The need to build healthy, sustainable places is more pressing than ever before. Inside Housing held a roundtable to gather sector views on how this can be achieved. Illustration by Neil Webb
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The past 18 months have put an even greater focus on the quality of housing and neighbourhoods in the UK. As people have spent more time at home, the link between health and housing has been brought into the spotlight. Coupled with this is an increasingly important need to take climate change into account.
But what counts as a sustainable development in the 21st century? What impact can that have on health? And how can all this be achieved amid a government target for 300,000 new homes a year and a shake-up of the planning system? To consider these questions, Inside Housing brought together a panel of experts for a roundtable, sponsored by law firm Birketts and hosted by deputy editor Peter Apps. Mr Apps asks each member to share the one aspect they would change about the current system to deliver more sustainable housing.
Ali Bennett, development director at Raven Housing Trust, says she would like to see an immediate shift in policy to ensure net zero carbon homes are built. Robin Sarkar, clerk of works at Albyn Housing Society, agrees, and adds: “I would educate our tenants to be able to use their homes efficiently, and that would help to take them out of fuel poverty and improve their quality of life.”
On the same theme of well-being, Lucy Saunders, founder of Healthy Streets, says: “I would love it to be easier to walk and cycle short journeys rather than drive, and I would achieve that through a default 20mph speed limit on all streets that have street lighting.”
Also on the topic of cycling, Liz Redbourne, a landscape architect at Homes England, says she would like to see better permeability in housing developments. “By that, I mean not just one road in, but all the side roads connected so people can cycle in and out.”
Turning to the issue of build quality, Marie-Claire Delbrouque, chief executive of charity Hopestead and managing director of Samphire Homes, part of Flagship Housing, questions why this should ever differ across tenures. “If I could change one thing, it would be for us to build and develop universally to the standard and specification that we aim for on private homeownership,” she says. “So that we can reduce the stigma that is attached to social housing.”
Jonathan Hulley, partner and head of social housing at Birketts, says he would like to see a move towards more mixed-used developments, “particularly blending homes we need with other facilities so there are community facilities that we know our residents need”.
Meanwhile, Emma Wilson, head of development, policy, strategy and performance at Sovereign, says standards should be improved across the spectrum. “Developers will typically build to the base minimum,” she says. “With new building regulations coming through, we are seeing an improvement in terms of the environmental performance of buildings, but we need to be doing that now as what we build now will be here for a very long time.”
Louise Mitchell, cabinet member for housing and homelessness at the London Borough of Waltham Forest, says she would like to see a massive increase in the amount of social and affordable housing being built across the country. “The ability to actually afford a property and know that it’s a safe and secure tenure would contribute massively to people’s sense of well-being,” she says.
On the development side of the coin, panellists spoke about some of their current frustrations. “I would like to see a change in the way we allocate sites for housing,” says Paul Reynolds, director and landscape architect at Tapestry Architects. “The current system really doesn’t work and leads to some very unsustainable development. If we had a more proactive way of putting it in the right place to start with, we’d be much better off.”
Nigel Sedman, group director of homes at ForHousing, says: “I would change the access to bigger sites. We often find decent sites go to market and we don’t win them, and they don’t get developed out for years.”
Craig Sparrow, executive director of development at Clwyd Alyn, shares a related frustration: “We have a big problem in North Wales where there are lots of allocated housing sites which are refused by planning committees. And to me that is ridiculous.”
And the final plea is from Abdul Latif, director of development at Golden Lane Housing. He asks for more collaboration in the sector. “We are struggling to meet the demand for housing, so it’s about how as a sector we can work together,” he says.
The conversation then moves on to looking at better approaches to mixed-tenure developments to avoid stigmatising social housing. Mr Hulley points to an example in the Netherlands and a mixed-tenure estate in Utrecht. “What struck me was how well they had blended the residential with the commercial and the different community facilities such as crèches and a domestic violence centre. So many of the schemes that I see, we do build differently for different types of housing. The idea of having different entrances for people who are living on one preset is fundamentally wrong.”
On the issue of so-called ‘poor doors’, Ms Wilson says: “I think it’s an absolutely huge challenge for organisations as everybody wants to do the right thing. Socially we should not be stigmatising people by a particular door.”
Transport is also a point of discussion. Ms Bennett sees a challenge specific to housing associations. “When we’ve got those smaller sites, you know, 30-unit sites, you don’t have the same flexibility to deal with transport and contributions as you might on a larger site. So the car has to be king – and you have to design for the car. And that isn’t the kind of future-thinking approach we want to be taking.”
