Policy Exchange's Place Matters Newsletter
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Prosperity • People • Place • Patriotism
By Dr Samuel Hughes
Introduction to the newsletter

The Liberal Democrats’ recent victory in the Chesham and Amersham by-election has further intensified debate around Britain’s built environment. It is true that by-elections are notoriously eccentric, just as it is true that governments can do badly in them.  But the swing, following a campaign focussed on HS2 and planning reform, was nonetheless remarkable. Whatever else it may show, it certainly highlights the truth of the words with which we began the first issue of this newsletter: place matters profoundly to people.
The result does not change the basic fact that has motivated the Government’s reform agenda: Britain does need more homes. The housing shortage destroys economic opportunities, generates homelessness, discourages family formation, and blights lives.  The Government has made this argument cogently, and no persuasive case has been made against it.
It does, however, highlight the need for the Government to go much further in developing the second part of its planning reforms: not only building more houses, but winning local support for doing so, a theme Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, the Housing Secretary, will explore in today’s webinar at Policy Exchange on “Building Beautiful Places”. The rolling out of design codes to ensure popular beautiful design for new places is part of this: as Policy Exchange has long argued, one reason that people oppose development is that they expect it to be ugly. If that does not change, local consent for development is always going to be unlikely.  Tom Tugendhat MP highlighted the importance of building beautifully in a recent debate in Parliament:
As Jack Airey argued in a Policy Exchange report in 2019, Building Beautiful Places, which built on the work of so many others, including of course Sir Roger Scruton, we need to feel at home not just in our home but in our community, our town and our country. How we build what we build builds us up or drags us down. It is profoundly important to remember why we build, not just where.
Another key element of winning support for development is empowering local communities to opt into forms of developments that benefit them. In our report Strong Suburbs, we argued for letting residents of individual streets vote for the right to add floors and use more of their plots, thereby increasing the value of their homes while contributing to alleviating the national housing shortage. It is reforms like these that the Government will need to investigate if it is to persuade local communities that housebuilding may be an opportunity for them, not a threat. 

In terms of planning, one other significant election result this year has been Sadiq Khan winning the London Mayoralty again (though an alliance of opposition parties now leads the Assembly committees).  The Mayor is not omnipotent over the built environment of London, but he holds considerable power. He writes the London Plan, which guides all planning decisions in the city; he can unilaterally approve or reject any major planning decision through his ‘call in’ powers; and he can shape the public debate through his advocacy.  At a time of enormous change in London, it is thus worth asking what the Mayor could be doing for London’s built environment. Here are three groups of questions for Khan for his second term in office.

Brent Civic Centre, opened 2013 

First: what will he do to empower local people over the design of developments in their area?  Our recent polling suggested that many people are not happy with the design of public buildings in recent decades, such as the £75,000,000 Brent Civic Centre in London (pictured): enormous buildings are being constructed for public use and at the public’s expense that the public demonstrably does not favour. Will the Mayor work to change this situation? Will he work to amplify the voices of local people when design decisions are made?  How will he ensure that local authorities have access to quantitative evidence on new buildings’ popularity?

Change on Regent Street

Second: the pandemic has seen many streets temporarily transformed, as pavements are widened to allow social distancing, and cafés open new seating areas outdoors.  Many welcome these changes, though others have concerns about their side-effects, especially on congestion.  The Crown Estate has chosen to consolidate them on Regent Street, permanently narrowing the carriageway, adding planters, broadening traffic medians and expanding bus stops.  The changes have met with enthusiasm from some and concerns from others.  Does the Mayor believe there are opportunities to do this elsewhere in London?  If so, how will he help this happen, and how will he respond to concerns about troublesome side effects? 

Could future suburban streets look like this?  By Michael DeMaagd Rodriguez

Third: many claim that new housing can only ever be forced through against the wishes of local communities.  In our widely acclaimed recent paper, Strong Suburbs, we argued that this need not be so: if communities are given control over the form of development and a stake in its benefits, they can become enthusiastic supporters.  Does the Mayor believe local people must always be opponents of new homes, or does he believe that consensual development is possible if communities are empowered and benefitted?

The changes that concern many Londoners are exemplified by the proposals for the ‘Hendon Hub’ on which Barnet Council has recently been consulting. The Hub would involve the addition of 792 student flats to central Hendon, as well as several other Middlesex University buildings.  The University would also take over the current public library building, the library itself being moved to a new space elsewhere.  Most of the development work would replace car parks or poor quality postwar structures, though a number of good Victorian shop buildings would be demolished.

Renderings of the proposed Hendon Hub

There is obviously much to recommend this.  Central Hendon does have plenty of unutilised or poorly utilised spaces, and it is entirely appropriate to redevelop them: gentle densities around town centres foster walkability and support local high streets. The proposal also promises more pedestrian crossings, traffic calming measures, better street lighting, more benches, and better CCTV coverage, all of which is welcome.
There are also questions to be asked. The proposed buildings vary on a stylistic spectrum.  At one end is the rectilinear glass-and-steel style, doubtfully popular anywhere, and not obviously in keeping with the character of Hendon: ‘like three department stores beamed down into a heritage area’, one resident remarked.  Others tend towards ‘New London Vernacular’, the compromise style of recent decades, distinguished for its use of good-quality stock brick claddings.  At its best, New London Vernacular can be both beautiful and appropriate, but its proposed use here seems careless.  Hendon is not a yellow-brick Georgian district: its vernacular is Edwardian and interwar, and red brick is much more characteristic than yellow.  Simply extrapolating New London Vernacular from Inner London into Outer is not always a recipe for contextual sensitivity.

