Unlocking Legacy Development – for Better Lives and Better Places by Hugh Petter for Saffery’s Land and Rural Review 2023

September 6, 2023

Read the article in Saffery's Land and Rural Review 2023 

Unlocking legacy development – for better lives and better places.

In the UK private residential sector, a small number of large housebuilders contribute the majority of new houses to the market. As commercial organisations, when exploring suitable land to develop, housebuilders are driven by factors such as profitability and timeframe, but they also need to take account of:

  • The ease of getting planning permission,
  • The business model for the development (for example, option agreement, promotion agreement or joint venture),
  • Whether the proposal aligns with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and local development plans, and
  • The increased infrastructure pressure on local services, schools, GP surgeries and public transport.

Development considerations for landowners

When it comes to proposed development on an estate, additional factors need to be taken into account, such as: design, aesthetics, meeting needs of the local community, and maintaining a sense of place. Consideration also needs to be given to historic traditions; the local vernacular and, not least, to creating attractive neighbourhoods where people want to live.

Commonly, new housing is added to old and historic settlements and sold as quickly as possible, to meet quotas. However, utilising the skills (whether learned, practised and mastered), or integrating digital tools like Place Logic (which uses network analysis software to bring out the underlying forces which shape our towns and cities) allows for a much more considered and sympathetic approach.

The role of the landowner in new developments

The legacy approach to placemaking is firmly rooted in the landowner being involved in the process from the outset and retaining an interest. The land is of course the key ingredient to any development and therefore puts the landowner in a very strong position. The legacy approach is not new and the landowner’s part in developing estate housing on a small scale in the countryside, townships on a larger scale, or industrial development, have been well reported from the 18th century to the present day. Investment and commitment to provide local housing was not unusual, New Grantown (renamed Grantown-on-Spey) being one such example where Sir James Grant, the landowner, took up the challenge in 1765.

Nor should there be any excuse not to take thoughtful design into consideration – at Poundbury and Nansledan for example for the Duchy of Cornwall, at Woodstock for Blenheim, at Stamford for Burghley, at Tornagrain, and at many other locations, there is evidence of how this has worked, is working and continues to work well. It should be about master-planning and design, creating new built environments that provide local solutions to housing for all, but that also function as towns and neighbourhoods with mixed use, local shops and services; open space, ‘walkability’ and meeting the climate change challenge. This approach is increasingly being promoted by government, for instance with Michael Gove’s endorsement of the new ‘School of Place’.

Aesthetic control, design codes and principles, and a strong, ongoing element of landowner involvement and engagement are all vital.

An understanding of local needs and characteristics is crucial, as is consultation and listening to the local community. Proper engagement with them will build confidence and support for the delivery of high-quality results that meet local needs at all levels.

When it comes to urban extensions, careful thought must be given as to how the new areas link to the existing, how new shared infrastructure and services integrate with the old, and how future phases might in turn be added in due course.

A private landowner committed to moving forward in this way will likely be far more consistent in approach, than for example the local authority, which over the life of a project with a development span of several decades, will be subject to different officials, changing influences and political dynamics.

The importance of trust and legacy development

There also needs to be commitment to what is agreed at the planning stage and what is then actually delivered on-site in order to maintain confidence in the planning system. Those who are affected by development should feel the benefits that it brings and, when done right, new development should not be unpopular. But it is perfectly understandable that communities are cautious and naturally distrust new developments, as previous experiences may have led to disappointments and perceived negative impacts.

So, ‘what you see is what you get’ is important, bound not just in trust but, in the context of legacy development, in a legal commitment such as a Common Aspiration. Buyers within a new development also sign up to a community code and covenant (or similar) that requires them to maintain their property to an acceptable agreed level and with certain conditions, for example colours of doors and window frames. Such constraints are of course common across many landed and urban estates, and that degree of uniformity is important in maintaining a local identity and sense of place.

Some might see these codes as an imposition, but where such practices are employed, where buildings and neighbourhoods are looked after properly, where the common areas are managed to a high standard met through a community charge, then such properties will perform at above average market values when it comes to resale.

Reaping the benefits of high-quality developments

Rented neighbourhood office, retail and other commercial and employment space can also be included to support affordable housing or maintain communal areas such as parks and other green infrastructure.

The drive to achieve low carbon or zero-carbon neighbourhoods is here to stay and will not happen until we get better at the delivery of new, mixed, walkable neighbourhoods. Sustainability is a universal consideration – not just about houses that are zero-carbon in construction and zero-carbon in terms of operation, but also about places that enable low carbon or zero-carbon living, walking and cycling, minimising car journeys, recycling, waste and heating etc.

Zero-carbon can only be achieved through a combination of house design, construction and neighbourhood design together, not one without the other.

Good development should also encourage an uplift in house and land prices. It should provide local people with the right place to live, and where there is work, education and recreation. Where the owner of the land is committed to strategic thinking and planning and is fully engaged in that process, then the chance of success is far greater.

In terms of financial structures for development, whether utilising legacy development or another model, tax considerations, succession planning and similar complex issues are in safe hands with experts such as Saffery.

As architects and master-planners, our desire is to see the delivery of better, more sustainable, more beautiful and ultimately more popular development, and we believe that today’s landowner has a key role to play in that. At a time of unprecedented demand for new housing we must take every opportunity to get that right – buildings come and go over time, but the places we create endure. This is the key challenge we face together, and we desperately need new tools, new delivery models, and more collaborative ways of working to help us on that journey.

Hugh Petter is an architect and urban designer. His projects include new buildings, renovations, and alterations to historic properties for private, commercial and institutional clients specialising particularly in classical and traditional design.

He undertakes urban design projects at all scales, for example with the Duchy of Cornwall, Blenheim, Burghley and other landed estates. Nansledan at Newquay, Cornwall is cited regularly as an exemplar by the UK government and has won numerous awards. A new book ‘Living Tradition - The Architecture and Urbanism of Hugh Petter’ written by Clive Aslet is published by Triglyph Books in September 2023.

ADAM Architecture is a leading practice specialising in classical and traditional architecture and contextual urban design.