Hugh Petter ‘Back to the Future’ article featured in The Georgian magazine

May 21, 2024

Article published by The Georgian Group in The Georgian magazine and website May 2024.

Back to the Future: How Understanding the Development of Georgian Towns can Inform Better Development in the Twenty-First Century. 

Read pdf version of the article

Hugh Petter, Director of ADAM Urbanism and ADAM Architecture, explores how the example of the Georgians could influence building in the present day.

It is a matter of public knowledge that, for many years, the supply of new homes in the UK has failed to meet demand. Whilst admirable in so many ways, our planning system has succeeded all too rarely to enable the creation of good new urban places. The obsessive use of regulation and red tape to try and drive better outcomes, in reality, has increased the cost and time taken to secure permission to the post where most small and medium sized (SME) developers have dropped out of the market: the risk is too great. Most of the new houses that have been built are by a small group of volume house builders whose pockets are deeper. With their primary focus upon a quick return on capital, and a business model based on repetition, minimal cost and efficiency, it is not surprising that many of those homes are of poor quality and lack any regional identity.

The bean-counters balance obsessively the build cost of each building and the value that it may achieve when sold. Affordable housing is seen as a burden employment space and any other civic amenity simi­larly are seen simply as a financial millstone and so all are to be avoided if possible. A Housing Design Audit for England, undertaken by the Place Alliance in 2020, found that new housing design is overwhelmingly 'mediocre' or 'poor' and one in five of the schemes that it analysed should have been refused planning permission.

We have forgotten how to make beautiful functioning places that celebrate the rich geological diversity of our country, built with good quality local materials (with low embodied carbon) and by skilled local tradespeople. Development should be the product of proper public consultation so that it responds positively to local need and so that those who are affected by it feel its social and economic warmth. We need to re-learn how to build places in which we can walk to the shops; to school and to the office, and where we can lead low carbon lives.

The current unpopularity of development dem­ands, politically, yet more regulation. How can we break this vicious circle? Whoever our next Govern­ment is, this is one of their most difficult and pressing conundrums.

In this article, I will set out what I see as the key problems and suggest how things can be done differently to enable better social and sustainable outcomes that can create, in turn, better Jong term economic value.

Development takes time to build. Most sites across the country will struggle to sell more than 100 homes a year. If you want to use local materials, slower building of the development makes it easier for local materials suppliers and tradespeople to keep up with the demand, and smaller schemes are Jess often contentious and easier to get through planning. But to deliver proper infrastructure, one needs scale.

Bigger schemes generate more money and so are better able to fund the necessary new roads; schools; affordable housing and so on. It is easier too to calculate future demand for water electricity and drainage and to plan for their implementation when one can think more strategically. So the answer is to plan strategically and to deliver incrementally but our ability to do this is hampered too often by the fact that development has become so unpopular and so toxic politically. We need somehow to press re-set.

After years of dithering, it is more widely rec­ ognized now that, wherever possible, brownfield sites should be redeveloped first before incursions are made into the Green Belt, and that 'densifying' towns and cities in order to make maximum use of existing infrastructure is a sensible course of action. The social enterprise Create Streets, led by Nicholas Boys Smith who also chairs the Government's Office for Place, has done much to demonstrate the value of traditional terrace house forms and street patterns, and the careful integration of new developments with existing, repurposed buildings.

New developments on the fringes of existing towns present different challenges. In order to ensure that they are successful, genuine consultation needs to be undertaken to understand local needs, and the local urban, architectural and landscape patterns require careful study to gain a proper sense of local identity. The products of such investigations can then inform long term urban masterplans supported by street design codes.

Demographic Change, Consultation and Collaboration

Unfortunately, local residents and other local interest groups are rarely consulted in any meaningful way by the developers of commercial housing who have little interest in adapting their standard product. Changes in the patterns of how people are living and working must also be taken into account. The Covid pandemic, during which people became pro­gressively more invested in the ideas of community and self sufficiency, accelerated changes that were already in train. The number of adults 'working from home: for example, has increased enormously, and daily commuting has reduced in favour of hybrid working and intermittent commuting, even if for longer distances. This revolution presents exciting new opportunities for more run down parts of the country, far flung from major city centres and may provide fresh hope for some areas that are currently the focus of the 'Levelling Up Agenda'. Houses with open plan arrangements are increasingly less attrac­tive than those with cellular plans in which several people can work concurrently in the privacy of separate home offices. In these circumstances the provision of super-fast broadband is essential.

While more people than ever now live alone, 34% of adults in Britain also now live in multi-gen­erational households, which means that a range of house types is needed. Good connectivity and public transport, better facilities for essential shopping and recreation are also wanted closer to home, in set­tlements in which people rather than the car take precedence. Time and again it has been shown that proper consultation not only informs new develop­ment but helps to build confidence that it will benefit the local community.

Pattern Books, Masterplanning & Design Codes

Understanding local character, whether in the pat­ tern and grain of existing settlements, the form of buildings, or the palette of materials traditionally used in their construction, is essential if a new devel­opment is not to be alien to the place, as so much identikit housing often is. Defining local character not only helps to inform a sensitive and appropriate design response but it can help residents to recog­nise anew what is special and distinctive about their locale. This understanding enables the assembly of pattern books, today more commonly used in the USA than in the UK, that can inspire local residents and give them confidence that new housing can still feel like it belongs to their area.

