In May last year, then Minister of Housing, Kit Malthouse, launched ‘Distinctively Local’, a new report about how to boost housing supply by creating beautiful and popular homes and places.
One year on, in a world which none of us anticipated, the report’s guidance seems even more relevant to life during and after the covid-19 lockdown.
Published by four architects specialising in the design of new homes and neighbourhoods - HTA Design, Pollard Thomas Edwards, Proctor & Matthews Architects, and PRP Architects – Distinctively Local demonstrates the virtues of places which respond to their context, with people-friendly streets and spaces as a setting for generous, modern houses, crafted to feel like home and offering choice and adaptability.
The pandemic offers a forceful reminder of the key role housing plays in determining health and wellbeing. The lockdown has emphasised the value of space in the home, sunny private gardens and balconies, neighbourly streets and easy access to public outdoor space. Conversely, it has highlighted the risks and stress of overcrowding, and seen the perverse closure of parks because they are too popular. If we ever thought home was just a place to sleep and keep stuff, while spending our waking hours at the workplace, pub and gym, then think again. Spare bedrooms have become a godsend rather than a source of guilt.
Distinctively Local focuses on suburbs, regional town extensions and new settlements – places where people can live the dream of a house and garden. It’s too early to tell whether the pandemic has wiped the gloss off high density urban living, but we may see an increase in the conventional outward migration of people (especially young families and an active older generation) seeking cheaper and more spacious homes, with decent broadband – and a perceived reduction of risk of infection. Businesses which have flirted with flexible working now realise how transformational a permanent shift towards homeworking could be – both by choice and to anticipate future periods of enforced isolation.
We are seeing the dividend in cleaner air, quieter and safer streets and the potential to reallocate road space in favour of pedestrians and cyclists. Ironically, social distancing has unlocked the potential of our streets to be more sociable, transforming our streets into shared outdoor living rooms, not just movement corridors with front gardens becoming sociable thresholds for doorstep conversations, not just car parks and bin storage areas.
How does the guidance in Distinctively Local compare to the direction of government policy, and how do those policies look today, in light of the pandemic?
The report explored the tensions within the minister’s declaration that we need “more, better, faster” housing. Its launch earned some infamy on account of the minister’s off the cuff reference to “the mythical (some heard “mystical”) target of 300,000 homes a year”, as a possible admission that focusing on quality would make it harder to hit the housebuilding target. He had previously written: ‘’If you get the design right – the scale, the context, the fitness – communities will feel enhanced and respected, and will lay down their petitions and placards.’’
The idea that the way to increase housing outputs is to build popular homes and places, and thereby remove local resistance to development, was taken up by the Building Better Building Beautiful commission, and is the bedrock of its own report published in January: Living with Beauty, which calls for ‘’demonstrably popular design’’. Living with Beauty endorses much of the guidance in Distinctively Local, around what constitutes good design of homes and places.
MHCLG seems committed to implementing the recommendations in Living with Beauty. However, there is an apparent policy conflict in Government with the tendency to overlook quality and focus on Permitted Development Rights (PDR) as a tool for increasing supply instead. Alarmingly, over half of the new supply in Harlow last year, for example, came in the form of offices converted into flats, free of any obligation to meet the normal standards for space and amenity laid down by the local planning authority.
These two positions are incompatible. If the Government stays true to the guidance in both Distinctively Local and Living with Beauty and not the reality of PDR, it will be a welcome and timely intervention. There is already much speculation about the legacy for the design of neighbourhoods created by our shared experience of the lockdown. There is growing sadness and shock over sickness and death, suffered disproportionately by the poor, otherwise disadvantaged and low paid front line workers, and there is renewed awareness of the relationship between health and living conditions.
As we start to build again, with most of the housebuilders returning to sites this month, we need to be inspired by the absolute necessity to learn the lessons of the pandemic, and in the knowledge that we can and have built great places. Distinctively Local reminds us how we can do it.
Andrew Beharrell, Pollard Thomas Edwards
Ben Williamson, PRP
Proctor & Matthews Architects
Ben Derbyshire, HTA Design