It has always seemed odd to me that houses are sold on 'kerb appeal', since one thing homeowners spend little time doing is looking at the outside of their homes. They are either inside, or outside participating in the surrounding environment. Kerb appeal doesn't feature much in the CABE audit either, although the document does complain about the lack of a contemporary approach to design, and about a paucity of good design in general. But the main thrust of CABE's criticism is of the wider urban realm, and particularly of highway design. 'Too often, ' it says, 'highway design standards win out, resulting in a preponderance of hammer-head turns, over-scaled roundabouts and separate surfacing for pedestrians and vehicles.' The House Builders Federation's indignation at this report is surprising, since CABE is careful - perhaps too careful - not to lay the blame at the Georgian fanlighted door of the housebuilders. Instead, it looks largely for greater skills within local authority planning and highway departments. 'Better training and guidance is needed to encourage highways authorities and urban designers to work together more effectively, ' it says. It recognises that in the end housebuilders are organisations eager to make a profit, and therefore likely to take the easiest path, arguing that 'it is properly the role of the local planning and highways authorities to seek modifications to proposals that meet the objectives of good urban design and the wider needs of the community'. Case studies bear this out.
Of six projects examined in depth, the lowest scoring is by Bellway Homes in Purfleet, where overstretched Thurrock council did not provide a design brief. The Berkeley Group manages to score both a 'very good' for a project in Portsmouth and 'poor' for one at Middleton-on-Sea, working with two different planning authorities.
CABE has an uphill struggle to overcome these problems, especially as it also needs to tackle the mediocre design and abysmal construction that many housebuilders still churn out. But it must prevail if the poor consumer, still transfixed by the close-up pictures in the estate agent's window and wondering just how far their enormous mortgage can stretch, is not to end up living in an urban or suburban wasteland that will prove a terrible blight on the future.