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Arrested anti-development

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Does the recent government announcement of increased housebuilding mean we will reverse the trend and build more?

Earlier this month the government published its long-term housing strategy White Paper, Sustainable communities: building for the future. * John Prescott billed it as 'a step change in housing policy to combat rising house prices and shortages of affordable homes'. He said that these must be in the 'right place', producing sustainable communities not suburban sprawl or suburban estates or dormitory towns. At the same time, design should be improved and the countryside protected.

He also published a detailed report setting out the approach to the new programme, the resources available and the areas most affected. The documents provide a comprehensive approach to the government's housing and renewal programme.Much of the work on planning is already under way but the documents reinforce the need for regional planning guidance to be updated as swiftly as possible.

The programme is backed by £22 billion - a 40 per cent increase over three years and more than double the inherited plans. In terms of growth, many of the areas have already been identified, but the government is signalling its intention to press on with much higher housing targets. Key growth areas will be: Thames Gateway; Milton Keynes/ south Midlands; London/Stansted; Cambridge; Ashford; and south Northamptonshire.

Going for growth

The emphasis on growth areas, particularly the East Thames Corridor, for which a cabinet committee is to be chaired by the prime minister, highlights falling construction rates in the South East and the need for more brownfield development.

It includes a government commitment to improve urban design skills - a policy backed by a £41 million investment over three years. The RIBA in particular welcomes the emphasis in the White Paper on improving the condition of the existing housing stock and giving power to regional development agencies (RDAs) to reclaim urban land and for the creation of new housing and new urban green spaces.

RIBA president Paul Hyett said: 'The government is reversing the years of decline in new house-building and has shown a commitment to improving design skills in the construction sector. It is clearly evident that this programme of investment in buildings and infrastructure will only be delivered through close partnership between government and the construction industry - within which architects must play a vital role.'

There is a new emphasis on the delivery of housing by local authorities, which the RTPI says will be challenging and will not be achieved simply through threats and pressure. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will need to be clearly supportive, revising its guidance PPG1 and PPG12 swiftly, applying Planning Delivery Grant (new money previously announced for planning departments) carefully and sending clear messages about moving from a culture of development control to a new culture of development management. At the same time, says the RTPI, there need to be equally clear messages to the housebuilding industry about its responsibility to respond to local needs and sensitivities through proper emphasis on quality of design and urban design, and a readiness to provide affordable housing.

The RICS responded to the policy saying high-density, mixeduse development on brownfield sites must be the main focus for regeneration and the money raised through right-to-buy sales should now be put back into affordable housing.

The good news for architects adds up to more than the promised increase in the size of the house building and refurbishment market and the emphasis on higher densities and mixed-use development. It is implicit in the new channels for the provision of housing. Regional development agencies and new regional housing authorities and the revived role for local authorities will expand the proportion of housing designed by architects, as will new urban development agencies being set up to drive the major expansion of the Thames Gateway and elsewhere.

Housing boom

An exciting development for housing associations will be the rumoured expansion to empower them to build more houses for the private market too. At present they are generally limited to being supplicants to housebuilders and commercial mixed-use developers where they have to negotiate taking on the affordable housing allocated in planning permissions.

Particularly if the housing market softens, which would otherwise lead to a further decline in housing completions, it seems logical that housing associations should be able to compete for such sites and undertake the development of homes for the whole spectrum of tenures currently in demand; including shared ownership and key-worker housing.

Housing associations can be effective in raising capital for all of these, and their enhanced role will have the beneficial side-effect of constraining the social engineering aspirations of the more politicised local planning authorities, since their funding and management disciplines will have to be given respect in a way that is not customary with commercial housebuilders. Keep an eye on www.designforhomes. org for announcements on this one.

*See www. odpm. gov. uk/communities/ plan

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership. Tel 020 7828 6555, or visit www. bwcp. co. uk

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