Labour’s promise to build 1.5 million homes can’t be just a numbers game

We need to end the UK’s “blandemic” poorly designed housing. New towns must have high quality design at their core

At last week’s Labour Conference, Keir Starmer made a bold promise: to build 1.5 million new affordable homes in five years.

Recent times have witnessed a glut of big commitments on house building, and many false dawns.

But if the UK really is on the brink of a New Towns housing revolution, there’s one demand that should be at its core: humanisation.

NEF has been working with the newly launched Humanise campaign to improve the design quality of new housing. Here’s what we know about the link between housing design, health and wellbeing. 

Poorer communities are more polluted

            People living in poorer communities in the UK are forced to live with higher levels of air and noise pollution — often caused by road traffic. These lead to a higher prevalence of cardio-respiratory illness and other diseases. Places that are pedestrian friendly correlate with better health outcomes due to higher levels of physical activity. These are all points that were highlighted in the Marmot reviews into health inequalities in England

            The space between public and private realms matters

                  The way a building looks and feels can make people feel better, as can the way streetscapes are designed. For example, a welcoming flow from private to public space, such as front gardens meeting public verges, can encourage positive human behaviour. One study showed that such building frontages even make us more likely to help a stranger.

                  We will need more tree lined streets 

                    As the planet heats up we are likely to experience more extreme heat and weather events. Tree lined street provide natural shade, and the presence of greenery and other natural features have been found to help reduce people’s reliance on anti-depressants.

                    Looks count: a building’s aesthetic can influence wellbeing

                      While there is no evidence for prioritising particular architectural styles, studies show that simply liking the look of one’s neighbourhood can have positive health benefits. 

                      Neighbourhoods that embed design features like these are also likely to achieve wider benefits. Development focused on the human is more walkable and likely to reduce car use and sprawl, whilst the incorporation of green and natural features can help mitigate biodiversity loss.

                      Additionally, places where people enjoy spending time are likely to see greater levels of local economic activity, more local spending and jobs which can help ensure prosperity is more evenly spread across the country.

                      Fundamentally, healthier places that focus on wellbeing also reduce down-the-line public health costs.

                      So, how will Labour deliver 1.5 million homes that stand the test of time? Bulldozing through the planning system” won’t achieve it, in fact that will likely deliver serious negative outcomes through poorly designed places

                      Here are just a few of our ideas in response to Keir Starmer’s speech last week.

                      1. Lock-in local wealth: don’t let developers and landowners cash-in excessively on the value created by this policy. Building 1.5 million new homes will mean re-drawing plans and improving infrastructure across the country. Overnight we could see the value of land inflate unexpectedly in areas ripe for new development. That wealth should be locked in locally, not extracted by rentiers. Labour’s plan to abolish hope value”, which forces councils to pay over the odds for land that might in future gain planning permission, is welcome. However, it needs to be part of a comprehensive reform that gives councils the powers and funding to make land assembly and strategic land management the standard in all new large-scale development.
                      2. Plan for health and wellbeing: Local master planning must prioritise health and wellbeing in deign as well as infrastructure. New developments need to be led by holistic masterplans that give consideration to mix of use and space, transport and mobility, natural environments and biodiversity, district heating, as well as density, materials and design requirements for individual plots.
                      3. Give NIMBY’s an alternative: Communities need to be at the heart of decision-making. It shouldn’t surprise us that NIMBYism has become a drag on efforts to build more homes. Local communities have many reasons to oppose new development. From the pressure placed on existing infrastructure and services, embodied emissions, biodiversity loss, gentrification and displacement. It should be the norm to include communities effectively in the design of new buildings and places. One avenue to explore further could be citizen assemblies convened at the plan-making stage, with a remit to define the parameters of new development and have a say on the uses, design, and quality.

                      To find out more about the Humanise campaign and read our report, visit www​.human​ise​.org

                      Image: Chunyip Wong

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