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2012 key trends: The year ahead

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The year ahead: Practices must sharpen their focus in 2012 and demonstrate the benefit of architectural thinking, writes Steve Parnell

‘We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business,’ remarked chancellor George Osborne earlier this year, making it quite clear which aspect of sustainable development takes priority for the coalition: their sustainability agenda prioritises economic sustainability ahead of environmental and social.

This priority is embedded in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), likely to be finalised next year, as ‘a presumption in favour of sustainable development’. Many have translated this as a nod to businesses to build what and where they like, as long as it grows the economy. Its consequences are likely to begin to be felt in 2012.

There is much to commend in the proposed NPPF, including a section (if not emphasis) on design and the streamlining of guidance. However, it will be difficult for local authorities and neighbourhoods to develop their respective plans in good time and, like much else introduced by the coalition government, it is at risk of being rushed through before its consequences are fully considered.

The RIBA has called for an increased focus on the design process within this framework, but arbitration of taste is likely to filter up from the bottom, due to the recently passed Localism Act, whose implementation is due to commence from next April.

A reconnection of architects with their local communities, rather than seeking work at the far end of a flight, has got to be good. Though how money can be made from this involvement will demand the full powers of architects’ famous creativity. The weakness of the new legislation is the lack of any direct relationship between Localism and the NPPF beyond mere ideology. Architects and planners could make a decisive difference between the big picture and the genius loci but, without this connection, those with the money and power, rather than design training, have the upper hand in influencing the appearance of the built environment. However, this planning framework is happening and is an opportunity for architects to demonstrate the benefit of architectural thinking.

The big event of 2012 will of course be the Olympic Games – a fortnight of promise that Londoners have been anticipating for the duration of an architect’s training, which has almost single-handedly maintained a semblance of optimism in the construction industry throughout the economic downturn.

After August, thoughts will turn to its legacy. Stratford will have undoubtedly become a major hub, with spangly new infrastructure offering Londoners access to its leisure and development opportunities and a very large, very high-quality shopping mall for the locals. Housing will follow. Stratford will be regenerated. Affordability will remain an issue.

Attention then diverts north to Glasgow, where the 2014 Commonwealth Games are inducing similar hopes of regeneration – those working in hotels, leisure and fit-out, take note.

It is not hard to prescribe a 2012 market forecast: it will, by all accounts, remain bleak. Osborne’s Autumn Statement drew a silver lining for mainly transport-related infrastructure projects and there are concerted attempts to get the large house builders building on their land banks. Despite continuing low interest rates, a lack of available credit has led to a stagnant housing market, which the government is attempting to address through the freeing-up of land, the streamlining of planning and a promise to underwrite mortgages for those first-time buyers buying new homes.

Admittedly, these initiatives involve minimal architectural input and public sector spending remains depressed. Glenigan expects social housing starts in 2012 to drop 34 per cent in value compared with this year’s already record-breaking low level. In the educational sector, Glenigan expects a further 23 per cent reduction in the value of project starts, with the majority of spend focused on refurbishment rather than rebuild.

While the healthcare sector has not been as badly hit, Glenigan expects the slight 6 per cent growth in 2011 to be cancelled out next year.

Unsurprisingly, any green shoots are likely to appear in London first. Although the beleaguered high street is continuing to report declining sales, the big four supermarkets are looking healthy. After a period of consolidation (Co-op bought Somerfield, Asda bought Netto), re-fit work will be plentiful. This year has seen an incredible 20 per cent rise in supermarket project starts by value and, while this level of growth is not expected to be maintained, Glenigan predicts new starts next year will be at 2010 levels.

The only real area of growth across the board is for offices. A low vacancy rate and increasing demand is expected to boost office refurbishment and construction next year, especially in London.

With student fees also being increased, 2012 looks like being another year of stock-taking for the profession, with architects having to continue to either rethink the profession, or find work overseas. At least Costa Coffee is expected to open more than 400 outlets over the next three years, promoting a caffeine-fuelled regeneration.

Steve Parnell is an architectural critic and teaches at London Metropolitan University, The Bartlett and the University of Sheffield

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