Public buildings on the Burroughs today

This is not the only issue.  The Burroughs, the main affected street, is lined with fine detached buildings, including the Neo-Jacobean Town Hall, the Edwardian Fire Station, and the Neo-Georgian Hendon Library and Middlesex University building, all rightly listed.  What it lacks is not good individual buildings, but low-key urban fabric weaving them together into a stronger streetscape.  Unfortunately this is not, in most cases, what is now being proposed. Although terraced houses will be sensibly infilled at a few points, much of the proposed development consists of large buildings of varying shape, height and setbacks: indeed, the sole surviving terrace of Victorian shops, which might have been a key to an appropriate development, would be demolished. The result may be an overloaded and jumbled streetscape.
This is a good example of where we might hope that the Government’s planning reforms will bring improvement.  Nobody disputes that there is scope for building in Hendon, nor that the new proposals have their good points.  But we still seem to be some way from suburban intensification that wins the support of local communities through sensitive, popular design, and through offering tangible benefits to existing residents. 

Renderings of Kingswood

I have recently been sent the details of Kingswood, a proposed new town in Sussex.  Mention of ‘new towns’ tends to inspire mixed feelings in British people, summoning up images of roundabouts, cul-de-sacs and concrete civic centres.  The proposal for Kingswood reminds us that new towns do not have to be this way.  The town would have three mixed-use neighbourhood centres as well as a large high street, two primary schools, one secondary school, a doctor’s, a dentist’s, and plenty of space for businesses. Greens, street trees, allotments, orchards, playing fields, cycle ways, ponds and historic woods are planned. It would be served by several bus routes, and would have its own railway station. The street network is highly interconnected, in the manner of any historic town, and blocks have clear fronts and backs. The buildings are designed in a gentle Sussex vernacular, suggesting the designers have learnt lessons from Poundbury’s popularity while omitting its occasional bombast. The image is conjured of a genuinely attractive place, a real addition to the Sussex landscape.

Great care seems to have been taken over Kingswood’s masterplan

Of course, there are reasons to be cautious.  There have been objections from local residents concerned about loss of countryside and pressure to infrastructure.  It is absolutely right that the local authority takes these seriously and balances them against housing need in its deliberations.  There are also deep questions about how far Britain should be reorienting its housebuilding away from greenfield sites like this, a theme we have investigated in Strong Suburbs.  Aside from this, there is the perennial question of whether the development would actually live up to the proposals: experience teaches caution, though the developer, Our Place, has a good record for contextually sensitive developments, as in this infill in Spitalfields, on which the scaffolding is currently coming down.

Current work by Our Place in Shoreditch

It is, however, worth stepping back from these questions to appreciate how encouraging it is that proposals like this are being made.  Suppose that all the most cynical suspicions are true, and that the development will be ruthlessly value-engineered after permission is granted: even so, the fact remains that a serious developer is trying to win permission by proposing a town of real architectural and urbanistic merit. Our Place is, to be sure, an unusually good developer, but Kingswood is not a charitable undertaking or the hobby project of a benign landlord.  Only a couple of decades ago, such a proposal would have been hard to imagine.  Surely this constitutes grounds for optimism.

Western Harbour Leith, as envisioned by by ADAM Urbanism

One of the most interesting urban extensions of recent years is Western Harbour Leith, on a large site on the former port of Edinburgh.  Western Harbour is planned to be what we might call a traditional European neighbourhood: a mixed-use, medium density district, laid out in well-defined perimeter blocks. We do not build many of these in the UK: the constraints on suburban intensification and green belt development mean that most homes are added in areas where these gentle densities would be unpopular, financially unviable or impractical due to parking requirements. When a brownfield site does open up in an inner urban area, space tends to be so scarce that it is developed at super-high densities, like the Nine Elms development in London. So Western Harbour is a significant precedent.

Western Harbour as it is emerging today

The urbanism of the development is governed by a masterplan and the architecture by a design code.  Both were written by ADAM Urbanism, though I understand they were constrained in how prescriptive the design code could be. The masterplan is impressive, setting out everything needed for traditional European urbanism to grow: the resultant urban form seems to be a success, or will be once the large gaps between the pockets of development are filled in. The design code was obviously written with great care: it seems to have succeeded in preventing anything spectacularly ugly, and in creating a certain unity of design. It cannot be said, however, that the individual buildings brim with character, and some are undeniably bland.  One thinks regretfully of the masterful design code ADAM Urbanism wrote for Trewolek and Kosti Veur at Newquay, now producing such happy results: perhaps they should have been allowed to write something similarly prescriptive here.

Lancaster Castle

Lancaster Castle has now reopened to visitors, ending its second long closure over the last decade.  It has a surprising history.  Like many of Britain’s castles, Lancaster ceased to serve as a prison in the early twentieth century.  Anomalously however, it was turned back into a prison in 1955.  This was an odd use of a precious piece of architectural heritage, especially one in an inner urban location, but it was not until 2011 that the prison finally closed. 
The Castle has since been extensively refurbished. More of the building has gradually been opened up to visitors, but, pleasingly, parts of it are used in other ways too.  The Duchy of Lancaster has an office in the former debtors’ workshops; Atkinsons, a local coffee roaster and tea merchant, has opened a café in the old kitchen courtyard; Lancaster University leases part of the building as its base in the city centre; and other areas are used for conferences, concerts and plays. The Castle thus continues to fulfil its ancient role as a hub of civic life, though by friendlier means than in times past. It is an atypical story of ‘brownfield’ regeneration, but a good one.

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