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2.47 pm

Lord Best: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, for initiating this debate. I am familiar with the noble Lord’s interest in design from the time when he was Minister with responsibility for architecture. He kindly opened a beautifully designed block of apartments for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, of which I was then the chief executive. I declare my interests as an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and a vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association.

In contributing to this important debate, I will confine my remarks, like those of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, to the design of UK housing, and address three questions. First, how do we recognise good design and where can we actually see it? Secondly, how can we secure better design through an inevitably imperfect planning system? Thirdly, how can we pay for better design when housing is already unaffordably expensive for so many?

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On the first, it is not impossible to witness imaginative and creative design of new homes that fit harmoniously into their local context. Seeing these is believing that good design matters. Although the bulk of house-building in the UK is the subject of blistering criticism from the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), a small number of private developers and quite a few housing associations have produced some really fine modern buildings sympathetic to their surroundings. As the housing associations increase their output, it is right to look to these—now highly professional and well-motivated—social businesses to show the way. Presentation Housing Association’s Angel Town estate in Brixton, Wherry Housing Association’s Brooklands development in Cambridge, the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust’s new Art-Eco scheme in York, and so many more, demonstrate ways of integrating environmentally sustainable new homes into their localities.

However, might these social housing providers, with their captive market, repeat the mistakes of the councils of the 1960s and 1970s which resulted in those dreadful concrete estates and ugly tower blocks that we are now demolishing? I think not, for two reasons. First, the mood of the age is to involve and encourage local people—future residents, consumers, neighbours—in decisions about these developments in a way that eludes the private sector house-builder. Secondly, the now universal practice of building mixed-tenure schemes of both tenants and owners—not segregated, separated welfare housing for the poor—means that homes for sale must satisfy the aspirations of purchasers who are making substantial long-term financial commitments and exercising choice in the marketplace next to the tenants in the social housing. Good examples exist of what we mean by better design. Hopefully, as the housing associations expand their work during the credit crunch now inhibiting other development, there will be increasing numbers of inspiring and influential new developments that we can see with our own eyes.

My second question was how we can secure better design through an inevitably imperfect planning system. How can decisions be taken on good design when the staff of the local planning authority cannot be expected to have the expertise required to make difficult design judgments? Many councillors on the planning committee will have had little training in that discipline. After all, an architecture course lasts five years, and even then it may not include much on urban design. The Local Government Association’s Improvement and Development Agency has a good planning advisory service. English Partnerships gives very good guidance on large-scale planning applications through its ATLAS scheme. At a national level, the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment, as I know from direct experience, comments most helpfully on design aspects of important projects.

How does all that filter through at the local level for the multiplicity of house-building applications? One very sensible answer is through local design review panels of unpaid volunteer experts who meet regularly to offer advice before planning decisions are taken. This commendable arrangement works well in a number of local authorities and could be extended

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to many more. The use of panels was supported by the thoughtful review of house-building delivery from John Callcutt. Although it brings with it some important governance issues—members must have no vested interest, and a regular turnover of members is needed to renew the panel—it has been shown to make a substantial difference to design quality at the local level.

My third question was: how can we pay for better design when housing is already unaffordably expensive for so many? We have heard of the dismal design record of the UK house-building industry, which produces the smallest homes of any EU country; yet our house prices, relative to incomes, are already extraordinarily high. The house-builders argue that better design would add extra expense. Engaging an architect costs money, and better design may well mean higher space standards for greater accessibility—the full lifetime homes standards, the subject of a Question earlier today—and probably the use of more sympathetic and durable materials. To pay for buildings that are designed specifically to fit different local contexts, rather than using standardised pattern-book designs, would add to the cost and push prices further beyond the reach of many purchasers.

If standards are low yet prices are high, where is all the money going at present? The answer is that the cost of land for each new home in this country has risen so far and so fast that, since there is a finite limit to the amount buyers can afford to pay, something has had to give. That something has often been the standards that go with good design. How can we break out of this negative loop of high land costs leading to poor design and bog-standard housing? The answer is by making planning consent conditional upon design requirements, thereby depressing the value of the land. The landowner always gets a residual sum once planning conditions—including requirements to produce a certain number of affordable homes, to achieve environmental standards and perhaps in future to pay a community infrastructure levy—have all been satisfied. Thus it is that the landowner, not the house-builder, ultimately has to absorb the cost of better design.

