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he new Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has joined Oliver Letwin’s offensive on poor quality house design, promising system-wide changes to the “broken” planning system to try and leverage quality. He is promoting a package of measures in the wake of the National Design Guide which he launched at the Stirling Prize ceremony in October, and which has received less than a glowing response from the architectural community so far.

However, Jenrick is not explicitly targeting architects delivering poor design, but large developers, many of whom do not use external architects for housebuilding. A survey by architect Robert Guy at Bristol practice Arturus found in 2015 that the top 25 housebuilders directly employed a grand total of 46 architectural firms, with three practices making up half of that list.

The Secretary of State says he will shortly unveil a planning White Paper (based on the Letwin Review into housebuilding) which will radically reform the “exceptionally complex and convoluted planning system” that has developed over the past 75 years. Jenrick said he was welcoming comments from industry.

He was putting the focus on community involvement as well as industry, saying that the White Paper would attempt to make the system work for “consumers who interact with it,” small builders “of which we need far more,” as well as large developers.

Few would argue with those precepts, however the Housing Department’s ‘model design code,’ due to be issued in the new year nationally and then rolled out locally, is likely to be where the battles emerge in the architectural sphere. Guidance is to be welcomed, but the more prescriptive (and therefore potentially useful on the ground) it is, the more it’s likely to raise questions. One hopes it’s been properly consulted on within the industry.

Each local authority is going to have to create its own code based on the national model, incorporating local architectural traditions and community viewpoints. This is obviously a sensible concept, however rigour in ensuring that quality reaches a general benchmark might be at risk of disappearing in a fog of focus groups, where construction and architectural knowledge might come second to potentially more subjective concerns.

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The big question of course is whether the quality can be preserved across the board when the numbers required are immense, particularly in London, which the ONS estimates needs 844,000 new homes by 2041. Fewer than 54,000 have been built in the previous two years. Across the UK, new private housing numbers fell over the summer, driven by Brexit uncertainty, but the industry is struggling to get near the 300,000 home target.

Modular could be the answer which delivers on both the quality and speed fronts, and it’s being adopted in various pockets of the industry. However, whether the mainstream housebuilding industry wants to, or can adapt to such a big shift in its supply chain in time, is doubtful (law firm Pinsent Masons reckon around 15,000 of the current 200,000 homes built annually are modular). Jenrick may find that builders need much more financial as well as design guidance.

James Parker Editor


ON THE COVER... intu Watford by Leslie Jones Architecture has undergone a major extension and refurbishment to give visitors a new exciting and even uplifting experience by incorporate leisure amenities.


Leslie Jones Architecture extends and refurbishes a centre to provide retail and leisure excitement, plus engagement with the high street

SERPENTINE COFFEE HOUSE, LONDON A sculptural new cafe for Hyde Park resembles a smiling stingray

For the full report on this project, go to page 37



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