Tackling the housing crisis will be a concern for all political parties in the run-up to 7 May. But beyond a simple numbers game, how are they addressing architectural quality? Keith Cooper reports
With the housing crisis set to be a hot topic in May’s general election, there are fears that design could be relegated to the sidelines.
Many predict the poll will result in some kind of coalition, so parties are likely to be shy of writing detailed commitments into their manifestos that may hamper post-election negotiations.
Instead they will probably stick to bold central pledges that aim to ease affordability, particularly for the ‘millennials’ – young voters who have all but lost hope of owning a home.
The largest three parties’ broad thoughts on housing design can, however, be teased out of speeches and policy pronouncements in which these promises are made.
One of the most influential papers on Labour’s thinking is The Lyon’s Housing Review, which was published towards the end of last year (AJ 16.10.14)
This describes good design as ‘indispensable’ when it is ‘informed by an understanding of what makes homes environmentally sustainable’.
It credits Terry Farrell’s recent review as coming up with ‘powerful recommendations for entrenching better design through better planning’.
The report also endorses the establishment of minimum space standards for new build, a ‘streamlining [of] housing standards’ and points back in time to Richard Rogers’ report Towards an Urban Renaissance.
Published some 15 years ago, it described how ‘development carefully designed around public transport hubs, supported by excellent public spaces and connected by streets designed for walking and cycling can transform our towns and cities’.
While Lyons might be the most expansive housing brief of all the major parties, its coverage of housing design as a strand of affordability policy is common to the Conservative and Liberal Democrat agendas, according to RIBA head of public affairs Anna Scott-Marshall.
‘All have generally acknowledged the role of design,’ she says. ‘They recognise you can’t just throw up poor-quality homes or large sites without thinking about how that works. The way politicians talk about this has shifted.’
Nevertheless, some subtle differences between the main parties’ attitudes towards design are appearing, especially between the two coalition partners.
The latest thinking on housing design from the Conservatives caused some controversy this month when the prime minister unveiled plans for 200,000 new homes for first-time buyers.
As reported in the AJ, this pre-election pledge included an aim to create ‘high-quality new homes’ with ‘templates’ drawn up by a ‘design panel’, with Farrell himself its most notable member (AJ 06.03.15).
Under this scheme, housebuilders will be excused their section 106 planning obligations when they build, enabling them to sell homes with a minimum 20 per cent discount.
The Lib Dems appear to be pushing for greater diversity in design, according to Matthew Taylor, a party peer who has advised the current administration on planning.
Taylor says his party places a ‘very high emphasis’ on place and design.
The key to eliminating ‘cookie-cutter’ housing is to make it easier for ‘great’ architects and builders to enter the market by improving access to land, he says.
Taylor adds that the Lib Dems will also continue to support a new generation of garden cities and garden communities, a policy line also shared by Labour, the Conservatives and UKIP, albeit it with some caveats.
The three main parties also differ in their house-building ambitions, as the policy summary compiled by consultancy Knight Frank shows.
Labour is aiming for a 200,000 annual house-building target, a goal shared by UKIP. The Lib Dems want to shoot higher with an ambition of racking up house-building rates to 300,000 a year, while the Green Party has pledged 500,000 social rented homes by 2020.
In line with its ‘localism’ agenda, the Conservative Party has handed the role of target-setting to local authorities, while setting itself a goal of providing 275,000 ‘affordable’ homes by the end of the next Parliamentary term.
As these house-building goals and offers of cut-priced homes grab headlines over the next few weeks, the role of design in the debate will likely be confined to how it can ease the chronic housing affordability problem.
David Birkbeck, chief executive of not for-profit lobby group Design for Homes, sees the Conservatives’ pre-election pledge on first-time buyers as a sign that the debate has already shifted.
‘Discussion has [now] bounced to product design, such as starter homes for the millennials whose incomes are wolfed by housing costs,’ he says.
While it is clear that design has secured a place in housing policy, its role is likely to be tied to the popular and pressing aim of improving affordability.
How architects respond to this political imperative will help determine how much they figure in this and future election debates.