It is already possible for local planning authorities to turn down developments where the design is abysmal, and I have addressed the question of improving the skills and confidence of planning authorities in answering my earlier question. It is through this route—insisting on design quality, the cost of which must then be factored into the price paid for the land—that standards can be improved without the purchaser or tenant, or even the house-builder, having to foot the bill.

When the new Planning Bill reaches this House, will the Government be sympathetic to amendments that seek to reinforce the design elements in future planning decisions, perhaps through greater use of design review panels, so that the 3 million new homes that will be built in the UK in the next 12 years or so really will be a national asset for our children and our grandchildren?

2.56 pm

Lord Rogers of Riverside: My Lords, I refer your Lordships to my various interests, all of which are listed in the Register of Lords’ Interests. It is almost

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four years since I spoke in your Lordships’ House on architecture and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Howarth on securing this debate. He has excellent timing, as the Planning Bill will be coming before your Lordships in a few weeks. I am impressed, as I often am when I am here, by the way in which quality of design is valued across the parties. I disagree with very little of what I have heard today.

In any civilised society, well designed buildings and glorious public spaces should be a fundamental human right. Better design makes better citizens. Degraded buildings and public spaces degrade society; as Hazel Blears has said, they brutalise us. You need only compare the vitality of Notting Hill with the desolation of many contemporary housing estates to see the truth of that. Beautiful cities, however, do not just happen. From Amsterdam to Barcelona, from Copenhagen to Venice, the cities that we love to visit were created. They are the result of collaboration between clients, architects, builders, government agencies and local authorities.

Ten years after John Prescott asked me to lead the Urban Task Force to assess how we could turn around our failing towns and cities, there is much to celebrate. This is the first Government to have actively encouraged people back into cities, setting clear targets for developing brownfield land and reversing depopulation; it is the first Government to appreciate that the compact, multicentred city is the only socially and environmentally sustainable form of development; and it is the first Government since the early 1940s to have set out a vision for sustainable, long-term change in our cities.

There has been success in creating new agencies and new devolved government, too. In London, we have a mayor who has pledged to accommodate 1 million new residents within the city’s current boundaries. Ken Livingstone has said that all new building should be on previously developed land, has set tough targets for affordable housing and lower CO2 emissions and has established a dedicated design team under my leadership. Cities around the world now look to London. Nationally, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has been a major success, creating a focus for expertise, for design review and for helping to make better buildings, towns and cities across England.

However, there is something wrong when, nine years after the Urban Task Force published its report, we still have no examples of regenerated neighbourhoods and cities in the UK that compare with the best in the world. There is something wrong when the Thames Gateway, Europe’s biggest regeneration project, is still peppering the banks of the beautiful River Thames with shoddy, toy-town houses and Dan Dare glass towers. There is something seriously wrong when new houses across the country form rootless estates that could just as well be in Beijing, Buenos Aires or Belfast—developments that have no regard for the community’s sense of place, belonging or identity.

I fear that we are building the slums of tomorrow. Why is this the case? It should not be. Britain has some of the best architects in the world, as we have heard. Indeed, only the USA has more winners of the Pritzker prize, recognised as the key international

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award for lifetime achievements in architecture. The answer is simple: we are sidelining the talent that we have. In what should be a golden age for British architecture, our output is simply lacklustre.

In November 2005, members of the Urban Task Force produced an update on the original report but, unfortunately, due to numerous ministerial changes over the last two years, no Minister has had time to take it on board or to respond to the recommendations. This exposes a government weakness. It takes at least 15 years and strong leadership for urban visions to become urban realities. In Britain, every policy is watered down through negotiation with countless agencies and every proposal is bogged down in endless process.

As noble Lords may know, the first planes landed and took off from Heathrow’s Terminal 5 today. When my firm started designing this building, I was a much younger man. It was 19 years ago. We have to speed up decision-making. We are entering a new era of devolution. The Government have empowered local authorities to play a stronger role in delivering 3 million new homes by 2020 and to lead the shaping of their towns and cities. This is great news, but to get it right we need to make sure that all agencies have the tools that they need.

