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John Callcutt, author of Review of Housebuilding Delivery

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The Callcutt Review of Housebuilding Delivery is released today. Its author, John Callcutt, former head of housebuilder Crest Nicholson and English Partnerships, tells Max Thompson that the government's housing targets are achievable - but at a price

MT: Is the Government’s target of 240,000 new homes a year achievable, and if so how?

JC: The UK’s building industry is in good shape and is perfectly able, with some provisions, to build 240,000 new homes a year.

We can make the numbers provided we have the land supply. PPS3 (Planning Policy Statement) provides a good background but do we build on the edge of town, through urban sprawl, on the green belt or new settlements in the country? The Callcutt Review of Housebuilding Delivery has concentrated at how we might help make the majority of that supply within the urban fabric or, on previously developed land.

Crucially the review proposes a new ‘mature’ relationship between the people who are prepared to take ‘the risk’ – the house builders, commercial developers, housing associations and even mean contractors - and the planners.

We need a new relationship between the development community and planners. Historically it has been one of mutual hostility and suspicion. There are other factors, but nevertheless they have not worked well together historically.

Currently developers are not brought right at the very beginning – bids are made then developers try to maximise their profit and end up in conflict with the planners. The review is saying take all that out of the equation by having an open book and a fixed commercial contract right from the beginning.

We are not saying sites of no value will be worth millions of pounds per acre. What we are saying is that if you work with a partner with a mutuality of interest you are going to get more money out of it or your subsidy will go further. I am offering relative improvements.

How important is design to you?

Very important. I was thirty years a house builder for 30 years, chief executive of Crest Nicholson for 15 years and my company was the only one that won the CABE Gold Award 4 years in a row.

We produced beautiful developments, but I felt sad that we really didn’t get the benefits that we and other developers deserved. It is almost done as a moral thing, but it ought to have been done as a commercial thing.

What we really want is for people to see that it is in the interests of shareholders to deliver quality.

What is more important, aesthetics or achieving the 240,000 homes a year at all costs?

An interesting question, but not an easy one. First of all if they are not of good quality and not to a minimum aesthetic standard we will be pulling them down again in another thirty years – and that is not sustainable. It is absolutely essential that we re house people in structures and in societies that have a permanence - we really should not be throwing our houses away every thirty years as part of a throw away society.

However, what is the compromise between efficiency of production and aesthetics? Clearly there will have to be some compromise to mass produce homes on the scale that is needed.

We propose the creation of independent design reviews to take conflict out of planning.

The developer or local authority can submit the design and layout of a proposed project to an independent third party who they can then negotiate with and come up with a decent design – that recommendation is a material consideration.

CABE does that commercially but it ought to be a general and universal resource. We have seen on the CABE survey what a high percentage of developments are aesthetically unacceptable.

Who will be in charge of these design review bodies?

I have already spoken to RIBA which I believe is keen. Whether this is a CABE extension – a beefed up and better resourced regional design bodies - is for future debate.

The key element is that it is available for all and that it also applies to all but the very smallest projects; from residential to gigantic projects.

Who would be involved?

The Royal Town Planning Institute and RIBA are up for it and CABE is interested…

Will CABE’s nose be put out of joint?

CABE does not really carry out that iterative discussion and recommendation on many large housing projects – it can’t, it hasn’t got the resource. They have done so with regional design panels but the trouble with the regional design panels is that they do not have the teeth.

We need a much wider facility – a presumption that once process has taken place the quality part is a given and should not then be chewed over again. It doesn’t mean the LA can’t refuse it, but they would do so against, or with, a recommendation. It would make a huge difference especially when inspectors on appeal were considering

Can you just imagine, a major house builder submits a rather substandard housing scheme, the local authority calls in an independent consultant which refuses it and which then backs them up on appeal – that would send shockwaves through the industry.

Why are we not doing that already?

Many house builders put in standardised construction as there is absolutely no profit to be made in more thoughtful or better quality design. If in fact through my suggestions guys can see a positive commercial advantage in better quality design and layout they will take it on. I am bringing that sort of realignment out.

What we need is to bring about a realignment that things go through planning system faster, better and more reliably if they really well designed than if they are badly designed.

How long will it take to get up and running?

I won’t mince words. Already there are too many ugly sub-standard estates round our cities and the sooner we improve the quality, the better. It can’t happen too quickly – we are in a hurry.

It’s not just about quality of design; it’s about quality of build. If it’s not built properly it deteriorates and doesn’t look good. So we are suggesting that the customer satisfaction survey – currently carried out by the House Builders Federation – be carried out by an independent body. Also suggesting we establish thresholds for build quality and customer satisfaction and give industry two years’ notice to achieve minimum standards and if don’t they are no longer legible for government contract or grants. Taxpayers’ money should not go into companies that provide sub standard service.

Which other developers do you rate?

Berkley Homes is very good, Countryside and Octagon – they all produce some very attractive designs.

What about the cost to the developer?

Better design does cost something, I can’t get away from that. We accept there is going to have to be mass production, but there is no reason why standard products can’t be designed to be aesthetically attractive – especially in an urban environment. These two things are not mutually irreconcilable.

How do you make developers and local authorities form this partnership from early on?

I think you can only encourage them to, but there are some massive pressures. First of all they have got to make a land supply under PPS3 – if they don’t make that land supply in the urban fabric they are going to have to make it on the edge of town and in the countryside or in areas of existing affluence.

Therefore local authorities will be under pressure to drive maximum development from previously developed land. And if you have a developer already working with you that will help you increase the viabilities.

What role will the Government play in ensuring your suggestions are realised?

The DCLG and English Partnerships - soon to be the Housing Communities Agency - will play an absolutely pivotal role in facilitation of the commercial agreement – it will be ring master.

As a former chief executive of English Partnerships, are you pleased with the formation of the HCA?

Yes I am – a really good idea. They (English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation) would have to co ordinate to such a level that they really needed to be a single entity.

How do you achieve your targets without compromising the Government’s zero carbon targets?

You simply say zero carbon will cost money. The actual costs will come down significantly, but the probability is that there will be a real cost to achieving zero carbon. That is why the creation of viabilities I have discussed is even more compelling.

My mother-in-law comes from France and lived in a ZUP (Zone Urbanise en Priorite) – a system-built high rise which was more le Corbusier than Thamesmead. I bought her a nice flat by the sea but after three years she said she wanted to go back to the ZUP. ‘Why?’ I asked. Because she was bored by the sea. So, I went back and bought another flat on the edge of this concrete jungle. The buildings were as bad as anything we have in this country, but when you looked closer they were all beautifully maintained and all the shops and bars were open. This was an absolutely thriving community because it was mixed-use and brilliantly managed.

That had a massive impact on me and I realised the quality of management and social mix is as least as important as quality of build and architecture; and, in order to have a permanent urban renaissance we must pay equal attention to social and management needs of regeneration as we have to the physical product.

If they don’t go hand in hand architecture by itself will not succeed.

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