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.