If critics are to be believed, financial factors trump good design, resulting in a ‘quantity over quality’ approach to housing development. But generalisations are unhelpful. And evidence suggests that local authorities in particular are seeking to drive forward their own housing delivery in an attempt to tackle both the standard of accommodation and the scale of development.
There has been a shifting trend in recent years from local authorities selling off their land to private developers to instead take on the challenge of housebuilding themselves. There are an increasing number of council-owned development companies (42% of local authorities have a housing company, according to recent statistics) bringing forward a mixture of private sale and affordable homes; with the former cross-subsidising the latter, as well as other much-needed council services.
Pertinently, this does not appear to be coming at the expense of high-quality design. In fact, there are numerous examples of exceptionally designed homes on council-owned land up and down the country, including the RIBA Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street in Norwich.
We are in the midst of a widespread lifestyle shift where flexible working is likely to be increasingly promoted by the employer and demanded by the employee. This is creating a heightened need for more multi-functional, adaptable, comfortable, and high-quality new homes as health and wellbeing competes with economic growth as the priority for many.
As well as delivering their own housing, local authorities are well-placed to demonstrate and advise on what good design is and how it can be delivered successfully across all tenures. It is for this reason that they should be at the forefront in reinvigorating the quality of housing in a post-Covid Britain.
Local authorities can utilise several methods of encouraging high-quality design from private sector housing such as design reviews and design competitions to secure high design standards. In London, this has been championed through the Good Growth by Design programme and the Architecture, Design and Urbanism Panel (ADUP), which is accessible to all public agencies in the city.
We all know the statistics about the sharp decline in architects and other building professionals employed by local authorities over the past half-decade or so. Yet recent initiatives such as Public Practice has triggered an influx of design professionals back into the public sector to help promote quality and innovation from within.
The recommendations set out in ‘Living with Beauty’, the report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission published earlier this year, and the role of the National Design Guide should be centre stage for local authorities and for private developers in helping to shape the quality of housing in a post-Covid Britain.
But, achieving design quality always comes with its challenges. How design quality will sit alongside recent Government announcements on reforms to the planning system is yet to be seen. Whilst ‘build, build, build’ may be good for housing delivery, we want to avoid building badly just to meet targets; meaning local authorities will have a vital role to play in showing how well-designed housing can be delivered.