What needs to be done? I recommend action as follows. Trained architects should be placed at the heart of decision-making, at ministerial level in government and at cabinet level in local authorities. We must make sure that these design champions have the clout to make a real difference to decision-making. Design quality should be made a central corporate objective for every agency with an impact on the built environment, from the new Homes and Communities Agency to individual housing associations. All planners should have access to advice from skilled architects and vice versa. In my role heading Design for London, I am endlessly impressed by the way in which local authority officers go out of their way to seek advice. We need to make sure that they can get the support that they need. I recommend that we strengthen CABE to provide that support. CABE is one of the great success stories of the urban renaissance, but it needs a stronger regional presence. Why should local planners from Newcastle have to travel to London to get the advice that they need?

I propose that we clarify, simplify and reduce the number of delivery bodies—Thames Gateway, for example, has over 30 authorities and partnerships involved—and move towards establishing single-purpose, area-based delivery bodies. Architectural quality should be central to our public sector procurement. We should make design competitions mandatory where public money is involved, using the guidelines prepared by the Greater London Authority. Every city and district should be required to prepare plans encompassing existing public spaces—the squares, parks and streets where friends and strangers meet—as well as proposals for new space. Why should there not be a right of access to good public space within a few minutes’ walk for every citizen?

In the introduction to the Urban Task Force report, I wrote that local authorities must be empowered to lead the urban renaissance. The Government have

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gone a long way towards ensuring that that happens. Now they need to give our towns and cities the tools to finish the job. I hope that these recommendations will help to put those tools in place. Unless we empower and enable our civic leaders to create beautiful cities, we will not just repeat our past mistakes but condemn our children to live with them and in them.

3.04 pm

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, it is a great honour and privilege to speak immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, who surely knows as much about this subject as any man alive.

In my maiden speech in this Chamber, I expressed the hope that we might have an opportunity to discuss issues of planning and housing in London before too long, so I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, for giving us this opportunity today. It is gratifying that so many of the themes that I wished to touch on have been anticipated, but I hope that I will illustrate them rather than simply repeat them. I fear that I am not so sanguine as some noble Lords have been about the spirit emanating from new Labour. Only the other day, I was talking with someone who was trying to promote quality in design in school building. “Don’t bother with all that”, was the message that he was getting from the department, “just give us boxes to put children in”. Boxes, hutches, what is the difference?

The debate is certainly badly needed, for what we are talking about goes right to the heart of the lives that people lead and the legacy that we leave to future generations. RIBA has said:

But of course what is needed is not just a debate. As RIBA goes on to say, design should be one of the most important considerations in new development. The Planning Bill should be used to entrench design into the planning process. There should be a statutory duty to consider the design quality of planning applications and local authorities should be encouraged to establish local design review panels or appoint local design champions. I would support this, so long as local communities, not just “experts”, were represented. Both the Barker and Calcutt reviews endorsed RIBA’s recommendations and it would be good to hear an assurance from the Minister today that the Government will take these forward. But it is not just a matter of institutional reform. There needs to be a sea change in the culture surrounding the planning process, away from one dominated by the values of hard-faced accountants to one concerned more with quality of life and user friendliness.

In my maiden speech, I hinted at the baleful influence of the planning policies of the London Borough of Hackney on the lives of the residents of Dalston, where I live. The protocol surrounding maiden speeches precluded my going into greater detail on that occasion, but today I am under no such constraint. If I may, therefore, I shall describe for

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your Lordships our experience in Dalston, as I believe that it throws into sharp relief much of what is wrong with development today and what accordingly needs to be put right. Let me straightaway declare an interest as the patron of OPEN, a not-for-profit company of local individuals and businesses committed to promoting excellence in the quality of the built environment.

When we heard that Dalston was to be regenerated, we had high hopes that this derelict, neglected and overcrowded area of east London would rise as a modern phoenix. We anticipated that our few remaining historic buildings would be given a new lease of life and inform the proposed development around them. How naive we were. The proposed development consists of two adjoining sites. The driver of the whole project is a site owned by Transport for London, which is building a new transport hub said to be vital for the Olympics. But there is no direct link to the Olympic site. Had it been 300 yards further on at Dalston Kingsland, it would have linked directly to Stratford as well as being much closer to the commercial heart of Dalston. When we protested about this to the London Development Agency, its reply was simply that this was by no means the only transport hub that was mislocated in this way.