Ms Mitchell talks through the initiatives Waltham Forest has adopted, including its low-traffic neighbourhoods and mini-Holland cycling scheme to encourage cycling and walking. She says: “Fewer than half of our borough’s residents have access to a car, so in Waltham Forest the car may think it’s king, but actually it isn’t, because most of our residents don’t have one.”
Mary Parsons, regeneration and partnerships director at Lovell Partnerships, adds: “COVID-19 has taught us we need to separate car ownership and car usage. What we need to really focus on is people not having to get into their cars for their everyday life, and that’s the measure of success.”
A need for education?
Ms Saunders highlights the need for placemakers to make their mark. “There’s a minority of developers who are striving for brilliance and trying out new, innovative things,” she says. “But the biggest benefit comes from everyone getting some of the basics right. And it’s really small, simple things, like not putting mini-roundabouts in, and making sure that you’ve got a decent wide, flat pavement on both sides of the street.”
But what about buildings themselves? What are the challenges there in making them more sustainable?
Mr Sarkar says Albyn has seen an issue in the Passivhaus homes it has built where tenants have not always understood how to use the new systems. And on a mixed-tenure, 49-home site in Inverness, some residents have experienced problems with their air source heat pumps, he says. “We all need education across all tenures as we get towards lower carbon,” he adds.
Ms Delbrouque says: “I hear us talk a lot about the need for us to educate our tenants. And I would argue that they’re not an uneducated group of people. We need to be building homes where we’re putting in technology and sustainability kit that is intuitive. I don’t hear us talk about the need to educate private homeowners on how to use their home.”
The conversation then moves to how the design of outdoor facilities can affect residents. Ms Redbourne says it is vital to include quiet places: “It’s really important to have that restorative calm, green space, places for retreat, in our designs for new housing.”
Mr Latif says this is important for people with learning disabilities. “It is the environment, both internal and external. Sensory gardens and other aspects have a huge impact on people’s lives,” he says.
There are also wider knock-on economic benefits from taking this approach. “It saves people going back into hospitals and going back to costly institutional settings,” Mr Latif adds. “And we sometimes [as a sector] fail to articulate the impact that has on the wider public purse. It can be quite an expensive development to start off with, but the alternative [someone going back into an institutional setting] is very expensive.”
Mr Hulley agrees more generally that being prepared to make an investment in providing an attractive all-round environment is vital. “We should be looking to build places where people value not just the inside of their homes, but a community space,” he says. “More emphasis and resources on ensuring that we maintain the level of those open spaces and community facilities is what we want to see.”
Internal design factors have also come to the fore amid the pandemic, with developers thinking more about providing a workspace within homes. As Mr Sparrow says: “We’re looking at how you design a home so you can actually work at home without the kids and the dog running over you.”
On design codes, Ms Wilson says there is an opportunity to improve standards. But she adds: “We just need to be really careful of how it’s implemented as a policy that it doesn’t become a tick-box exercise and we do see a genuine improvement in design quality and just don’t end up with still very minimum standards being delivered.”
Mr Reynolds adds: “I’d like to think that we’re moving more towards people thinking about landscape at an early stage but there are definitely still schemes where it’s very much an afterthought.”
Mr Hulley concludes proceedings by pointing to the government’s upcoming planning reforms as an opportunity to develop healthier, more sustainable communities. “The top-down approach is concerning,” he says. “If you want developments to be durable, eco-friendly, and places that people actually want to live in, that can only be achieved if you involve all different stakeholders, including communities themselves.”
Peter Apps, deputy editor, Inside Housing
Ali Bennett, development director, Raven Housing Trust
Marie-Claire Delbrouque, chief executive, Hopestead; managing director, Samphire Homes, part of Flagship Housing
Jonathan Hulley, partner and head of social housing, Birketts
Abdul Latif, director of development, Golden Lane Housing
Louise Mitchell, cabinet member for housing and homelessness, London Borough of Waltham Forest
Mary Parsons, regeneration and partnerships director, Lovell Partnerships
Liz Redbourne, landscape architect, Homes England
Paul Reynolds, director and landscape architect, Tapestry Architects
Robin Sarkar, clerk of works, Albyn Housing Society
Lucy Saunders, founder, Healthy Streets
Nigel Sedman, group director of homes, ForHousing
Craig Sparrow, executive director of development, Clwyd Alyn
Emma Wilson, head of development, policy, strategy and performance, Sovereign
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