Veto plans for ugly homes, councils urged

Could this apply to Clyst St Mary and the Winslade proposals? – Owl

Tom Wall 

Housebuilders are churning out substandard housing schemes with poor living conditions despite councils having the power to block them, according to new research.

The National Planning Policy Framework was amended in July to allow councils to refuse “development that is not well designed”. A study by University College London found that the Planning Inspectorate, which hears housebuilders’ appeals, is now three times as likely to back councils who reject developments on design grounds. But it also found that the vast majority of those blocked were in the south-east, suggesting that elsewhere councils were not using the new powers.

Professor Matthew Carmona, who carried out the research, said councils depleted by austerity often lacked the in-house design expertise to take on large, well-resourced developers.

“Local authorities in the south-east generally deal with more development and are more likely to have their own local design policies and employ urban designers. They are simply more geared up to challenge developers,” he said. “Councils in the south-west, Midlands and north tend to see fewer developments and are more reluctant, and perhaps a little nervous, to call out bad design.”

A survey revealed last year that 41% of councils do not employ any urban designers, and 76% lack access to any advice on architecture.

The change to the country’s planning rules was part of a package of measures that ministers claimed would ensure new housing was “beautiful and well-designed”. The government is setting up an “Office for Place” to help “communities encourage development they find beautiful, and refuse what they find ugly”.

The report, published by the UCL-based Place Alliance, highlights 12 schemes rejected on design grounds since last July. The inspectorate found proposals for an unattractive block of 15 flats on the site of a demolished car park in Crawley in West Sussex would offer “unsatisfactory living conditions”. Some flats had limited natural light and the outside spaces were close to roads and railway lines. Others lacked privacy as windows were next to people passing on a walkway and close to cars queueing on a traffic gyratory system.

The inspectorate also backed Braintree district council’s efforts to block two estates on the edges of villages in Essex, where developers were trying to squeeze in large numbers of houses, jarring with houses nearby. Officials also turned down an appeal relating to five tower blocks on the former Westferry newspaper printworks site in east London. It was ruled the scheme – which led to a row about media mogul Richard Desmond’s contact with ministers tasked with planning decisions – would harm appreciation of the Greenwich world heritage site.

Carmona said big developers had been getting their way for decades but the tables were starting to turn. “Volume housebuilders have been able to get a lot of poor-quality development past local authorities. But this research shows councils can now be far more confident in their exercise of quality control,” he said.

Profits for Britain’s biggest housebuilders have continued to rise despite routinely producing low-quality homes and failing to meet the UK’s estimated housing needs. The UCL researchers rated three-quarters of large developments in England as “mediocre” or “poor” in 2020.

They found bland architecture, with estates dominated by access roads and parking spaces at the expense of green areas and playgrounds. Other failings included few public transport links and a lack of amenities such as shops, pubs and cafes.

Carmona said it was possible to increase the number of houses built without compromising on the design factors that allow a new community to flourish.

“We are in desperate need of housing but it doesn’t mean we should build poorly designed, unsustainable places,” he said.