Improving the Standard of Residential Design

Over 30 members of the Society enjoyed a provocative presentation from Ian Thompson, the District Planning Officer, at the Swan Hotel on 18th January, dealing with the highly topical issue of the quality of new housing.

Given the relative longevity of our housing stock (with the possible exception of high rise blocks!), we are faced with living with the consequences of bad design, perpetrated between the 1960's and 1980's, for a number of years to come. Still, Ian gave us grounds for optimism, that we were at last turning the corner and that a number of local authorities, Lichfield included, were now seeking to ensure that a much improved standard of residential design was incorporated in planning applications. How did we as a country reach such a state of affairs?

Well, as always, the answer is complex. National house builders, driven often by cost considerations, especially land values and not necessarily quality, prefer standardised house types rather one-off designs which are more expensive to build. The planning system rations the supply of land for development. Consequently the laws of economics come into play and a relatively limited amount of suitable land commands premium at land values. This consequently means tighter profit margins for builders and therefore a desire to construct houses at the lowest cost possible.

Often of course the builder will respond to such criticisms by saying that he is building only what the customer wants. Some of us would say that the customer has little choice in this matter but to purchase what the building industry wants to supply.

So often in the past residential design has been dominated by the need to accommodate the car. To such an extent, in fact, that the highway engineers' views have assumed an importance in the design of residential areas which is out of all proportion to their relevance. Grid square-like patterns of streets have often been laid down and, literally, housing fitted in around the street pattern. Highway engineers have produced standardised, rigid highway design standards, threatening not to adopt highways from builders unless they were designed to those standards which often involved over-engineered roads using unimaginative (yet cheap to maintain) materials.

Planners themselves do not escape criticism.

Not only have they been content to let mediocre schemes obtain planning permission, they have, in the past, been locked into. design standards that now seem wholly inappropriate. A minimum of 70 feet was often required between facing principal windows. Add to this strict standards for highway design and residential schemes almost become self-designing! In fairness to the planners, however, it is often not recognised that they are very much constrained by planning guidance produced by central Government. Any attempt to deviate from that planning guidance can lead to planning appeals, with the planners trying to defend the integrity of the local design against national policy. In the past national policy has more than often won the day.

Ian remarked on the design 'low point' for planners, which occurred when, in 1979, Nicholas Ridley, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, published his infamous DoE Circular 1/80 which effectively told planners not to involve themselves in seeking to control building and estate design. Only with the arrival of John Gummer as Secretary of State in the 1990's was the issue of design, particularly the need to relate that to local identity, back on the agenda. That message continues with the current Labour Government, who have endorsed, amongst other things, the need for development which is more sustainable in terms of design, access to various forms of transport (including buses), mixed use development by bringing homes and jobs closer together, the promotion of higher density development and less greenfield schemes. Improving the quality of the urban environment by making towns and cities more pleasant places in which to live, is now very much on the Government's agenda.

From the theory, Ian took us on a national tour looking at good practice. Predictably, the expansion of Dorchester at Poundbury, the Prince of Wales's pet project, was explored. We looked at a number of illustrations showing how this development sought to return us to a more human scale, relegating cars from the main street scene, creating more intimate housing lay-outs and using traditional building forms and materials. We also visited Beverley, looking at the lessons of the past as well as new development which was very sympathetic to the town's fabric and Solihull where the new development at Dickens Heath had lessons for us to learn. Closer to home, Ian explained how much thought had gone into the residential design at Fradley, before touching on a number of schemes in Lichfield itself, including predictably the new residential development proposed in Beacon Street.

For the future, we were told to expect, by the Spring, a consultation draft of a Staffordshire Design Guide, produced jointly by Staffordshire County Council and constituent District Councils. Doubtless this will be a document upon which the Society will wish to comment. The evening closed with predictably a lively question session when Ian both ably and openly fielded a number of questions from members on a wide range of topics. We touched on the Council's policy on out-of-town food stores, car parking, and the apparent increasing proliferation of restaurants in the city.

Ian's stimulating talk gave us all much hope that residential development was at last moving out of the Dark Ages towards a brave new world of quality design.

Roger Hockney
January 2000