A new National Housing Audit report published recently details the design of new housing environments in England as ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor.’ Carried out by the Place Alliance – from the Bartlett School of Planning – the audit was based on 142 housing developments across England against seventeen design considerations. Its research looked back over the last decade at the design of housing developments, reviewing standards of both housing and its external residential environment.

Information from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government  showed that 241,130 new homes were completed in England between 2018-19. This is the highest number since records began in 1991. These figures go some way to meeting the government’s target of a proposed 300,000 new homes per year from the mid-2020s. With such rapid expansion in house building and changes to the type of development permitted many have questioned the quality and efficiency of homes delivered by volume house builders across the country.

This new report identifies a number of key findings. Housing design quality has only improved slightly on a national level since the last audits in 2004 and 2007. A striking one in five of the audited schemes should have been refused planning permission outright. The design of many others should have been improved before relevant permissions were granted. Specific design problems identified by the audit are familiar to many people passing through or living in and around new developments.

“Overly engineered highways infrastructure and the poor integration of storage, bins and car parking. These problems led to unattractive and unfriendly environments dominated by large areas of hard surfaces (tarmac or brick paviours), parked cars and bins. Others scored poorly for lack of pedestrian, cycle and public transport-friendly design or were cut off from local facilities and amenities. Those with poor architectural response or positive new character lacked a ‘sense of place’, with public, open and play spaces being both poorly designed and located for social interaction. Housing units are frequently of an obviously standard type with little attempt to create something distinctive.”

Using seventeen design considerations the report did find that designing for safety and security (e.g. well overlooked street spaces) and the integration of varied housing types had been successfully mainstreamed. The report goes on to question the lack of progress despite a gear change in government’s policy framing towards good design; as set out in the new National Planning Policy Framework? It clearly points to the integrity of the design governance process and how well it operates prior to a scheme’s planning approval.

“To achieve ‘good’ or ‘very good’ outcomes requires more than a passive check against a generic checklist of design principles; it requires a proactive and site-specific process of guidance and accompanying peer review. The most effective design governance tools are design codes and design review but they are used far less than other more generic approaches.”

In particular, the study highlighted our failure to build well at lower densities and on greenfield sites. Where we lack the existing infrastructure, heritage, natural assets and street network of an urban setting there seems to be a lack of appropriate and responsive design. Compounding this the report found some evidence that poor design is being approved on appeal where housing numbers have not been met locally, sacrificing design quality in favour of volume. The report’s conclusions outline the need for a more rigorous approach to the design and planning governance process. Calling on local authorities to have the courage of their convictions, by applying proper scrutiny to all stages of the design and delivery of new developments. Notably, that –

“all design governance tools help to deliver better design outcomes and it is far better to use them than not. However, the use of proactive tools that encompass design aspirations for specific sites are the most effective means to positively influence design quality. In particular, the report recommends that all local authorities should themselves establish or externally commission a design review panel as a chargeable service and all major housing projects should be subject to a programme of design review.”

At Design South East we have 25 years’ experience delivering practical and affordable services to local authorities. We provide tailored support and expertise that enables planning officers and teams to accommodate complex growth and deliver high quality places.