Long term strategic masterplanning is essential too to ensure that the development is properly served by the necessary infrastructure and that it intercon­nects with existing or future settlements and ameni­ties beyond its bounds, for example with the historic core of a town, and by green areas for play, exercise and general wellbeing. Without this important step parcels of land will continue to be developed in an ad-hoe way, creating yet more disjoined neighbour­ hoods, and frustrating the essential links that will be required for future phases.

Equally important is the adjacency of new emp­loyment space with housing. Some years ago the Howard de Walden Estate in London decided to take Marylebone High Street in hand. They did up the shops and encouraged in a new cohort of high quality food shops on favourable leases. Whilst on the face of it this may have seemed a curious decision, the homes around that street on The Howard de Walden Estate became more desirable and so their value rose. As the spending power of residents increased, the businesses on the High Street thrived so, over time, their rents crept up too. With any urban estate one needs to understand about stewardship and how to husband long term value. A developer may lose a bit of money on building a new commercial unit for a shop or small office, but homes near such amenities will often become more desirable. In other words, a rounded 'placemaking led' view of the economics is required in place of a robotic building by building valuation which is currently the norm.

Lastly, site-specific design codes, working in concert with a masterplan, can help to define the char­acter of each street and its component housing, for instance guiding the form and massing and place­ment of buildings on different types of street, whilst controlling materials, architectural details, public realm materials and green infrastructure.

Practicalities - Regulations, Materials & Construction

The current industry standard assumption is that the design life of a new building should be 60 years. But, in the context of the historic buildings that still make up the warp and weft of our towns and cities that may have existed for 150, 200 or 300 years, this is a shockingly feeble ambition and hardly represents best practice in terms of minimising carbon. Our 'pre­ loved' housing stock from the Victorian and Georgian periods is gradually being retrofitted and brought up to or near modern environmental standards: But in addition to thinking how the environmental impact of new housing can be minimised, it is important to design settlements in such a way that they can be easily used by pedestrians and cyclists, so encourag­ing a low carbon lifestyle. Such long-term thinking is largely absent from many pie developments.

One positive initiative in recent years has been the use of Local Development Orders (LDO). In 2021 the Duchy of Cornwall's development at Nansledan, conceived in 2003 and projected to create 4,000 new homes, secured an LDO from Cornwall Council in recognition of the fact that the standard of develop­ment achieved was far higher than that which could be required by the planning system. An LDO is, in effect, a detailed planning consent within agreed parameters that enables responsible landowners and developers to regulate their own developments within those limits. The resulting reduction in development risk, cost and delay helps the develop­ment team to focus upon the quality of what they are doing; empowers them to respond to changing local need, and can be a stimulus for regeneration in deprived areas. The local authority monitors the LDO and if the developers are found to have abused it, it can be taken away again. So LDOs are a much needed carrot to encourage better outcomes in place of the usual and ineffective planning policy sticks.

Before the pandemic, we had become accustomed to, and were perhaps unquestioning of, the fact that building materials came to site from all over the world. Since then the need to shorten supply lines and make them more resilient has encouraged the sourcing of local materials. The embodied energy costs of long distance transport are thereby mini­mised and the local economy is supported. Some of the more successful new developments, designed by architects in conjunction with a master­ planner and a developing landowner have been built by small and medium sized building firms, rooted in the locality.

The Landowner Legacy Movement

His Majesty King Charles III, when Prince of Wales, started Poundbury on the edge of Dorchester in the early 1990s. Poundbury is a mixed development of some 2,500 new homes, 30% of which are affordable and arranged in tenure blind clusters. The ambition was to create one job per household but it has deliv­ered significantly in excess of that figure. Knight Frank produced a report, Cost and Value, for the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, chaired by the late Roger Scruton, which showed that Poundbury out-performed every other development in the UK on a whole range of indices. More recently Nansledan in Cornwall, now with some 700 homes completed, builds upon similar principles but with added focus upon sustainability applied to every aspect of the development. The buildings may look traditional, but they exceed already the carbon targets set for 2030 by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Low Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI). The King's Foundation is now the mother ship of the 'Building a Legacy Movement: a group of around 150 landowners and consultants and small and medium sized (SME) development companies who are leading the way in this quiet revolution, combining long term strategic master-planning with detailed architectural design in ways which are similar in many aspects to those applied in the eighteenth century.

The Duchy's solicitors, Farrer and Co, have dev­eloped new forms of contract where developers are required to deliver the landowners' vision and where, aside from the statutory planning and build­ing regulation, developers require sign-off from the landowners for design; for technical details and, ulti­mately, for the finished building, before they can sell it to the first owners. Local authority officers come and go, but landowners are there for the long term. Many of them care more than anyone else about what happens in their area and their controlled delivery ensures that what is promised to a community at the planning stage is delivered on site.

Landowners, with the right advice, like the Howard de Walden example cited above, are more likely to understand how to husband long term value on an urban estate that they have control of than a plc housebuilder. Inspired by the Duchy projects, other examples under construction or on site include: Park View, Woodstock, Oxfordshire for the Blenheim Estate; Tornagrain for the Earl of Moray and Moray Estates; Chapleton, Aberdeenshire for the Elsick Development Company and the Duke of Fife, and Roussillon Park, Chichester, West Sussex.

In the eighteenth century landowners across the country would produce strategic masterplans for new urban quarters of speculative development on their holdings. The public realm - i.e., the front elevation, front garden and boundary treatment were often highly regulated, but behind those façades develop­ers were able to build what they wanted. Think, for example of Georgian Bath where the front of the Royal Crescent is highly controlled and uniform, but behind that façade, the houses are a riot of indi­viduality, with each finely tailored to the particular needs of each resident. Many such developments are now conservation areas: they have much to teach us at this critical time