Thames Gateway

24 Nov 2004 - Viewpoint

By Yasmin Shariff on 24 November 2004 Thames Gateway conference paper

High-density development offers an opportunity to move away from a car-based system currently choking country lanes to a viable public transport system.  DSA director, Yasmin Shariff, argues that to date the growth areas have failed to rise to the challenge of building any innovative housing scheme. Instead the planning committees pander after the micky mouse pseudo toon town exemplified by Poundbury. With modern technology, high insulation standards we can designs homes that need no heating. Just think of what that will mean for many of our poverty-stricken pensioners who have to choose between heating and eating.

Floodgates to the exploitation of the Thames Gateway will open tomorrow at the Excel Conference Centre when senior government ministers, the mayor of London, chief executives of government quangos and volume house builders put out their stalls and reassure the public that quality and sustainable development is close to their hearts.

The response to John Prescott’s plans to provide 500,000 homes in designated growth areas in the south east is welcomed with glee by large house builders. Government agencies turn helplessly to these builders of mass destruction as they assume that the only way of delivering affordable homes is to encourage their soulless mass housing on the fringes of existing developments. These growth areas benefit from London’s economy and this is not the first time they have had to accommodate London’s expanding housing need.   The post war Homes for Heroes was a catalyst for our garden city utopian ideals. New millennium homes could equally lead to something exciting, inspiring and socially responsible and be a catalyst to revitalise decaying villages and towns.

Volume Greed

Today there is a paucity of vision and limited aspiration. Unlocking the potential of a site and its people is difficult and complex. It requires highly skilled designer’s sensitivity to the needs of people and communities as well as skills to unlock the potential of a place. Without skilled people driving this process and informed clients there can be no hope of success.  The ODPM admit that there is a skills gap in the delivery of development from planning committees to planners. In contrast Mr. Prescott celebrates the fact that the UK has some of the world’s leading designers who are able to deliver exemplary housing developments abroad but not here. CABE’s report on the quality of housing, released earlier this month, also highlights the problem of poor design, which is not surprising as designers have little opportunity to contribute meaningfully. The legacy we are leaving future generations is undoubtedly worse than the mass housing of the 60s, with poorer space standards and workmanship.

Soulless Energy Deficient Design

The ODPM’s ambition to provide affordable housing and create vibrant and economically sound communities is to be commended and there will be several sessions on this theme at the conference. Relying on house builders to make this transformation is, however, a grave oversight. Volume house builders do not deliver high quality affordable housing- they never have. Their interests lie in maximising short-term profits. Look at any volume-house built development and they are invariably soulless brick-banded, pitched-roof boxes.  The ODPM will no doubt, point to a few exceptions to the brick box standard and often quote Countryside’s developments at Harlow. These mono pitched thatched roof designs are quaint but expensive, with studio flats starting at £145K+- they can hardly be termed as affordable, neither can they be termed as sustainable. The services inside are gas guzzling CO2 rich contributing heavily to global warming. These homes should come with an environmental health hazard warning and not be held up as good practice.

Innovation vs Toon Town

High-density development offers an opportunity to move away from a car-based system currently choking country lanes to a viable public transport system.  There is a need for diverse well-designed high-density developments and to date the growth areas have failed to rise to the challenge of building any innovative housing scheme. Instead the planning committees pander after the micky mouse pseudo toon town exemplified by Poundbury. With modern technology, high insulation standards we can designs homes that need no heating. Just think of what that will mean for many of our poverty-stricken pensioners who have to choose between heating and eating.

Volume house builders have already carved up the M11 corridor, West of Stevenage and are champing at the bit to tarmac over the rest of the countryside with their expensive mono-use, gated toy towns. The reality of their quaint dwellings is different from the aspirations of the planners and the politicians.  The issue is not about the nuances of the superficialities of stylistic preference- the issues are much deeper and more complex.

The ODPM fails to understand the difference in the values and aspirations of volume house builders and how these fundamentally differ from the requirements for sustainable developments. Volume house builders are only interested in ‘packing them in’ – sterile boxes for storing the ‘living dead’. Sustainable development for communities needs space for ideas, places to socialise – environments that nurture mind, body and soul. The two are not mutually exclusive and the cost of not getting it right is social unrest, poverty, poor health and urban decay.

Wealth of ideas

Britain is one of the richest nations in the world. We delivered an ambitious post-war housing programme when we were economically much poorer. Post war housing was closely linked to health and social wellbeing building on the experiments of the 1930s at the Peckham and Finsbury Health Centre. Parker Morris standards developed for housing aspired to provide homes for people that nurtured mind, body and soul.  These standards set minimum requirements for space, light and even required a parking bay for the pram.  We have become so obsessive about minimum standards that even Parker Morris Standards have been minimised to non-existence. Our legacy to future generations will be a demonstration on how low we can go- we are doing little more that building tomorrow’s slums and urban ghettos.

Volume house builders have little expertise or aspiration in delivering anything but maximum numbers of units at minimum expense. Dialogue with the planning authority is reduced to a ‘design guided match existing’ discussion and how much money can be extracted from the scheme through Section 106 Agreements. Any developer with social aspirations doesn’t stand a chance in this culture of exploitation. Innovative projects like BEDZED have been realised despite the planning system not because of it.

If volume housebuilders are not able to deliver well designed housing who can? Smaller, more varied approaches driven by informed clients using highly skilled designers unhindered by the constraints of a planning system will deliver a rich and dynamic mix. If the ODPM really want a step change and deliver sustainable communities perhaps it should start with demonstration projects to lead the way – an exposition that will unlock the best talent in this country for the benefit of some of the most deprived people in England without swamping the countryside.

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