“Good design costs more and takes longer to deliver”

COMMENT: The only silver lining of the very very dark cloud that is the Grenfell Tower disaster is that the mind of Her Majesty’s Government is now powerfully focussed on improving building design quality.

The wondrous Steve Quartermain, UK chief planner at CLG, staged an excellent event this morning entitled “Raising design quality symposium” orchestrated by Andy Von Bradsky (our Design Man in Marsham Street) and hosted by Ben Derbyshire, president of the RIBA (a man who is clearly on a roll right now). And a most laudable effort it was. Housing and planning minister Alok Sharma had personally instigated the event and had taken a very keen interest. He opened with a keynote address, and a clarion call to arms, saying “73% of people have said they would support the building of new homes, provided they are of quality and fit in with the local character”.

Well! If you get over the use of the term “symposium” and the Pecha Kucha slide shows (we forgive you Andy, we were in the RIBA after all) it is seriously good to see that the broad objective of Government is now to develop a programme of activity across national policy and programmes that “collectively raises the ambition and bar to create a legacy of development that is sustainable, healthy and highly valued”. As the officials, led by David Waterhouse, eloquently pointed out: there are good examples of high quality development which show that industry has the skills and capability to deliver world class outcomes, yet there are challenges to achieving this consistently.

So….. the event included all sorts of the great ‘n’ good, from multiple sectors, all keen to discuss the challenges and opportunities that raising design quality presents for places, developers, their professional advisers and communities. Along with the Hhousing and planning minister and his officials, a number of housing industry presenters gave presentations of the key issues with some powerful images – of good and bad. There was then further discussion in breakout sessions. And the deal was that the outcome of all these discussions and ideas will be collated into a resultant action note.  

There is always a danger with these things that you end up with a lot of design luvvies talking amongst themselves (see blog 11th July 2017 for the last time I complained about this phenomenon) so thank the good gawd for Chris Tinker of Crest Nicholson who gave a powerful insight into the commercial imperative saying, with welcome candour, “good design costs more and takes longer to deliver”, which was refreshingly honest (and one of my perpetual bugbears, since the days of the Urban Task Force Report of 1999!). And I am delighted to report that I was sitting on a table with Lee Crawford of Persimmon, who was most articulate and compelling in explaining the constraints of volume house builders, saying his greatest guiding tool is “Building for Life” (the Design Council/CABE Industry Standard) and that every application they submit has a “Building for Life” assessment appended to it (Persimmon deliver 15,000 homes per annum, so that’s one helluva pledge).  

And it was wholly admirable that there was a serious push to engage with the commercial sector, in this most timely of debates.  

Sometimes (particularly with design issues) you feel you’ve heard it all before, but this time I sense a new impetus for genuine change. As the sainted Steve Q said in his closing remarks, “we are seeking a common goal, a common language and a common approach”. Well he – and his minister – made a great start this morning around at 66 Portland Place. Radical reform is in the air.  

To send feedback, e-mail jackie.sadek@ukregeneration.org.uk or tweet @jackiesadek or @estatesgazette