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Future Cities Forum post-election discussion : report Part One

In Future Cities Forum post-election discussion, questions were asked on how to help the UK solve its housing crisis and the necessary changes to the planning system that that the Labour government claims has held up development.

The new Chancellor Rachel Reeves gave her first speech today, promising to build the the 1.5 million homes over the course of this parliament, highlighted in Labour's manifesto, but she said she wouldn't give a green light to all housing developments. Compulsory housebuilding targets are to be brought back and there is to be an overhaul of the planning system.

Those taking part in our discussion - featured in the first part of our report - were Professor Alan Mace, Associate Professor of Urban Planning at the London School of Economics, Ciaran Gunne-Jones, Senior Director and Head of Economics at Lichfields and Andrew Whalley, Chairman, Grimshaw.

Professor Mace was asked to comment on the need for planning reforms if 1.5 million homes are to be built :

'I have been looking at the UK Innovation Corridor, as an example of attempting to plan at the 'more than local level' in the absence of more formal structures, and responding to the work of a colleagues Ian Gordon and Tony Champion to see how we can push the idea of a 'networked regional plan', to produce informal co-operative structures outside of formal ones. There are some advantages to these but the article concluded that there simply are limits with the current arrangements and that we really do need some form of regional top-down structure, that has been talked about by the incoming government, to bring people together to deliver.

'I have also worked on research on changes to the metropolitan green belt, so looking at the density question. We set out a number of pre-requisites about building on green belt. We decided that we were pro-building on green belt and we felt there was a need to capture more uplift from the sale of land, and being able to buy at current use value, then to use some of that revenue to assure the delivery of affordable housing. It's very important that we don't give up green belt for poor uses, executive homes for example, but that it is used for affordable homes. Part of this would be to build at density, with community infrastructure. Eddington in North West Cambridge is a fantastic example of this, with a great community centre, subsidised bus travel and on so on. Rather than fixate on exact densities for a site, it's more important to look at this sort of example.

Above: part of the Eddington development in north west Cambridge, courtesy Mecanoo Architects for the University of Cambridge

Alan was asked how as a society we might move from NIMBYism to YIMBYism ('Yes In My Back Yard'):

'I always start from the basis that NIMBYs are perfectly rational and reasonable people. If they believe that new developments will put too much pressure on infrastructure like health and transport, then it's perfectly rational to oppose development. Coming back to our green belt report, I think it really is essential to get that community infrastructure in place, so people don't feel they are net losers in their area. We have also looked at densification of the suburbs in London using statistical modelling on different scenarios. We found that in very few cases did urban design (like adding greenery) make a difference to the acceptability of developments. What made the difference was that if people were convinced there was a housing crisis, they would be much more likely to accept new housing. There is a messaging programme to be done here to make people aware of the need.'

Ciaran Gunne-Jones was questioned on whether the funding of more planners would solve current challenges:

'The big picture facing the government now is made up of two challenges, in the built environment. Firstly it is to drive growth. It is a reflection of the stark fiscal reality that the country is facing. If you are going to pay down national debt, not raise taxes and you want to generate the revenue to repair public services there are not many levers to pull other than getting the economy growing again. We in the built environment sector have a crucial role to play and changes to the planning system will be critical. The second is the commitment to 1.5 million homes over the next parliament. We shouldn't understate the scale of the challenge on the basis of taking 300,000 homes per year and accumulating over time. The inference is if you don't meet it in one year, you add it to to the following year. It is obvious that more resourcing will be needed.

'In terms of resources, planning departments have not been benefitting from ring-fenced budgets at a time when local authorities have had to make tough choices. However these budgets need protecting and increasing and the way in which we deliver growth needs to change. Keir Starmer has talked about a policy re-set and this, as Alan suggested, can include a more logical and sensible approach to the green belt, and what grey belt might look like.

