15 November 2021
Are developers really “driving down design quality”?
Housing is a big topic these days. In his latest Budget statement, for example, the Chancellor confirmed a £24bn investment in housing spanning multiple years, with £11.5bn earmarked for up to 180,000 affordable new homes.

However, the design quality of new developments (and indeed developers’ commitment to the provision of affordable housing) has recently come under scrutiny in an inquiry led by the House of Lords’ newly established Built Environment Committee. In a series of meetings, the Committee has been taking oral evidence from some of the biggest names in the built environment industry, revealing some startling insights about current design standards.

“Lowest quality” for “maximum financial returns”

David Birkbeck, director of campaign group Design for Homes, pointed the finger at big developers whose “business model” it is to build “as cheaply as they dare” in order to maximise what they are able to bid for land, and at large public sector landlords such as the NHS who “sell land to the highest bidder” in order to maximise their financial gain, despite knowing it will diminish quality.

This, he said, creates a situation whereby developers are unable to comply with local authorities’ planning and quality requirements due to the exorbitant price they have paid for the land they are constructing on. Instead, they will “pretend” they can meet these requirements, “and then when they get on site they go back to what they wanted to build.” Many achieve this through a process called ‘zero plotting’, whereby developers calculate how to build the maximum possible number of homes in a given space by reducing outside space (such as gardens and parking) to the minimum square footage imposed by regulations.

A system that allows “poor behaviour”

Another of those to give evidence was David Orr CBE, chair of the Good Home Inquiry at the Centre for Ageing Better. He argued that the way the planning system currently works also encourages poor practices from developers – for example, the Affordable Homes Viability Assessment (AHVA). Section 106 agreements (under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990) are legally binding contracts between planning authorities and developers that, among other things, oblige housebuilders to dedicate a certain percentage of the development to affordable housing. However, the AHVA process gives developers the opportunity to challenge the level of affordable housing mandated by the local authority – which they justify because of the high price they have paid for land.

“This creates an absolutely absurd position whereby some developers have a vested interest in the land price being high so that they can avoid doing things on the development that they do not want to do,” Mr Orr concluded. Clearly, this further exacerbates the vicious circle of high land prices leading to low quality builds.

Implementing design standards

Worryingly, evidence from the inquiry suggests that developers are getting away with poor quality builds due to a lack of enforcement from under-resourced local councils. Mr Birkbeck commented, “There is no enforcement action at any scale in Britain.” Meanwhile, Mr Orr pointed to the “hugely differential power relationship” between developers and councils, with developers pitting “the legal teams they can afford” against “small, overworked, under-resourced, cash-strapped local authority planning departments”.

In an attempt to shore up design standards, the government in June published its National Model Design Code, which “sets a baseline standard of quality and practice which local authorities are expected to take into account when developing local design codes and guides and when determining planning applications.” Those giving evidence at the inquiry, however, are less than sure about its potential success. Mr Birkbeck said: “I am not 100% sure that it is good enough yet, and I think there are mistakes in it.” He continued: “In the end, I genuinely think it is not as important as setting design targets for the sale of land in a developer agreement. The one thing that works well in Britain is the law. If you build it into a contract, most people will respect that.”

A long way to go

Clearly, there is a long way to go on the path to eliminating the issues identified in the Built Environment Committee’s housing inquiry, which are so instrumental in perpetuating poor quality building practices. Whilst codes of practice and governmental recommendations are all very well, it is obviously not doing enough to put a stop to some of the more nefarious practices within the housebuilding sector.

Hopefully, one of the outcomes of the Built Environment Committee’s inquiry will be recommendations to enforce better quality design and build homes that are truly equipped for the future.