19 Mar 2011

Grant Shapps is right - sort of

Gareth Cheeseman in brick - Ludlow Hill, Nottingham

Grant Shapps is right about Legoland. Of course he is right – he is only stating the bleeding obvious. But he is trying to deal with the symptoms and does not understand the cause. What is bizarre is that he thinks planners can solve the problem by imposing vernacular design, which is really quite an insight into the lack of understanding and the shallowness of thinking about the looming housing crisis within the government.

Slums of the near future - Ludlow Hill

Vernacular design is not necessarily bad but it's a bit difficult to see it as central to the housing crisis especially in the globalised economy so dear to the Coalition. Vernacular designs are specific responses to building needs and available local materials, now often expensive or technically inappropriate. They are not an applied style you can buy at B&Q; you will actually need vernacular skills and will have to pay for them, which is why vernacular designs are likely to be most successful in small infill sites in expensive areas.

Leicester Hallam - vernacular without context

But in a broader sense Grant Shapps is saying that new housing must respond better to context and create a sense of place. Too right! So why doesn't it? Before we diss the efforts of the Urban Task Force and CABE let's just remember what went before. The housing estates of the Thatcher era must represent an absolute nadir – a time when so much of the country was exurbanised with retail parks, office parks and estates pathetically trying to evoke the rural England they were destroying in their bastardised 'features' and their silly names ('Corncrake Meadows' etc). But worst of all they were utterly car dependent. This is the crux of the matter.

Kilgore Trout's 'Plague on Wheels' - Ludlow Hill

Low density car dependent estates are a sustainability time-bomb, impose de-facto segregation and are inimical to creating communities and a sense of place. These are broad generalisations but largely true as Lord Rogers rightly identified. However higher densities as adopted after the Urban Task Force are also problematical if the car is the dominant element of the design process. And that is the case in the great majority of housing estates. Layouts are designed around hierarchies of access roads and cul-de-sacs and the houses are fitted in around parking spaces. Highway authorities conspire to keep parking off the adopted streets (to reduce maintenance liabilities) resulting in parking dominating the street scene. An extraordinary contradiction of new estates is their total car dependency and at the same time the 'car fearing' (as CABE coined it) layouts which still haven't got over Radburn.

Pick a style, any style - Upton, Northamptonshire

If you design around car demands it is always going to be a struggle. There are many examples of attempts to create the semblance of traditional streets although usually this requires cars to be hidden behind the housing in dubious parking courts. Upton in Northampton is a good example – good because it is very largely successful within the rules of the game. And what Upton shows is you can have any style you want – they are all there and they are all superficial.

The important things about housing are more fundamental, like space standards. Why does Britain have the smallest new houses in Europe? Then there is the relationship to streets and public space – the ability for social interaction and for privacy and security. This is the huge failure of British planning and urban design. There is no clear responsibility between professions and agencies and all too often the highway engineer dictates the outcome.

Social segregation - Wilford House, Nottingham

And yes care in design, detail and individuality are all important. You only have to look at the absolute drabness of so much post-Brutalist low rise social housing to appreciate this. But quality and individuality does not have to come in big gestures nor is it the province of any particular style – it comes from appreciation, consideration, design ability and humanity.

Keep away from the tree - Wilford House again

With housing construction at an all time low, a crisis in mortgage lending and social housing funding slashed maybe this is not the best time to be reviving the battle of the styles. There does need to be a mature debate about housing but don't let's waste time on the chimera of planning reform – that is incidental. The big issues are around sustainability in every sense, delivering land and infrastructure including social infrastructure (which means tackling land values), building more social housing and actually enabling architects and planners to work with local communities in delivering solutions.

So, easy then! Not really. It means war with the Daily Express and the casino mentality of house prices. But it is bloody important.

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