide range of witnesses such as local authorities and retail developers, so we can understand what leads to decisions being made. We have also talked to communities and young people to inform us too.

'What has been interesting is to find out that the government has given a lot of pots of money to help with high streets, but there are so many it has made the bidding process onerous for local authorities. It has stretched their resources when bidding for every pot of money because the system is not streamlined. It has been difficult for them to work out which pot of money to go for and as soon as they do, another pot is announced, so it is confusing.'

Volterra states that the UK needs a new national policy on areas such as wind power

Alex O'Byrne is an economist and partner at Volterra, who is interested in the social impact of development. He commented at the forum that the next government, whether it is looking at infrastructure, energy or workspace, should strive to make those projects more socially acceptable as part of the planning process.:

'They need to deliver benefits to the community, whether it is in solar or student housing. A lot of issues are about not engaging with the community. They need to look at frameworks and links back to local residents - what could they offer and what opportunities are in the area? Life sciences development often provides outreach with universities for example, so we need to build on strengths that often go underplayed.

'There is a lot of appetite to build solar and wind, but a large proportion of that is being held back by the planning system. We need new national policy decisions on this. But there is a lack of stability and that's something the next government should work on. It means having a plan and sticking to it for a few years to help private investors. Labour has shown that it might tinker with the planning system rather than full-scale change.

'On devolution and skills, anything that we can do to focus on changing the lack of growth and productivity would be a good move for the next government. Productivity growth is currently 0.5% a year per person. Adjusting productivity issues around skills would be wise as there is currently a mismatch between skills being delivered and what employers want. There are nine Whitehall departments that deal with skills but devolution could deliver a one-stop shop.

Lucy took up Alex's point about the next government providing certainty:

'Certainty is important from a business perspective, as constant changes and short term measures are very unhelpful for small businesses on the high street. Business rates are an issue and relief has been a short term measure with complex eligibility. How can local authorities plan and control their centres? Out of town development is difficult to sustain and is speculative for small businesses. Where will the parties pitch themselves for the election? Labour thinks business rates are difficult but has back tracked a little to say they need some reform but not complete change. The Tories have taken a lighter touch. Residential is now a better bet for out of town than retail, compared to furniture stores with a big ticket price. The next government should have a clear policy that prioritises town centres first, if we don't want to create further 'bleed out' to car dominated environments.'

Woolwich Town Centre, Beresford Square.

Yolande commented:

'There is real concern for our planning use classes and this is true the world over. It has very little to do with modern economies. As we create new uses in urban agriculture for example alongside workspace, we cannot label whole neighbourhoods as one thing. We also do not know what things will look like in 10 years.

'Growth has suffered in the UK. We have concentrated on the current account and not the balance sheet. We have not looked at the value of what we are creating. It is difficult to invest if you don't know what the impact is having on the balance sheet. Impact isn't really being properly measured and evaluated. We do not want to be subject to the five-year political cycle over the latest idea - that hasn't worked for the last 60 years.'

Alex agreed:

'We need to measure wider value - natural capital - to take it as a whole and realise what we are losing. Flexibility is key and that has been shown with the development of the high street. Technology is set to change things further and enabling flexibility will create resilience. In terms of business rates, the government consulted on the sales tax piece and on what high street businesses pay compared to Amazon. It is unequal and needs to change.'

Nick added:

'This all sounds very familiar and 'values' is an interesting theme. We work with clients who work on behalf of pension funds, so there is a long term view. Developers such as MEPC and Muse have a real understanding of the capital value and long term use. It's something that needs to be talked about in the pre-application process. If we are able to talk about that over the regeneration of towns and cities outside the red line boundary, that would be helpful. We often find ourselves in the middle trying to pull ideas together and trying to advocate.

Yolande continued:

'It's the nature of localism and it varies hugely. The national one size fits all approach will not work. The productivity of place is important, to produce not just money but human happiness and ecological health and wellbeing. It will take some radical politics to solve these issues in the 21st century.

Image: New workspace for TJX HQ in Watford, courtesy of Sheppard Robson

The discussion turned to the subject of workplace development in cities. Is the construction industry looking at a 'golden age' in this sector? How can communities benefit from being encouraged to use office space that they would normally regard out of range?

Alex stated that there is now a two-tier market emerging:

'The death of the office after Covid has not happened but there is a demand for higher quality work space. It is what tenants want but also to have a hybrid working pattern. People are taking smaller spaces but paying more for amenities to encourage staff back in and it's a change going on in city centres. Some older stock is being left, but this could be an opportunity for cultural businesses, that need more affordable space and some councils have been active and identified space to lease out on lower rates.

'In London there is a workspace policy that ensures ten per cent of the building is affordable and lots of examples of offices providing community space. The City of London has provided this on the ground floors and the Francis Crick Institute allows schools to come in. It all creates a buzz around an area.

'I think the golden age might be expressed in bringing back targets for housing and that would be a positive for the real estate industry, making housing targets mandatory.'

Nick pointed out that the focus on brownfield is critical:

'We should be investing in our town and city centres first to intensify and for variety and as part of that - brownfield and retrofit for individual buildings. Large retail buildings in high streets are now being converted into housing which is very healthy but requires imagination. This flexibility creates footfall and provides secure and desirable places to live. Why do we need to talk about greenbelt? Towns and cities have a lot to offer yet. We should all invest and focus our time in quality and in the right locations. We should have a focussed view and and try and help support our towns and cities first.'

Yolande commented:

'Terms like greenfield etc are 20th century terms. The focus now has to be on re-using land or using it better. Retrofit will have to go hand in hand with new development. When we talk about a golden age, we have never seen money more aligned with social value. You don't attract office occupiers without having created good environments for talent attraction. There are all sort of ways capitalism can be aligned with social impact. The problem lies with land, with the intense competition for food and with building. There is wastage of land with single use buildings and there won't be the vast capital gains now as before as these are over. Not all real estate will be an asset but a liability and of course let's not forget flooding and 'under water' assets, which will affect some areas. Building attitudes will have to change and we should talk not just about place-making, but place-keeping and the value of what we build over longer periods over time. The viability of old business models will change, whoever comes to power.'

Future Cities Forum would like to thank our contributors for creating such a fascinating debate in the run-up to the next general election.


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