Delivering Quality New Homes at Sustainable Densities

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Britain needs to deliver an extraordinary amount of new housing. The demand for homes is well documented. There are also numerous studies showing that the increasing cost of housing has effectively closed the market to some, and delayed potential home ownership for others. Small extensions to villages are unlikely to provide sufficient housing numbers. We need a large number of big extensions to existing towns and cities to be delivered, or new towns. Most Councils are now planning for these. But what should the criteria for these new neighbourhoods be, and how can they be delivered?

In those areas where new homes have been allocated in Councils’ Local Plans, delivery is still very difficult in the current market. Councils are now examining the problem of how to quickly deliver high numbers of homes with good quality environments.

The current model usually involves mass   like Barretts, Taylor Wimpey and Persimmon delivering the homes. They sell from ‘outlets’ with a couple of show homes, each outlet delivering about 50-60 homes maximum per year (at least currently, in the South East where the market is relatively strong). So on a big scheme, with two or three outlets, they could deliver 150-200 homes per year and no more. At least three large sites would be needed to deliver the amounts of housing needed in most Districts at these densities, potentially more.

The existing delivery model also relies generally on sub-urban, low density housing, because the finance is only available for well-off households who can afford to move into family homes. Those with less money available for deposits are stuck in smaller homes or flats and unable to move out or up, and institutions are reticent to invest in further rental markets, where there may be little finance for new home owners to move in.

New delivery models are needed that deliver what people want, but also provide the profits required by commercial investors. Investors that can extract money from the increases in land value that are provided in the long-term through good design, rather than the profits made from the short-term turnover of new homes, where the long-term quality of the environment matters less. In other words, we need establishments to deliver new housing that are in it for the long-term. Like the Church Commissioners, or pension funds.

Surveys showing what home buyers want put ‘Neighbourhood’ at the top of the list (80%), closely followed by ‘external appearance’, ‘good schools’ and ‘a safe environment’.

CABE research in 2004 showed that homebuyers want character; neighbourhoods that feel like places with their own attractive identity. And while they don’t like feeling overcrowded, they value the sorts of local services and sense of community that higher density developments can sustain.

On Saturday (6 April 2013) The Guardian published an article about Cambourne, a new town just to the northwest of Cambridge. The article also refers to Fairford Leys, an ‘estate’ in Aylesbury based on the principles of sustainable urbanism, and Poundbury, an ‘urban village’ as promoted by Prince Charles and design by Leon Krier. All are ‘designed’ new towns. Evidence produced by the Princes Foundation and Savills shows that land values in Fairford Leys have increased by up to 40% more than surrounding land values. The Conclusion from this and other areas studied is that places designed with the principles of sustainable urbanism provide better values, both commercially (for investors and developers) and environmentally (for those living in these places). Win-win.

The criteria listed are:

Mixed Use: while the schemes will be predominantly residential, they will also contain
a mix of other uses such as retail, business and community;
Mixed Tenure: a variety of income groups and occupations;
Mixed Housing Types: to support movement within the neighbourhood and thus
encourage community stability;
Good Public Transport Networks: to encourage walking and cycling and reduce
car dependency;
Walkable Neighbourhoods: community and commercial facilities accessible by
foot, and a street layout which is well interconnected and avoids cul-de-sacs and so
encourages a range of routes for pedestrians (and vehicles);
High Net Densities: high enough to support the viability of mixed use
areas; and convenient public transport;
Well Integrated Open Space: this should have a clearly defined use and a long-term
management regime, as well as being easily accessible;
Opportunities for a range of Work / Lifestyle Choices: accommodating economic
as well as residential activity.

Most of these could come under the heading of ‘Neighbourhood’. What is not mentioned is ‘management’ which is also a crucial part of the development process. As new communities grow, they need to be managed by the people living there. The Guardian article points to a community spirit and array of clubs and societies in Cambourne. Likewise in Fairford Leys, there is a strong community ownership, where public spaces including green spaces and urban areas are managed and controlled by the community. So a strong sense of community must be in the mix.

These elements can only be delivered together with a well-planned model of sustainable urbanism, with high densities delivered from the start. The previous models of ‘volume’ delivery cannot deliver this high quality type of environment. Nor can it quickly deliver the housing numbers needed. Additional value is added through delivery of high quality environments, but is only realised after 10 years or so.

The long-term model of delivery is therefore intrinsic to the delivery of long-term, high quality places, at appropriate densities.

This Shelter Report from 2009 presented a number of potential options for new delivery models. The Joseph Rowntree Trust also identified key issues and potential solutions in its 2010 Report. The evidence supporting this new model is regularly promoted by a number of practitionersNew models for delivering better places are now emerging, including joint venture delivery models (between the Council and developers), a new emphasis on market renting and build-to-let, and the potential for self build, which is much more widely used in other countries.

The next 5-20 years will see these new models delivering new environments. Let’s hope we can get it right. Or at least better than the last 20 years. Exciting times indeed!