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Weekend roundup: ‘Most new housing should never have been built’

Shutterstock persimmon newcastle
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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Study reveals poor quality of most new housing • Foster backs House of Lords move to York • HS2 prevarication will only cause more delays, says watchdog

The Bartlett has carried out the first nationwide audit of new housing schemes since 2007 – and the results are not pretty. … a bit like much of the housing. 

UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning examined 140 developments built in England since 2007 and concluded that 74 per cent of them should have either been rejected outright by planning authorities or only allowed to proceed with ‘significant improvements’ to their design. 

A common flaw is low-density developments unconnected to surrounding areas and lacking amenities, such as shops, green spaces or public transport links. The report says that many rely on car dependency, with driving necessary to get anywhere useful, and little provision for cyclists or pedestrians. 

The research showed that individual housebuilders were able to produce both high-quality and low-quality schemes – the affluence of the location was the biggest determinant of quality, with less well-off areas 10 times more likely to get badly designed housing. 

The report points the finger at the volume housebuilders, saying they ‘should set the ethical standards for the industry at large’. 

But isn’t the problem here that private housebuilders’ primary aim is to make money? Persimmon was behind several of the developments audited as well as Plymouth’s Palmerston Heights, which last weekend’s Observer called out as an example of many of the shortcomings that the Bartlett report highlights. 

But the company’s shareholders won’t be complaining; last year it made record profits of £1.09 billion. And while there is a housing shortage – and councils are under pressure to alleviate this, yet inadequately resourced to exert proper control over what is granted permission – many housebuilders will conclude that design quality is not necessary. 

Perhaps local authorities could do a better job themselves – as exemplified by Norwich City Council’s much-lauded Goldsmith Street scheme, designed by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley, which won last year’s Stirling Prize. 

The Bartlett report also calls on the government to more forcefully encourage the Planning Inspectorate to reject schemes that ‘don’t live up to’ the design aspirations as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework. 

But as we know the reality is that it can sometimes be central government hobbling local authorities. As reported previously, permitted development rights legislation allows some of the most ill-thought-out developments to bypass the planning process completely. 

And last week, housing secretary Robert Jenrick overruled the planning inspector and approved PLP’s 1,524-home Westferry Printworks scheme – a development that Tower Hamlets Council and the Greater London Authority had both rejected on design grounds. 

Poll: Who is primarily to blame for the poor quality of new housing over the past 13 years?
• The architects
• Volume housebuilders
• Local councils
• The government
Vote here 

Last week’s poll asked whether you welcomed the London Plan’s intention to allow councils to use architect-retention clauses. More than 90 per cent said yes, with 41 per cent going so far as to say they should be compulsory.

Move Lords north, says Foster (present company excluded)

Foster unicorn webcrop

Foster unicorn webcrop

The government is considering moving the House of Lords to York (or possibly Birmingham), holding an architectural competition to design a new chamber. And regardless of the wisdom or otherwise of such a move, architects’ eyes have lit up at the prospect of a work opportunity.

Politically, the move has been received with scepticism, suggestions that it is the actual makeup of the Lords that needs to be reformed rather than where it sits, and a feeling that it has as little chance of happening as previously suggestions to temporarily move the House of Commons on to the Woolwich Ferry … or even Bristol.

Others have speculated that the idea was conceived as a threat, to encourage the Lords to pass the Brexit bill without any amendments – as indeed it did on Wednesday.

But none of that has stopped Norman Foster wading in to give his enthusiastic backing to the idea. In a letter to The Times, he wrote about using ‘the power of architecture to express our political and economic ambitions’ to ‘produce work that represents the very best that our age can offer’. 

Foster has not previously been keen on the whole Brexit thing, with his practice going so far as to talk of moving out of the UK if it proved overly restrictive. But, sportingly, he now seems to be embracing the post-European age, saying that great buildings can ‘demonstrate confidence in the future’.

There is, though, a certain irony in Foster pronouncing on this issue. He himself was made a lord in 1999, attending the house all of twice before giving up his seat in 2010. This was after a change in the law meant that Foster, who lives in Switzerland, would have had to pay full UK taxes if he wanted to continue as a sitting peer – able to vote on, you know, UK law.

This week it emerged that Foster + Partners is one of the teams in the running to design three artificial islands in Malaysia. Perhaps it could adapt this idea to create a Lords Island somewhere off the coast of Scarborough, just outside British waters so that Norman is able to tax-efficiently impart his wisdom to the house.

Time to take the brakes off High Speed 2

Curzon street revised

Curzon street revised

The future of HS2 hangs in the balance, with the expected cost soaring from an initial £56 billion to as much as £106 billion, but dilly-dallying over the decision will only exacerbate matters. The National Audit Office has said the link will face major delays if main construction work does not start in March as planned.

In a report, the spending watchdog said that both the Department for Transport and HS2 had misjudged the level of uncertainty and risk inherent in the project.

The government is expected to make a final decision on the line early next month, to coincide with the publication of the Oakervee review. A leaked draft of the review suggests that this will recommend that the project proceeds in full.

Not one to twiddle its thumbs waiting, Grimshaw has been busy reworking designs for its HS2 station (pictured) in Birmingham city centre. The original design had been criticised by West Midlands mayor Andy Street who said it had ‘all the quirkiness and charm of Stansted airport’s baggage drop-off area’.

But could one individual scupper the whole project? A High Court judge has given north London homeowner Hero Granger-Taylor permission to proceed with her claim against HS2 for its Euston tunnel design. Following a study by a specialist railway engineer, she is concerned that construction work could cause the collapse of a retaining wall in her neighbourhood.

Granger-Taylor said the judge had recognised her claim ‘that the Three Tunnels Design is a potentially lethal proposal’ and that it could force HS2 to ‘reconsider the whole scheme’.

With the project in the balance, and the prime minister possibly in two minds over the whole thing, could this be the little detail that tips the scales?

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