A massively expensive concrete slab over the railway will accommodate an unnecessary and potentially dangerous bus stand, where current routes will be cut short. TfL deployed a kind of circular argument: the bus stand is necessary to enhance the scheme and the scheme is necessary to finance the bus stand. A brutal phalanx of tower blocks of up to 20 storeys will be erected on the slab to help to pay for it. These will blight the environment and bring no benefit to the area. Of their 300-odd dwellings, none is to be affordable. This is in direct contravention of the Government’s policy as affirmed both in this House and in another place. However, when we asked the Secretary of State to use her powers to review the scheme, we were simply told that the transport hub was essential for the Olympics.

The adjoining site is being developed by the London Development Agency. It has similar disadvantages; moreover, it is aesthetically and architecturally unrelated to its neighbour. Together, they represent the worst type of unimaginative and destructive town planning. No more health and other services are to be provided for the total of 550 extra households. Such high density, in an already overcrowded and underresourced area, completely ignores the potential for alienation, anti-social behaviour and vandalism, as we have heard. As a criminologist, I know that this is not the way to build a housing estate.

The two sites are separated by a strip of land overshadowed by the tower blocks, creating a sunless wind tunnel. This is the public space that the inhabitants of Dalston will have to make the best of for their leisure. Both schemes will be divorced from proposed developments on the other side of the road, in a kind of piecemeal development that lacks any coherence. Instead of design-led regeneration, we have the prospect of a sink estate in less than a generation.

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How has the travesty that I have described come about? Three reasons immediately come to mind. The first is a poor understanding of what constitutes good architecture and design on the part of town planners and developers. High-quality architecture and good design do not just consist of buildings, as we have heard. Buildings have context. Good design should blend with and seek to preserve the best of what exists already. That is why the residents of Dalston were so concerned to preserve what little was left of their historic heritage.

The irony of a blind man lecturing your Lordships about architecture will not be lost, but I would say that good design appeals to all the senses. As a native of Edinburgh, I know about well planned squares and streets, gardens and open spaces. Other countries manage these things better. For example, some of your Lordships may be familiar with Montpellier in France, which I recently had the opportunity to visit. It has preserved its historic area, yet it has a modern quarter with a unified design, decent public space, trees and water features. You may say that they have more space in France, but even tightly packed New York has small pocket parks for the refreshment and enjoyment of its citizens.

Secondly, consultation with the public was, to say the least, inadequate, even misleading. OPEN’s submissions were even “lost”—forgive my inverted commas. Nevertheless, local residents mounted vigorous opposition to the destruction of their heritage and the imposition of unlovely and unsuitable developments that were wholly out of character with the area. Their case was comprehensively ignored. The historic buildings were demolished, and a modern Gormenghast will rise in their place. This was said to be a once in a lifetime opportunity for Dalston. Instead, we are offered off-the-shelf, unimaginatively designed blocks of varying height, with no relationship either to the Victorian street pattern or to one another and with little aesthetic coherence.

Thirdly, in direct contravention of planning guidance, these schemes have not preserved heritage buildings or enhanced the cityscape that remains. They meet neither of the mayor’s much vaunted criteria that new housing should be built to the highest architectural standards and that it should be 50 per cent affordable. The council has waived social housing requirements and parking and space standards. The windows of inhabited bedrooms in adjoining blocks will be just five metres apart; Hackney’s official standard is 21 metres. To fund TfL’s bus stand, the council has also leased its site to developers on terms so unfavourable that they required the Secretary of State’s consent. The Secretary of State refused to withhold her consent.

Why should all this be? The answer lies partly in the need to meet external and undisclosed financial imperatives out of a misplaced fear that developers would otherwise walk away, partly in developers’ ability to hoodwink poorly qualified planning officers into accepting substandard designs and partly in the ability of multiple authorities in central and local government to evade responsibility with a cynicism

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bordering on the corrupt. In a country of historically renowned architects and with present-day architects who are changing the face of the world, surely we can do better in our own backyard.

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