Building better places Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

Why does the built environment matter?

1.The built environment affects us all. The planning, design, management and maintenance of the built environment, and its interaction with the natural environment, has a long-term impact upon people and communities. The quality of life, prosperity, health, wellbeing and happiness of an individual is heavily influenced by the place in which they live or work and, in this way, place shapes us. Striving to develop a built environment where all people can live well and make a full contribution to society should be a key objective for decision makers.

2.The shape, structure, look and feel of a place is largely a result of decisions taken regarding the built environment. These decisions can be taken by a multiplicity of actors including different government departments, local authorities, infrastructure providers, executive agencies and private individuals. This is a complex picture, within which integration can be difficult.

3.The scale and scope of the challenge facing decision makers is also intense. The 2014 Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment highlighted concerns regarding fragmentation of policy making across the field, and skills challenges facing the major professions charged with crafting and caring for our built environment. Recent months have seen an intensification in national policy initiatives intended to address the housing crisis; they have also seen widespread and devastating flooding, along with frustration over delays to major infrastructure decisions.

The focus of the Committee

4.It is against this backdrop that we present this report, which is our attempt to identify a coherent set of responses to these challenges. On 11 June 2015 this Committee was appointed by the House “to consider the development and implementation of national policy for the built environment, and to make recommendations”.1

5.The focus of our report is upon England, given the extent of devolution across the relevant policy areas. Examples of practice, both good and bad, from the other nations of the UK were, however, highlighted in the evidence that we received.

6.Local authorities play a crucial role in shaping the built environment of the communities within their boundaries. In undertaking our work we have, necessarily, been required to consider the impact of national policy upon local authorities and other sub-national agencies and organisations that play a part in developing and maintaining the built environment.

7.Provisions within the Housing and Planning Bill, currently before the House of Lords, could potentially have an impact upon some of the topics considered within this report. We were not established to scrutinise the Bill, and our report considers matters which range much wider than its contents. Our call for evidence was published three months before the Bill was first presented to Parliament. We did, though, receive evidence relevant to the ongoing discussions regarding the Bill’s provisions, and have addressed much that is relevant to the Bill. We have made observations based on our evidence where appropriate.

Putting the built environment in context

8.Decisions concerning the built environment need to take account of, and respond to, a diverse range of contextual changes and constraints. Such challenges include, for example, the changing demography of the country, with projections suggesting that the UK population will increase to 74.3 million by mid-2039. This is an average annual growth rate of 0.6%, and represents a 9.7 million increase over a period of 25 years.2 This extra population will need to be housed, will need places of work and leisure, and will place additional demands on land, space and infrastructure. The population will also be older; by mid-2039 one in 12 of the population is projected to be aged 80 or over.3 Built environment policy will need to account for these changes.

9.In addition, the built environment needs to respond to climate change. The Foresight Land Use Futures project concluded that:

“The potential role of land and land use in both climate change mitigation and adaptation will be profound. The move to a low-carbon economy will increasingly influence land use decisions, settlement patterns, the design of urban environments and choices on transport infrastructure”.4

10.The response to such challenges needs to take account of new technologies and the role that they might play in ensuring new developments are suitable and sustainable for the long-term. This is, however, only one part of the solution; 90% of the buildings and infrastructure that will exist in 30 years have already been built.5 The management, adaptation and utilisation of the existing built environment is also, therefore, of central importance.

11.The context for built environment decisions also varies across the country. The housing market, the demand for employment land, the extent of infrastructure provision and many other factors are subject to extensive regional variations. The circumstances that apply in London and the south east are typically different to those in, for example, the south west or north east. Policymakers—at the local and national level—must account for such differences and their implications for place.

12.We were told that the quality of local places could be defined in terms of five characteristics. They are:

Beauty within the built environment is also important; we were told that “the appreciation of beauty is something that is much valued by the public—in one poll, 81% of those surveyed responded that everyone should be able to experience beauty regularly, with only 3% disagreeing”.7

13.Places that are of poor quality, and that fail to function and perform effectively, can have multiple negative impacts upon people and communities. Box One sets out some of these implications.

Box 1: The multiple impacts of poor quality places

Our evidence has illustrated that a poor quality built environment and poor quality places can have significant negative impacts for health, wellbeing, prosperity and happiness.

We were told, for example, that loss of biodiversity and lack of access to green space can result in direct negative impacts on mental and physical health. Natural England has estimated that if each household in England was provided with equitable access to quality green space then savings of £2.1bn could be achieved every year in averted health costs. At present, the distribution of areas with high levels of social exclusion typically coincides with areas of sparse green space which is of limited quality.

The interaction between people and transport—particularly traffic—can have significant impacts. It is well known that congestion and heavy levels of traffic have negative health implications; Public Health England, in a 2014 report, estimated that 5.6% of all deaths in over-25s in England were linked to air pollution, although the figures vary considerably by region. Heavy levels of traffic also contribute to noise pollution; about 10% of the UK population is thought to live in areas where daytime sound levels exceed those which the World Health Organisation considers detrimental to health, and 34% in areas where night-time sound levels exceed 50 decibels. It is known that continuous internal noise of over 30 decibels disturbs sleep.

The quality of streets and the public realm is also important; poor quality pavements and dimly-lit streets make many older people less likely to venture out, contributing to social isolation. The estimated annual cost of falls among older people is £1 billion each year and almost two thirds of general and acute hospital beds are occupied by people aged over 65.

In addition, poor quality housing has an impact upon health and welfare. The Building Research Establishment has estimated that the total health cost to the NHS of poor housing is in the region of £1.4 to £2 billion per year for England. There is also an economic and environmental cost from poorly performing buildings; we were told studies had found that in many cases homes and offices were found to be consuming up to four times their designed energy usage.

All of these factors reinforce the need for the planning system—and the many other decision processes that help to form our built environment—to take account of the multiple ways in which decisions impact upon people and places.

Sources: Written evidence from Anchor (BEN0026), Canterbury Society (BEN0107), CIWEM (BEN0078), Innovate UK (BEN0147), Department for Communities and Local Government (BEN0200), Transport and Health Study Group (BEN0094), McCarthy and Stone (BEN0218), Public Health England (BEN0186), Parks Alliance (BEN0133)

The work of the Committee

14.Over the course of our inquiry we received 187 submissions of written evidence and took oral evidence from 58 witnesses in 27 evidence sessions. The Committee also carried out two visits, to Birmingham and to Southwark, visiting a range of sites and meeting with local authority members, staff and university representatives. We are grateful to all those who gave up their time to make the visits worthwhile, and to all those who gave evidence to the Committee.

15.We are also grateful to Matthew Carmona, Professor of Planning and Urban Design at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London, who served as the Committee’s Specialist Adviser.

16.Our report concentrates on:

We make 66 conclusions and recommendations, which are summarised at the end of this report.

1 HL Deb, 11 June 2015, col 891

2 Office for National Statistics, ‘What do the 2014-based national population projections show?’: (October 2015): [accessed on 5 February 2016]

3 Office for National Statistics, National population projections, 2014-based statistical bulletin (October 2015): [accessed on 5 February 2016]

4 Government Office for Science, Foresight Land Use Futures Project (2010) Executive summary, p 13: [accessed on 4 February 2016]

5 Written evidence from Innovate UK (BEN0147) and Living Streets (BEN0010)

6 Written evidence from the Place Alliance (BEN0143)

7 Written evidence from ResPublica (BEN0044)

© Parliamentary copyright 2016