Homes fit for purpose? By Will Hatchett

19 Jan 06
Over a million new homes are projected for the over-crowded Southeast. A planning and design abomination or a sensible way to provide pleasant, affordable homes for ordinary people? Will Hatchett went to one of the growth areas, Ashford, to find out

20 January 2006

Over a million new homes are projected for the over-crowded Southeast. A planning and design abomination – or a sensible way to provide pleasant, affordable homes for ordinary people? Will Hatchett went to one of the growth areas, Ashford, to find out

Ashford on a freezing day in mid-winter is not, it has to be said, the world's most enticing prospect. But Public Finance is paying a visit because the Kentish town is a key strand in New Labour's housing vision for the UK. For Ashford, aka the 'gateway to Europe', is one of the four growth areas identified in John Prescott's Sustainable Communities plan. The others are Milton Keynes south, the Stansted corridor and the Thames Gateway. Between them, they are set to accommodate more than a million new homes by 2016, when those promised in the plan are added to existing regional projections. This is an ambitious house-building programme, easily the largest since the second phase of new towns in the 1960s.

Ashford is the fastest growing town in Britain. But what is it like to live in? And are the government's large-scale experiments in urbanism likely to work? PF is here to find out. A good start has been made on the 30,000 projected new homes but, at first, it is hard to find them. The town's main physical assets are its historic town centre, its McArthurGlen shopping centre – a giant blancmange on stilts designed by Lord Richard Rogers – and its huge international railway station, which looks like something made out of Meccano by a small boy.

Out of the centre, it is very like Milton Keynes – roads with bucolic names, superstores and lots of roundabouts. In between them, new houses are springing up like mushrooms. Spec-built by volume builders, these are the kind of dwellings that famous architects like Rogers would probably sniff at – terraced, high-density town-houses, semi-detached two and three-bedders and detached 'executive homes', with pseudo-classical porches and imitation coaching lamps.

Steve and Carol have just moved into Running Foxes Lane, on the Highland Park development in Singleton. The half-completed estate will eventually contain about 200 homes. Created by Hillreed Homes, the brand-new environment looks quite attractive. The variegated house designs feature wall-hung tiles and typical Kentish weatherboarding. There is imaginative detailing, like lead flashing, and attractive landscaping. The nascent community already has a village hall, a shopping centre and an ancient-looking pub, fashioned from an old tithe barn.

Despite the cold and rain, Steve is polishing his Ford Zeta with a sponge. Well, it is Sunday. He and Carol seem delighted with their three-bedroom semi, which cost £193,000. Carol says: 'We've always said that we would never buy a new house. But these seem to be pretty good. They are designed to conserve energy and to save money.'

Steve and Carol both work within a mile of the house – Steve in IT, Carol for a bank. They both have a car. When pressed, Carol can think of only one major downside of living in Running Foxes Lane. She says: 'I cannot get my four-year-old daughter into the local school, even though it is virtually next door. They are building new houses, but the local schools are full. It's really terrible, as the journey to school takes 35 minutes.'

Under the Sustainable Communities plan, unveiled in February 2003, the whole of southern England is set to be peppered with new developments like Highland Park. All of them will include 'affordable' housing for part-purchase and rent, provided by housing associations. Most of the homes will feature excellent thermal insulation, some with optional solar panels and 'green electricity'. Many will be quite small but, in the best cases, they will have access to well-planned communal facilities, have attractive, space-saving layouts and be sensitive to local design traditions.

Funded with more than £600m through regional development agencies and housing boards, English Partnerships and a plethora of planning, training and education bodies, the Sustainable Communities plan will, in some cases, expand existing towns and in others create corridor settlements, with patches of greenery in between.

Sir Peter Hall, professor of planning and regeneration at University College London, calls this development model 'beads on a string'. He believes (he is somewhat in a minority) that the plan is a welcome return to positive planning on a grand scale. 'I am for it and I hope it succeeds,' he says.

The plan, he thinks, might eventually be regarded as a monument to its architect, John Prescott. He comments, perhaps surprisingly: 'I think that Prescott will come to be seen as an important figure in the history of British planning. I think he is the equal of Lewis Silkin, Richard Crossman and Michael Heseltine. He is certainly high up in that pantheon.'

But Hall does see some potential problems with transport links – for example, the prohibitive cost of resignalling railway lines in Essex, in the Thames Gateway. That will be one of the keys to success or failure.

Like most New Labour policies, the plan was designed to tick all the right boxes and to please as many people as possible. In reality, it has met with an extremely mixed reception. The Campaign to Protect Rural England and similar bodies fear for their beloved countryside. They mutter about the dangers of building on flood plains and say that an over-concentration of new building in the South is hardly 'sustainable'. The Local Government Association and the Environment Agency are also concerned about flooding and pressure on an already over-stretched infrastructure.

Just before Christmas, Lord Rogers, whose team published the highly influential Urban Taskforce report in 1999, produced a new analysis, Towards a strong urban renaissance. In it, Rogers criticises a confusing plethora of funding regimes in the four growth areas and warns of the danger of building large numbers of homes in already congested places. Above all, he slates the 'poor design' that is likely to be produced by volume house builders.

The government's design adviser, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, is also worried about the design quality of recent regeneration schemes. The commission recently rated almost a third of new housing developments in the Northeast as 'poor'.

