Narrow and undermining: ‘Living with Beauty’ recommendations disappoint leading housebuilder

25th February 2020

Narrow and undermining: ‘Living with Beauty’ recommendations disappoint leading housebuilder

Opinion piece from John Tutte, Executive Chairman of leading housebuilder Redrow

Titled ‘Living with Beauty’, many expected the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission’s report to be widely focused on how to build beautiful communities and homes for residents across the country at scale. Instead we’ve found it to be very narrow in its scope, and while it does offer some sensible solutions, it ultimately presents the industry with a number of additional challenges to overcome, leaving both housebuilders and planning departments potentially facing a dilemma about their implementation.

While the report does include some sensible suggestions, our hope was that it would offer solutions that recognise the range of property types available when creating beautiful places to live, such as the use of detached, semi-detached and terraced homes. Instead, it proposes blanket recommendations which undermine the integrity of consumer desires and regional buying patterns. Whilst there is acknowledgement within the report that the architectural style preferences of housebuilders’ customers are relevant and important, the report does not do the same for the types of homes. Indeed, it refers to a ‘powerful consensus’ that people want to live in higher ‘gentle’ density places (gentle densities being four storey terraces or five storey ‘mid-rise’ blocks).  However, a failure to explain the evidence behind this statement raises questions about its validity.  

We regularly conduct market research and have a keen understanding of our customers’ preferences and find a strong inclination amongst our customers outside of cities, such as London, for a detached or semi-detached property as opposed to any form of dense housing scheme. And, in fact, when it comes to creating a beautiful, sustainable, landscape-led place, we find that it is a range of typologies, including detached and semi-detached homes that offers the most potential. This is not to say that gentle density developments aren’t suitable for some communities across the country – but one size doesn’t fit all.

Many of the property examples contained within the report are bespoke schemes which are difficult and expensive to build. Unfortunately, the report largely ignores the recommendations provided to the Commission by the country’s top housebuilders. Sadly, while we contributed more than 100 pages to the Commission to help inform from the perspective of volume housebuilders, these thoughts have largely been overlooked, which is strange given that the top 10 UK housebuilders were responsible for selling more than 84,000 homes in 2018/19. 

Following much criticism in recent years – much of it valid – many housebuilders are already taking significant steps to ensure they are building high-quality and well-designed homes and indeed many of the proposed solutions outlined in the report are already being delivered across the country.

We are huge advocates of bringing back tree-lined streets for example. In many instances however a housebuilder’s vision of a ‘tree-lined street’ has been met with resistance from highway authorities and, as a result, high quality original concepts end up being watered down. This is largely down to authorities being concerned with the technical and financial challenges of maintaining the trees, as well as the liability of the perceived impact on highway safety and drainage systems. We find highway authorities in general must move with the times – if there was less hard surfacing, for example, it would moderate surface water run-off, and would also reduce the carbon emitted and allow for more land for biodiversity and foliage such a street trees.

We place a strong emphasis on creating high quality homes and thriving communities across England and Wales. It’s to this end that we established our ‘Redrow 8’, a set of eight placemaking principles which guide every community we create. Our design manual includes a clear scoring system which was created to help us develop the highest quality concepts and layouts for new schemes. It also helps us to understand how we are performing against each of our placemaking principles. The manual incorporates principles from a range of authoritative external sources, including the key urban design objectives from the Building for Life 12, the revised National Planning Policy Framework and the NHS, with a view to creating healthy communities. These values have played a pivotal role in our discussions with planning and local authorities who are hugely receptive and positive about the benefits they bring to local residents.

Our duty is to build homes that our customers desire so creating communities that they demand is at the forefront of our strategy. New homes need to be of their time, not rooted in the past and ignoring how people now live. For example, according to forecasts from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, UK electric vehicle sales will rise from 3.4% of all vehicles sold in 2019 to 5.5% in 2020 and this figure is only set to rise in years to come. Therefore, as an industry, we must continue adapting our product to reflect the impact of climate change by recognising customers’ preferences for more sustainable features such as conveniently located charging points.

We need less utopia and more down-to earth quality design appreciated by the man on the street. After all, they are the ones best placed to judge great places to live.