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Design must be at the heart of the impetus to get housebuilding moving again

We want this week’s housing essays and our 12 exemplar housing studies, to inspire top-level support for design as an essential quality, says Rory Olcayto

This week’s edition of the AJ is dedicated to housing, and has been put together with the government’s Challenge Panel in mind. Communities minister Don Foster announced the group of building industry experts last September, whose task is to simplify ‘the mass of rules imposed on developers and housebuilders, to make them easier to understand and follow’, to quote the minister’s department.

The four-strong panel, which includes PRP’s Andy von Bradsky, who writes about the housebuilding challenge facing the UK on page 30, will report their findings in April. Von Bradsky has already assured the AJ that the More Homes Better Homes campaign and our reader’s own concerns will be reviewed and considered by the panel, but we thought we should go a step further and publish a thoughtful guide to designing quality housing. We hope it will be considered as a companion piece to von Bradsky’s report, and will temper what will no doubt be the panel’s pragmatic - and probably quite dry - research.

We should remind ourselves that the housing panel is part of this government’s bureaucracy-busting Red Tape Challenge, so among its chief concerns are scrapping rules such as the requirement for ‘two phone lines in home offices, irrespective of need and in addition to broadband connection’. That’s not going to reverse the decline in housebuilding starts in one fell swoop, but it does show intent, a desire to get the industry moving again, and it’s this desperation to get going that the AJ wants to influence. It’s at times like this that quality control is often sidelined.

Thankfully, architects have in von Bradsky a passionate advocate willing to speak up for design. When the AJ’s own campaign was launched last November, von Bradsky pledged to protect design quality as part of the drive to create a ‘simple housing standard’. He explained: ‘[This] standard should uphold or improve the quality of housing and it will contest proposals that undermine the delivery of high-quality places, buildings and living conditions.’

We want this edition’s housing essays, by experts on matters including space standards, communal grounds, home-making and low-energy design, alongside our 12 exemplar housing studies, to inspire top-level support for architectural design as an essential quality. At the very least, we trust our loyal readers will find it an enjoyable and informative edition of the AJ. Do please continue to let us know your thoughts.

Southbank revamp

No matter what you think of FCB Studio’s revamp of the Southbank Centre, its likely transformation forms part of London’s moronic rebranding as a ‘World City’. Boris Johnson uses this phrase to justify his airport plans, and ministers use it to explain why London gets Crossrail, the Olympics, the Overground extension, Exhibition Road, a reborn Kings Cross and so on at the expense of investment elsewhere in the UK. Why don’t we have a Crossrail linking Liverpool to Hull, for example?

Yet, for all its claims to be a more accessible public place - Feilden Clegg Bradley’s proposal appears open, transparent - the Southbank redesign will likely be fortified. It has that ‘Earth Style’ aesthetic of glass and steel, an overwrought landscape that aggressively deters drifters: Singapore-on-Thames with no rough edges. World class (whatever that means)? Maybe. But the Richard Rogers of a decade or so ago, when his Urban Task Force was calling the shots, and who once spoke up for marginalised street communities during an RIBA lecture, would surely be appalled.

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