Will better design really reduce opposition to development?

As the General Election campaign gets underway, Robert Jenrick may not be Housing and Communities Secretary for much longer, which is a shame given his evident passion for design, conservation and heritage.

Just days before the election was called, Jenrick gave a landmark speech at a joint Policy Exchange and Create Streets event, highlighting a new drive aimed at protecting heritage and ensuring quality design in new development.

The speech coincided with publication of the latest MHCLG survey providing insight into the public’s attitudes towards housebuilding.  The data is drawn from the long running and respected British Social Attitudes survey.

As we head into the election campaign, is Jenrick’s design and heritage-led agenda in touch with the public’s priorities? And what insight can we gain from this survey?

Is Jenrick right that poor design is the problem behind resistance to new housing?

As he started his speech at Policy Exchange, Jenrick set out his vision.  He referenced how some of his predecessors set out to build more homes, reform the planning system and breathe new lives into communities.

Although Jenrick wishes to carry forward those torches, he noted that none of his predecessors asked what new homes should look like or how they relate to each other.  Therefore, he is launching new heritage and design initiatives, aimed at improving the quality of neighbourhoods, new and existing.

In the speech, he referenced the latest MHCLG survey figures as proof that people care about quality, beauty and a sense of place, stating that almost 70% of those people who believe new homes are well-built are more likely to support new development in their area.

However, a closer look into these figures could paint a different picture. They show:

  • A significantly higher proportion (46%) of people already think that new build homes are well designed compared to those who think they are poorly designed (23%).
  • People who felt new homes are well designed were only marginally more likely to support more homes being built in their local area (61%) versus those who felt new build homes are poorly designed (53%). That’s just an 8% difference.
  • People who felt new homes are well built were more likely to support more homes being built in their area (65%) than those who felt new homes were badly built (53%).

Interestingly, in his speech Jenrick cited the last question, regarding build quality, instead of the second question focusing on design, showing around 40% of people will be against new homes being built, regardless of what they look like. Support for new homes goes up by 8%, when people consider them well designed, although design is a subjective term to some, as people’s tastes tend to vary; so, it may not be a clear indicator of how design will impact views about new development.

Regardless of this, 46% vs 23% think that new homes are well designed, which suggests that badly designed homes may not even be a major issue.  Well built houses – as the NHBC would attest – are actually something completely different and the two measures should not be confused in this way.

The generational and tenure gap

The survey also highlights how renters (47%) and younger people (50%) are more likely to be buying new homes than homeowners (35%) and older people (29%). This is of interest, as homeowners (28%) and older people (27%) are more likely to oppose new homes being built in their areas; in comparison, renters (13%) and younger people (14%), would be less inclined to do so.

Amidst a housing shortage, we see a disparity between older homeowners, more likely to oppose new development and less likely to buy new homes versus younger renters, less likely to oppose new development but more likely to buy new homes.

It is challenging to change the minds of those against development. For instance, the survey finds that those aware of developer contributions towards affordable homes and funding for local service provision are still unlikely to support more homes being built in their local area compared with those who are unaware. In fact, it makes no difference.

These findings show that there is no silver bullet for developers facing stiff resistance to new homes. It remains a complex issue, dependent on a number of factors which need to be navigated at the pre-application stage.

Robert Jenrick is embarking on a role as a national design champion, but it is unclear there is any data to back up his crusade on this matter.  Create Streets may have found the ultimate champion for their agenda, but the initiative may prove to be built on shallow foundations.

Should the Conservatives win or lose, it is uncertain whether Jenrick will remain as Housing and Communities Secretary. If he does move on, the question on everyone’s mind will be the fate of his legacy, and whether his successors continue his design-led agenda.