FIRST­PER­SON

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Overseas -

re there three words in the English lan­guage more ter­ri­fy­ing than “new hous­ing es­tate”? One merely has to roll them off the tongue to break into a cold sweat, as one imag­ines a syl­van land­scape swal­lowed up by an il­las­sort­ment of jerry-built houses scat­tered around swirls of cul-de-sacs.

Last week the Com­mis­sion for Ar­chi­tec­ture and the Built En­vi­ron­ment (CABE), a quango set up by the Gov­ern­ment to im­prove the stan­dard of new hous­ing in Bri­tain, pub­lished an au­dit of 293 new hous­ing de­vel­op­ments, re­veal­ing how bad it be­lieves hous­ing de­sign has be­come.

Only 18 per cent of the de­vel­op­ments, it con­cluded, showed ei­ther “good” or “very good” de­sign; 29 per cent of them were so poor that they should never have been given plan­ning per­mis­sion.

I don’t dis­sent from some of the ghast­li­ness iden­ti­fied by CABE: badly pro­por­tioned win­dows, ex­ces­sive ex­panses of Tar­mac; street pat­terns which close them­selves off from the sur­round­ing ur­ban or rural land­scape. But I won­der whether a body of state-spon­sored ar­biters of taste re­ally is the best way to im­prove Bri­tain’s dis­mal record in hous­ing de­sign. In­deed, many of the bad prac­tices iden­ti­fied by CABE were not de­vel­oped by the vol­ume house­builders, who are gen­er­ally pre­pared to build what­ever they are told to, but were in­spired by the last gen­er­a­tion of state plan­ners.

The cul-de-sac is now blamed for all man­ner of so­cial ills, from in­creased bur­glary to dis­in­tre­gra­tion of the com­mu­nity. And yet as re­cently as the 1990s, plan­ners were en­cour­ag­ing de­vel­op­ers to build dead­end streets in the be­lief that they pro­moted road safety. The same is true of the bog­stan­dard, neo-Vic­to­rian town­house which has sprung up on ev­ery new de­vel­op­ment from Pen­zance to Thurso: many plan­ning au­thor­i­ties in­sisted on them in the be­lief that they some­how “fit­ted in” with ex­ist­ing towns.

Ad­mit­tedly, CABE boasts slightly more qual­i­fied de­sign­ers on its team than does your av­er­age dis­trict coun­cil. But still one senses that the ideas em­a­nat­ing from its au­dit will in turn come to be seen as the epit­ome of naffness in 20 years’ time. I can’t say I am hugely im­pressed by the hous­ing de­vel­op­ments which CABE praises: to me, the cor­ru­gated steel roofs of the Farn­bor­ough Road de­vel­op­ment in Birm­ing­ham make it look like a light in­dus­trial es­tate.

One of CABE’s great­est bug­bears ap­pears to be brick-built gable ends with few or no win­dows, prais­ing in­stead the use of brightly coloured ren­dered walls with large glass win­dows. Sure, there are some hor­rid mod­ern es­tates with lots of gable ends in view, but I could show CABE scores of farm­houses with beau­ti­ful brick-built gable ends.

There is no set of gen­eral rules which one can lay down to en­sure good build­ing. Rather the his­tory of vol­ume house-build­ing is lit­tered with good in­no­va­tions that quickly be­came the height of drea­ri­ness when masspro­duced in hous­ing es­tates. The bay win­dows in C A Voy­sey’s Arts & Crafts houses soon be­came bas­tardised when copied into al­most ev­ery in­ter-war semi. Sim­i­larly, clas­si­cally pro­por­tioned cres­cents and cir­cuses, while beau­ti­ful in Bath, are in dan­ger of look­ing ridicu­lous when trans­posed into a hous­ing es­tate of mod­ern boxes and Ford Mon­deos.

The rea­son there is such a dreary same­ness about mod­ern hous­ing is that too many of our homes are be­ing built by the same peo­ple, in ac­cor­dance with the same set of rules. The plan­ning sys­tem now dis­crim­i­nates in favour of vol­ume builders, who are able to build on a scale which makes it easy for plan­ners to stick to their zoned plans, and against in­di­vid­u­als: when did you last see a rea­son­able-sized sin­gle build­ing plot for sale?

More­over, forc­ing all new de­vel­op­ments to go past plan­ning com­mit­tees pre­vents some mon­strosi­ties be­ing built, but it also weeds out ec­cen­tric ar­chi­tec­tural fan­tasies that could go on to be­come much-loved build­ings. The de­vel­op­ments which do get past com­mit­tees tend to be to ar­chi­tec­ture what Tesco is to food: per­fectly de­cent in many ways, but dif­fi­cult to get ex­cited about.

There is much truth to CABE’s di­ag­no­sis of what has gone wrong. But I dread to think of a Bri­tain de­signed en­tirely in ac­cor­dance with its de­sign codes, or, for that mat­ter, with the stric­tures is­sued by any one group of peo­ple. What we need is a lit­tle less town plan­ning and a lit­tle more of a free-for-all.

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