Even New Labour's favourite think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, has reservations about the plan. A recent IPPR study, Gateway people, was based on prospective tenants of the Thames Gateway and people already living there in deprived areas due to be redeveloped. The report predicts that unless the process is well managed, public services could be overloaded in the Thames Gateway and the mixing of different income groups and races could lead to social tensions. People's image of 'social housing' is surprisingly poor.

The report says: 'Although people want to be able to live in a house that is affordable they certainly don't want to live in something called “affordable housing”.' It warns of the potential lack of access to community services and of 'monotonous, characterless homes designed purely to minimise cost'.

The houses in Running Foxes Lane, with their dinky porches and dormer windows, would probably make Rogers splutter over his cappuccino. But Dermot Finch, director of the IPPR'S Centre for Cities, takes a different perspective. He comments: 'We are bothered about jobs, enterprise and investment, Richard is bothered about design. He would say the focus on economics in regeneration has squeezed out design quality and that communities will decline due to poor architecture. We would say: “If people don't have jobs, you can whistle about design, frankly”.'

In any case, good design, argues Finch, is in the eye of the beholder. He says: 'Some people would look at a housing estate and say: “Oh God, isn't it dreadful?” But actually the people who live there quite like it. You've got to be careful about being patronising and middle-class about these things.'

Rogers' latest report also criticises England's conurbations – Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield – whose glitzing up, known as the 'urban renaissance', is the second prong of Prescott's urban policy. Rogers describes a middle-class flight from the northern city centres, leaving a distorted demographic of affluent single people and poor ethnic minority families. Rogers believes wooing white middle-class families should be a policy priority.

Again, Finch disagrees. He says: 'Is middle-class white flight really happening? It's not 100% clear. What we would say is that the epicentres of cities are inherently more suited to young people without kids. We would say you can't force families with kids to live where there aren't the open spaces and infrastructure to support them. It's more sensible to encourage family development in out-of-centre living spots. We would differ with Richard on that.'

On one thing, he agrees wholeheartedly with Rogers. In terms of the funding mechanisms for housing, regeneration and infrastructure, confusion rules. He says: 'In places like the Thames Gateway, powers over economic development, transport, housing and planning are not in the right place. Because they are not vested in, say, a city region, every spatial level has got a finger in the pie. You've got national government, regional government and sub-regional government. What we would like, urgently, is a better alignment of functions like transport and skills at the right level so you know who is in the lead and who is just following. At the moment, it's all over the place.'

Finch's observation is obviously true. Commentators predicted last year that David Miliband, the minister for communities and local government, would take a sharp knife to the somewhat bloated Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and rationalise redundant and overlapping delivery bodies. In reality, he has not done a Heseltine or a Crossman and sorted it out – his stock take was as timid and deferential as his approach to local government reorganisation appears to be.

The important question of the heavy costs of new roads, rail links, schools, parks and hospitals in the four growth areas has not been entirely resolved. Observers had hoped that the chancellor would introduce a planning gain supplement in his Pre-Budget Report in December – a 'windfall tax' for developers on the hugely increased value of greenfield land granted planning permission. The money could have helped to pay for social assets. Volume house builders were bitterly opposed. But Brown ducked the issue by merely announcing a consultation.

Hall thinks that this was a golden opportunity lost and that growth areas and inner-city urban renaissance could heavily lose out as a result. He says: 'The earliest that a supplement could now happen is about 2007, just before a general election. Developers are obviously going to say: “We are not going to pay this supplement because we'll just wait for David Cameron to win the election and repeal it.” This will create delay.'

He adds: 'Many of us believe that developers are already jeopardising the government's plans by not bringing forward houses in sufficient quantities. They are making far more profit out of seeing the value of land rise than in building homes. It is money for old rope.'

Several other aspects of Brown's Pre-Budget Report were evasive. In response to Kate Barker's 2004 recommendations on the national housing shortage, the chancellor promised a 'generous allocation' for social housing in his 2007 Spending Review. But he declined to set a specific target. He also failed to set a 'market affordability' goal for private housing.

One suspects the feel-good factor of a rising housing market takes precedence for the government, given New Labour's Thatcherite fetish for home ownership. Brown did announce a shared equity scheme for first-time buyers, agreed with three lenders. But wouldn't it be better for him to make housing more affordable generally than to give people shares in an over-valued commodity? Anyway, observers say that the scheme is piecemeal – it will help only about 20,000 households between now and 2010.

In Ashford, a new three-bedroom house, at the moment, costs from £170,000 to £200,000. Those kinds of prices would be far out of reach for a family on a modest or single income, buying its first home. It is fortunate for John Prescott's growth areas, whose main tenure is home ownership, that property inflation is currently modest.

According to ODPM statistics, Ashford is set to provide 13,100 new homes by 2016 and 31,000 new homes and 28,000 new jobs by 2031. The town, only a small way into the programme, is already, from what PF saw and heard, experiencing significant problems. Local schools are struggling to accommodate their increased intakes and the town's ring road is clogged with rush-hour traffic.

Perhaps the doubters of the Sustainable Communities plan are right. Perhaps it is not sensible to increase hugely the number of new homes in places where a lot of people live already. But, in some ways, John Prescott did not have a choice.

Creating a wave of new towns on the green belt would have been far too controversial. He chose the easier option, boosting housing targets in four regions that were already set for expansion. To describe this concept as 'sustainable' seems audacious. But maybe that will be Prescott's true legacy: rebadging something planned already and giving it a fancy name?

Will Hatchett is editor of Environmental Health News


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