It might be social change; it might be social media. But whatever the cause, it’s clear that not everyone is quite happy with how representative democracy works these days.
In planning, certainly, the tectonic plates are going to have to shift to better reflect what people want and like. Development control processes, high land costs, short term funding, housing regulations, building regulations, design convention: our research has found that, all too often, a miasma of these different factors actually make it harder to build the sort of conventional places most people provably prefer.
Consider the case of the Mount Pleasant development site in central London. The Royal Mail Group, the landowner, has proposed to build 681 flats, of which 23 would be affordable – a scheme designed to fit with the London Plan and local rules.
But the large blocks this would involve have proved deeply unpopular with locals. In a survey of 258 local residents, eight times as many locals submitted negative comments as positive ones, and support for the scheme stood at just 1 per cent. The main objection, featuring in two thirds of responses, is the height and massing of buildings. “It’s like a fortress,” read a typical comment.
Working with and for the local community, Create Streets has worked up an alternative design, Mount Pleasant Circus. This would include around 715 homes, so can provide around more affordable homes, too. Our scheme attracted over 90 per cent support in a survey of local residents. One typical comment read: “The whole of London would fight for Mount Pleasant Circus.”
In a telling insight into why and how councils and the GLA need to change their approach, however, one developer commented: “Very beautiful. You’ll never get it through planning.”
It surely cannot be right that a hugely popular, higher-density scheme is less well aligned with the development and planning process than one that is hated.
In our recent pop-up poll on what types of housing people would actually want built, 87 per cent preferred homes of more traditional designs. Revealingly, of the 13 per cent who preferred less historically-referenced buildings, nearly half (43 per cent) worked as planners, architects or in creative arts.
The poll was indicative, rather than scientific – but it is consistent with several older studies. These have found a measurable disconnect between what architects appreciate in the built environment, and what the rest of the population want. People, it transpires, are from Mars. Professionals are from Venus.
And design matters. Our polling with MORI has shown that popular design can halve opposition to development. But unpopular design halves support.
So, what can we do about it? Create Streets has published a guide for councillors about how to win support for new homes. At its heart were three principles: building a proper factual understanding of what people want; embedding this in strategy and decision-making; and pushing for economic decisions to be made on basis of longer not shorter term economics.
Here are nine lessons the research holds for councillors.
1. Find our what actual numerical evidence housing and planning teams have on what types of built form, material, typology and style local people prefer. We have never met any team who can answer this question with statistically robust data.
2. If they don’t have it do some proper research, using pictures and polling to get a usable and meaningful understanding. If officials won’t do the research, councillors should do it themselves, using online polling. Thanks to improving technology this can done increasingly cheaply.
3. Publish the results. Ask officials how they intend to embed this evidence in the council’s strategy and development-control decision-making.
4. Find out if any borough strategy or other rules make it hard to produce the type of built environment that people most prefer. Changes might be necessary.
5. Encourage communities to form neighbourhood forums and use neighbourhood plans – not to be NIMBYs, but to positively set out the types of urban form and buildings that they like.
6. Don’t just think about style or materials – also think about “typology”, “form” and, yes, streets. What it is about the way in which some older developments are arranged, about their walkability, that people seem to love?
7. Don’t be fooled by the old lie that high density must equal high rise or large blocks. High density categorically does not require high rise or large blocks. With the right urban design and planning you can normally achieve high (though not ludicrous) densities within a perfectly conventional street-scape.
8. Don’t be fooled by viability assessments. Every developer we have spoken to about it in private has admitted to us, that you can make them say nearly whatever you want. Viability assessments must be transparent.
9. Push for whole life costings of buildings, not just short term economics. Huge buildings’ economics look much less good understood through this prism.
The question we need to answer isn’t “how do we build more homes” – it’s “how do we make new homes more popular.” The planning system needs to change, to give much greater focus to what people want and like.
Improving technology, social media, the desperate need to build more houses in a politically acceptable fashion and – perhaps above all – collapsing confidence in an inefficiently representative state all demand it. Like it or not, the direct planning revolution is coming.
Nicholas Boys Smith is the director of Create Streets, a social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streets.
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