The UK not only needs to build many more and better homes, but also to build communities that last.
The Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods Network (SUNN) brings together 13 new communities under development in growth and regeneration areas across England, to study what has or hasn't worked in each community. All share a concern to build healthier communities, safer streets and living places, good design and greater choice of housing, with environmental features that minimise the development’s ecological footprint.
SUNN's report contrasts what we already know from research with the experience of practitioners. As our case studies and profiles show, there is a lot to celebrate. At last, innovations like Community Trusts are being used to create neighbourhoods that should stand the test of time. Community hubs are helping to create more balanced communities, and Combined Heat and Power is being used in some places to cut carbon emissions and fuel bills.
But the extent of development and rate of building is still pitifully small compared with the need, and contrasts poorly with countries like The Netherlands, where the VINEX programme has increased housing stock by 7.6 per cent over ten years. What stood out in particular were the amazing cooperative and self-build schemes (profiled in the Government's new housing strategy). Local authorities such as Almere, Amerfsoort and Houten are leading growth in medium-sized towns and cities and not just relying on planning to achieve results. They are using joint ventures with private developers and municipal banks to access the low-cost, long-term finance needed to install sustainable infrastructure from the start.
The messages about working together are clearly spelt out in SUNN's report and the shorter Solutions publication for local authorities:
The challenge is how to apply common sense in a politically charged environment. Too often we know what is needed but end up building something quite different that ends up having to be demolished after a few decades. These two publications provide tests, guidelines, examples and case studies to make it easier to achieve quality results, and fill some important gaps in the National Planning Policy Framework.
However, government needs to lead the way, and not leave so much to chance. Dutch, German and Scandinavian experience shows how to cut the costs of procurement, and thus build many more and better homes than we have been doing. A good place to start is to reform the process for auctioning off sites, and to use public land as equity and a means of increasing choice. Another is to use the Mortgage Indemnity Scheme to provide extra loans for homes built to the highest environmental standards, such as Code level 6.
While property values vary hugely across the country, building costs do not. It is no longer realistic to expect private developers or housing associations to take the lead in recycling damaged land in regeneration areas. Section 106 Agreements are being renegotiated everywhere. We need to pull together, rather than trying to tie everything down in legal agreements. We need local vision, not only to get costs down, but also to greatly increase the social and environmental value of what we build.
By sharing experience more effectively through networks such as SUNN we can produce much better returns than we are currently getting for the same investment.