'Even with all these things progressing you will still need additional development activity. This is perhaps where a Labour commitment to a programme of new towns might be. We have had a series of these in the UK over recent decades and there are mixed views on how successful they have been. If you take Letchworth, which was the world's first 'garden community' (and where I worked on the extension plan) the basic principle of creating great places to live is absolutely key. As Alan pointed out that is how you convince people about new development because it will bring investment to their place, jobs and amenities.

'We need to be careful that these are not 'cookie cutter' exercises that reflect past patterns as they need to be fit-for-purpose for net zero and other issues we are dealing with now. The scale of housing required will need a mix of urban, suburban and new town projects, it can't just be delivered through urban brownfield. In terms of infrastructure first and better places I think we have a good catalogue of what has worked well and what hasn't so it is incumbent on us in the sector to take that forward.'

Grimshaw Chair and Partner, Andrew Whalley, joined the discussion to describe the new model of affordable housing - Via Verde - that the practice had designed for client Jonathan Rose Companies / Phipps Houses in New York City.

Andrew Whalley stated:

'I accept what Ciaran says about the need for new homes across all tenures, but the immediate need is for housing in urban districts because I really believe that can help the young.

'In the US and Australia we as a practice do quite a bit of housing, although in the UK to-date we are known for our infrastructure work . A key project we did in the USA was under a a new initiative by Mayor Bloomberg for affordable and sustainable housing, as part of the regeneration of the Bronx. The site was a difficult strip of wasteland by railway tracks that was donated by the city and it was a JV between public and private.

'The key to affordable housing, especially in New York, is to take the land value away. As soon as you do that it removes the need for certain levels of density. When we did VV it was not just about sustainability it was about quality of life. Not just the carbon content of the building or the important running costs but it's about healthy living. The Mayor's Office set up a new healthy living standard 'Fit City' which is about greater levels of activity for greater health. The site was one of the last bits of greenery in the Bronx which we kept with roof terraces. It has a mix of different levels of affordability, almost market level town houses, very heavily subsidised apartments in the tall building, which gets the best views. It has cross ventilation and staircases for active use, rather than reliance on lifts the whole time, while wrapped around a court-yard. It has a place for kids to play, an orchard and a yoga garden. It creates an amazing sense of community, and it's a blue-print I hope we can use in the UK.

The firm sets out the detail as follows:

'The scheme is a mixed-use, mixed-income residential development. There are 222 residential units, 71 for sale units for middle-income households and a balance of low- and moderate-income rentals. The building consists of a 20-storey tower, a mid-rise building with duplex apartments and town-houses.

'A dynamic garden serves as the organizing element for the community, beginning as a ground level courtyard and then spiralling upwards through a series of programmed, south-facing roof gardens, creating a promenade for residents.

Each apartment has two facades allowing plenty of cross-ventilation and daylight, as well as low VOC finishes, water and energy conserving fixtures. The high performance facade uses a pre-fabricated rain screen with composite wood, cement and metal panels.

'The composition of Via Verde seeks to promote both a healthy lifestyle and a vibrant community, promoting wellness and social well-being through increased physical activity, shared common spaces and access to natural light and fresh air.

Andrew also commented on Labour's ambition for 1.5 million new homes for the UK:

'We have talked about planning and the financial levers, but to physically construct and deliver one and half million new homes we need a change in method. Building as we have done in the last hundred years we simply won't get there. That is where a lot of the cost is, in importing skilled labour. These skills could be carried out much more efficiently if we could use off-site fabrication and it would really ramp up production with a much lower cost of delivery. You don't have to do the whole building that way, as with Via Verde where we just did the skin by that method. It does need a mind shift to really ramp up production.'

Watch out for Part Two of this post-election debate report to be published shortly and which will include contributions from Rob Groves, Development Director at Federated Hermes, Marie-Claude Hemming, Head of Operations at CECA and James Stevens, Head of Cities, at HBF.

Above: the roof garden at Via Verde, the Bronx, New York City - designed by Grimshaw with Dattner Architects (Credit: David Sundberg / Esto)


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