Creating Communities 2019 – what, where, who and how?

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Yesterday Create Streets and Onward hosted the Creating Communities 2019 conference and U+I’s headquarters in central London. An incredibly broad range of people and perspectives gathered for a day of discussions, presentations and debate; the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government; the Chairman of Homes England; the Chief Planner; Tony Pidgley; landowners, financial advisors; many of the most innovative and impressive residential architects and urban designers and some of the most innovative community groups leading work on the ground to deliver more housing and more affordable housing. All were gathered for the great conversation. You can see some of the speakers (though not the breadth of the attendees) on the conference website here.

 

There were presentations on community design, design and wellbeing, spatial planning, governance and control, the role of mayors, capturing land value uplift There was ‘speed dating’. There were soapbox talks over lunch. The ultimate issue was clear. We need to build more homes. We are building more. But what do we build? Where? How? And who? No issue encapsulates our troubled political covenant more than housing. Too few people own. Too many renters are paying too much or feel insecure. Too many communities feel disenfranchised from where and what development is approved. There are exceptions. But while enlightened local authorities, landowners and developers are proving what is possible, too often well-designed, community-led development is the exception not the rule.

  

Of course nearly 200 people having dozens of separate conversations (and three real time online polls) cannot arrive at one simple answer. And we didn’t. But some key themes that seemed to be agreed by most of us did emerge. Here’s a flavour of the ten top takeaways for me.

  1. Mix it up! Nearly everyone agreed that we have to do better in delivering a mixture of homes interspaced with shops, offices and places to be and live. “No one wants to work in a bland office park” as Professor Yolande Barnes, the chair of the UCL Real Estate Institute, put it pithily.
  2. Missing middle is best. There was clear, indeed overwhelming support for a predominant use of develpoment patterns that capture the measurable advantages of density (propinquity, more walking, more neighbourliness) with the benefits of lower density (more personal space, more greenery). 80 per cent of respondents in our live online poll preferred saw urban terraces or mansion blocks as the primary solution to our housing needs. (18 per cent supported detached or semi-detached houses and 2 per cent towers as the primary solution)
  3. Start from here not there or anywhere – build on what you’ve got. While new settlements were not rejected outright, most present felt that most new homes would and needed to come from urban extensions to existing towns and by modest intensification across a wide swathe of existing neighbourhoods. 77 per cent supported infill and adding extra storeys or extending existing settlements. 21 per cent saw the primary route as new settlements. (Only 1 per cent saw the main answer as towers).
  4. Radical on the greenbelt? Does the greenbelt need to change shape? Perhaps to greenfingers which permits more develpoment along transport corridors but retain green fingers sticking into the city? Certainly nearly four times as many participants were for extending settlements including building on the greenbelt versus extending them not doing so. Of course that does not solve the politics.
  5. Diversity of supply matters. In response to an important questions from the paladin of self-build, Richard Bacon MP, Tony Pidgley replied that when he started developing he had 43 competitors in Surrey. Now he had only 2. We need more diversity of supply. (And I would certainly argue that the nature of planning risk makes this very hard).
  6. Co-design. Co-design. Co-design. From Housing Associations to architects, from the biggest of the big developers to the smallest of the small nearly all were agreed that we still need to get better at co-designing with neighbourhoods, learning how to layer together community and professional knowledge. (Fascinatingly, and very depressingly, talking to a very different audience of – I think – mainly architecture and deisgn students, their teachers and practicing architects at Central Saint Martins the same evening I made a similar point. It appeared to be very unpopular indeed. Perhaps it is no surprise that the volume housebuilding industry has largely abandoned architects. They will continue to unless contemptuous attitudes to public taste evolve).
  7. Embrace new technology but don’t let it be your master. A generation ago we sacrificed the pleasure, walkability, air quality and beauty of our towns and cities on the altar of the car. Motorways and dual carriageways were sliced though cities. Roads were widened. Corners were curved. It was a profound strategic mistake. New technology is always coming. And we should welcome that. But we should not become it slaves. New technology (be it AI, ‘smart cities’ or driverless cars) must serve our purposes as sociable physical entities who need to live and work and love and play in towns and cities. Not vice versa.
  8. Sort out land value capture. There was near unanimity in debate and in our online poll (89 per cent) that local councils need to be better able to capture a portion of land value uplift to fund local infrastructure. Infrastructure spend is critical to delivering new homes. And we’re not doing enough of it.
  9. Devolution is difficult. I didn’t detect much agreement in the ongoing debate about what should be the relative roles for different tiers of local government.
  10. Development Corporations don’t work if they are just a name. Without the land, they can do next to nothing. Sadly, our observations very much back this up.

A huge thank you to all our attendees and speakers and to our headline sponsors (U+I, CCN and Lightwood) and to our breakout sponsors (Hydrock, jtp and ilke homes). It was a huge pleasure working with them all as it was with our partners, Onward.

We’ll be publishing some of the talks, or elements of them, as blogs in the weeks to come. Watch this space….

Nicholas Boys Smith

Director, Create Streets, 22 February 2019.

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