Its very easy for us to ‘welcome’ weighty reports when they land from Government or commissions, but with the arrival of the Build Better Build Beautiful Commission’s interim report, this welcome was a genuine one. As a designer, my love of pictures over words, often means my review of them is cursory, and I am usually relatively cynical in terms of the influence they will ultimately have. In this instance however, the focus of the BBBC was too interesting, for me to revert to type.
The quality of development we are proposing and driving UK-wide in Barton Willmore and many other consultancies like us, is critical to the success of our response to the housing crisis, our quality of urban landscape and how our profession is perceived in the industry and wider world. Delivering great places as well as great architecture is something we all consistently aspire to do, so if there are blocks or challenges in our approach or systems limiting this, being open and honest to what these are and seeking to address them is surely absolutely essential for us all?
Having held my attention cover to cover, I have to praise the BBBBC for the accessibility they have managed to achieve and their honest review. They certainly haven’t pulled any punches. As a Masterplanner, I am also particularly heartened by their acknowledgement of scale – Beautiful Buildings, Beautiful Places, Beautifully Placed – enables us to take this away from what many perceived as an attack on architecture, and perhaps as a result a ‘standards’ driven discourse, and in turn bring developers along with discussion
Design is, as we all know, very subjective, but recent lambasting of new homes as ‘rabbit hutches’ (our outgoing prime minister’s words) does invariably drive a defensive response as opposed to an honest debate about what good is. In my experience, many of our major developers UK wide are open to and indeed driving and many understand the huge benefit and value that can be gained from an inclusive and well considered approach. The need for diversity in design, and the manner in which we deliver homes, is recognised but needs to be driven. A planning process which drives for ‘no net harm’ versus net gain is not helping us in this either as again it drives a mentality of defence, as opposed to enhancement.
But as good as the report is, I do feel there are still some aspects missing. The three-year political horizon for local councils and MPs is a huge challenge to any long-term development processes and consistently cuts across proposals. The build beautiful commission doesn’t currently address the impact of this important element and although I appreciate the answer to it is challenging, it must be considered and debated, nonetheless.
An area of particular interest for me, given the scale of new settlement and strategic residential-led delivery we work on day-to-day, is the way we drive consistent quality on larger scale sites, through planning and design structures. We walk a fine line at present, to inform design without becoming militant about window details and this must be maintained if we are to facilitate diversity and architectural interest. Currently however developers often see the Design Code as yet another piece of process which takes time and potentially huge cost.
In my view and through experience, however, I have seen how this ‘risk’ can be minimised and an agreed approach embedded, via upfront discussion with the Local Authority. Through an honest dialogue I have seen first-hand how an understanding of expectations can be established, and a higher level of aspiration and ambition agreed upon by developer and Officer, without risking the project programme. Design Coding in collaboration with the local community is almost certainly a useful approach to de-risking later phases, but I would hesitate to support its development in collaboration with the local community – this is a step too far perhaps.
More debate is almost certainly needed and encouraged by the commission and my colleagues and I for one will be seeking to drive discussion around this latter point, building on our experiences and seeing where we can get to.
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Build Better Build Beautiful Commission, Masterplanning, Design