Inside Housing and ENGIE bring together sector leaders to discuss how they are creating a sense of place in new developments and ensuring they will also be fit for the future. Photography by Belinda Lawley
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Meeting the government’s target of 300,000 new homes a year is going to be a challenge for everyone involved in housing delivery, but it’s also only part of the picture. How can house builders, housing associations and local authorities ensure they are also building sustainable communities, fit for purpose today but also flexible enough to evolve and grow into the future?
Technology, demographics, our expectations and even the climate – things are changing fast. To discuss the role of placemaking and how to get it right in the face of these challenges, Inside Housing – in association with ENGIE – brought together a group of professionals from housing associations and local authorities to share their expertise, and to ask them: how do we create and shape places that will meet the needs and aspirations of the communities of tomorrow?
The discussion began with an examination of what placemaking actually means – and how it is changing.
“It’s an elusive concept. It can seem more of a buzzword we attach to things,” says Alan Green, director of development at Plus Dane. “Who are we creating places for? Communities of the future? Different generations? The best places have evolved organically over time – so if we are creating places we need to take that into account.”
Scott Cardwell, assistant director of development at Doncaster Council, goes further. He argues we have lost focus on what placeshaping actually is. “There is such a drive to deliver homes and getting the numbers done that we are in danger of delivering targets but missing the point,” he says. “We are not taking stock of what our demographics and communities need – we are just hell-bent on the numbers.”
When the chair asks who agrees with Mr Cardwell, most attendees raise their hand. Jason Longhurst, director of regeneration and business at Central Bedfordshire Council, says he thinks placemaking has lost its way and that it is “only just coming back to the table”.
“How do we do placemaking better? It’s the time we invest upfront in understanding locations and the offer [for them],” he states. As the forthcoming chair of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Mr Longhurst is passionate about creating places that stand the test of time. “You can have the best policy in the world of carbon-zero, energy-efficient homes, but if they are constructed poorly you are building in failure for the future,” he adds.
Successful placemaking cannot just be about individual communities, argues Duncan Sharkey, corporate director – place at Milton Keynes Council. It must work across the board, from national planning considerations to the positioning of cycle paths and parks at the neighbourhood level and at all levels in between. “It’s about working at all those levels and joining them up – and it’s really complicated,” he says.
The demands and concerns of the people who are going to live in these new communities are also shifting. “One thing we don’t do very well as a sector is look into the future about what changing needs and aspirations and demands will be,” says Geoff Pearce, executive director of regeneration and development at Swan.
He cites the growing importance of the environment and ecology to young people as an example: When I sit down with house builders, they tell me sustainability doesn’t sell,” he says. “I think that will change.”
He makes a distinction between what people want and what they need, and how that could affect the long-term viability of a development. “Young people need a small room in a highly serviced block because they can’t afford what they want, which is probably a bit more space,” Mr Pearce argues. “And they don’t want a shared kitchen – they need it, because it’s all they can afford. So we are building things to cater to a particular set of current circumstances [instead of] thinking about how we get young people into accommodation they might stay in. Building transitory communities does not create a place, and that’s one of the big problems we have.”
One of the biggest challenges to councils today is the ageing population, says Shifa Mustafa, executive director of place at Croydon Council. “Their needs are changing,” she says. Older people are working longer but differently – they want flexibility, which can be about access to technology; they want connections to the places they work and access to healthcare. Get this right, she adds, and it can be a boon for local authorities.
“If we can get older people to work, and support them, they will contribute to the economy and stay healthier for longer,” she says. “We have to deal with that in our placemaking. People want more. And why shouldn’t they?”
This whole-place approach is fundamental, agrees John Lewis, executive director of Thamesmead at Peabody – but the way we deliver it must change. “While housing is hugely important, we have to consider all aspects of town development as well: jobs, education, heritage, culture – all points that perhaps aren’t always at the forefront of people’s minds in terms of pure housing development,” he says. “And it’s really important we don’t just apply today’s understanding and methodologies… It does feel often that we plan for the future using today’s thinking, and that is a worry.”
Just as crucial is bringing the community along for the ride. “Getting the community to buy into the vision [for a place] and take ownership is critical,” says Carl Taylor, assistant director of new business and growth at Accord. He cites two identical tower blocks on separate estates in Walsall built in the 1990s: “On one estate, the community bought into the regeneration and took ownership,” he says. “On the other estate, the regeneration was done to those blocks without that community’s engagement.”
You can guess which block has been demolished, and which is still thriving. But how do you bring the community with you? “From the outset it’s about recognising the community that are there [already] and putting them at the centre of it,” says Mr Green.
To do that, organisations need to know and understand their communities – and that’s something Paul Augarde, director of placemaking at Poplar Harca, believes the sector could do better.
“I can tell you how many Bangladeshi people I have on one estate, or how many gay people I have in another – but I can’t tell you whether that person who has lived here for 40 years wants to stay,” he says. “What does success look like to them? Does the movement and change in the place reflect their aspirations?”
Bringing people on board means developing a broad narrative that can bring the community along with you, he adds.
One major factor behind the changing style and scope of our lives and communities is the rapid development of technology – and it’s crucial this is recognised and incorporated into new communities if they are to be sustainable. Dave Sheridan, chief executive of ENGIE UK Places & Communities, believes there needs to a be a shift in the way councils and developers approach this.
“In Decent Homes refurbishment projects, we told [the councils involved] we could put connections in for solar PV and ground source heat,” he says. “It would have cost £30 per property – it was just preparatory, not the tech itself. Every council said no. You have to add costs to the build to future-proof properties, but it comes back to viability. It’s a brave council that takes that step.”
Placemakers need to consider everything from how people will use transport in the future to how to tackle fuel poverty, he states, adding that ENGIE’s mantra is “decentralisation, decarbonisation and digitalisation”.
Technology is moving so fast that it’s hard to anticipate how it will change the way we live – but that is exactly what successful placeshapers have to do. In Milton Keynes, the council is about to trial autonomous vehicles: “If that [technology] works, that will change the way the whole country works,” says Mr Sharkey. “People won’t buy cars any more – we will just rent pods. But does anyone really want to build a big estate with no car parking on the basis that the tech will roll out in 25 years time? But if it does, that’s a huge amount of ground wasted. How do we lead that debate?”
As well as leading the debate, it’s up to councils and planners to shape the future. So what can they do to create the successful communities of tomorrow?
“It’s about planning for places at scale,” says Mr Lewis. “Garden cities worked because they took the total approach. I’m not sure planning has been given the backbone at strategic level to control what is developed.”
One big, albeit clunky, tool councils have is building regulations, Mr Cardwell adds. “That is something we can look at – creative use of the planning system.”
The last word goes to Mr Pearce, who points out that some of the best schemes he has seen were built by smaller developers “where the top person has a daily focus on quality of design”, rather than large house builders where the focus might be on volume. “The more scale you produce, the harder it is to retain that focus on design,” he says. “Which is why we never focus on numbers.”
Director of placemaking, Poplar Harca
Assistant director of development, Doncaster Council
Director of development, Plus Dane
Executive director of Thamesmead, Peabody
Director of regeneration and business, Central Bedfordshire Council
Executive director of place, Croydon Council
Executive director of regeneration and development, Swan
Corporate director – place, Milton Keynes Council
Assistant director of new business and growth, Accord
Chief executive, ENGIE UK Places & Communities