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Callcutt demands quality from new housing agency

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John Callcutt, the man behind the government report on housing delivery, has added his voice to calls to ‘embed design’ in the new Homes and Communities Agency (HCA).

Last month former architecture minister Lord Howarth demanded key amendments to the Housing and Regeneration Bill (AJ 22.05.08) – the legislation which will ratify the creation of the HCA once English Partnerships (EP) and the Housing Corporation merge – to give the housing superquango an explicit design-guardian role.

Now Callcutt, formerly chief executive of EP and housebuilder Crest Nicholson, has written to Communities Secretary Hazel Blears urging her to support the proposed changes to the bill. Among the amendments tabled are the appointment of a design expert to the HCA board and the formation of new design review panels.

Callcutt’s letter reads: ‘The imposition of an obligation on the part of the HCA to improve design quality, coupled with the creation of design review panels [whose conclusions would be a material consideration in planning], would create a commercial incentive for developers to make the changes to their business process that are needed to bring about a positive step change in design’. (Click here to read Callcutt's full letter)

The bill is currently being taken through the committee stages in the House of Lords by Baroness Andrews, who is coming under mounting pressure to insert the changes from a growing ‘design caucus’ backed by the RIBA.

However, not everyone is convinced an in-house ‘design committee’ at the HCA is necessary. Faheem Aftab of A-Cube Architects said: ‘I have my doubts that the creation of another bureaucratic talk shop is the correct solution. The real challenge is creating the correct mechanism to facilitate this process. This may be better achieved by letting the HCA get on with it rather than paying a bunch of “experts” to pay lip service.’

Ian McHugh, a director at Triangle Architects, said: 'I think all architects would support the pursuit of quality over the false economies of corner cutting. That is not to say a culture of extravagance but, contrary to the popular mantra, good design does unfortunately cost more. Our new housing must be sustainable in every sense, from energy solutions to safe happy communities. There is no economy in providing cheap, poor-quality housing which needs regenerating in 10-20 years through physical and social breakdown.

'Large volume housebuilders must consider their duty to operate in shareholders' best interests, and therefore they need incentives in order to focus on issues like design quality. There are some great innovative developers doing exciting stuff, but this is mostly for niche markets, and the aim here must be to raise standards and expectations across the board.

'In our experience, design panels do provide an incentive for mainstream developers to redirect their concerns into areas of quality, whether through funding appraisals or the planning consultation process. The quality of decision-making by planning committees and "professional" development control advice in some areas is still woeful and "design interference" would hopefully at least be of a higher calibre with a suitably qualified panel.

'I hope John Callcutt's assessment is right that the cost of quality is offset by speed and efficiency, but there is still an obvious affordability gap in many areas, and the question remains of how that is bridged?'

Keith Bradley of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios said: 'I was part of a workshop session at CABE when John Callcutt outlined his thoughts in draft before publication [of his report in November 2007]. It was an interesting but, at times, deeply depressing revelation about the challenges of a commercially driven market housing economy. The institutional structure of the housebuilding industry makes the quality-versus-value debate very difficult.

'As Callcutt points out, some of the most needy places don't create the necessary property values from the cost of adding quality. We talked at CABE about getting the basics right with good urban design and simple detailing to achieve a 'good ordinariness', as a modern-day version of the artisan and 'patternbook' houses provided by the Georgians and Victorians. Housing as good-quality quiet background, concentrating on getting the setting and collective placemaking right, rather than the quest for random variety in the struggle for "interest" and "individuality".

'Many of these principles are well set out, with examples, in the CABE/Civic Trust/Home Builders Federation Building for Life guidelines, which give Gold and Silver Standard Awards. If these guidelines were adopted nationally as part of the planning requirement, then the quality would significantly improve. Local planning authorities (LPAs) could also be more specific about the Code for Sustainable Homes levels.

'It is clear, tangible standards that are important, and using these as a minimum measure of quality tied into the planning system. This would mean that LPAs could assess quality more easily and the best would get rewarded with a faster path through the planning process. This has huge commercial value and in itself is an incentive for good design, as Callcutt has indicated.

'Design review panels are important, and much of this is already being carried out by national and regional CABE panels. If these panels can cope with the demand and also have some teeth in planning terms – although CABE does seem to resist the call to be a "statutory consultee" – then I don't see the merit in creating another set of panels.'

Gill Robinson, regional director at Stride Treglown Chapman Robinson, said: 'It’s great to see Callcutt looking for ways to raise design quality – and using the HCA to do this seems logical.

'Review panels could be given sharper teeth by the HCA, which could require developers, who are in receipt of government grant or gap funding, to go through a Design Review and to receive a positive report.

'Callcutt suggests that design quality is synonymous with higher cost – I do not agree that this is necessarily the case, particularly if you take whole life costs and not just initial capital costs. He states that “in many locations… in need of regeneration, quality is simply not cost effective”. In my view these are precisely the locations where quality is needed to create a step change in the neighbourhood.

'Grant or gap funding, linked to design quality should be used to deliver this. The HCA could be instrumental in ratcheting up design quality in the same way that the government used changes to the requirements of Part L of the Building Regulations to drive up the thermal performance of buildings and create more sustainable houses.'

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