By Hugh Graham, Sunday Times, 30th June 2019
Prince Charles is on a mission to banish hideous housing estates. We visit his latest project to see whether his vision holds water. Nansledan is a new housing development in Newquay, Cornwall, and will have 4,000 homes. Hugh Petter of ADAM Architecture is the Masterplanner and Co-ordinating architect for Nansledan, working in collaboration with The Prince’s Foundation.
When the Prince of Wales unveiled Poundbury, his neo-traditional Dorset town, in the early 1990s, the critics were scathing: its period-pastiche aesthetic was called "fake and heartless", a "feudal Disneyland" and "a Thomas Hardy theme park for slow learners".
How things change: just as the prince's ideas on organic food and the environment have gone mainstream (homeopathy less so), so Poundbury has become wildly successful: the 400-acre site, built on Duchy of Cornwall land on the edge of Dorchester, has 1,700 homes, which command a 29% premium over similar ones nearby, according to research by Savills estate agency. It has also created more than 2,300 jobs in 185 businesses, many of them start-ups - including Dorset Cereals, which moved to Poole last year. Charles is known in town as "the boss".
Now, in an effort to banish grim "monocultural" housing estates from our fields, he wants to roll out Poundburys across Britain. His charity, the Prince's Foundation, today launches a manifesto, Housing Britain: A Call to Action. A blueprint for planners, builders, landowners, and government, it argues that if they follow HRH's template, nimbys will be replaced by bimbys ("beauty in
my backyard"): communities will welcome developments on the edge of their villages if they are pretty and vibrant, helping to solve the housing crisis, a challenge the heir to the throne believes is one of the greatest facing the UK.
In the introduction to the manifesto, Charles calls for fundamental change and writes: "I have long believed that for communities to prosper, they require a built environment that provides good-quality homes that are planned as walkable, mixed-use and mixed-income neighbourhoods, with integrated affordable housing that is as well designed as the rest. They also need a range of local services accessible by public transport, green routes and natural places that are enjoyable and safe for cycling, and, above all, a local identity that fosters pride and a sense of belonging, and has character and beauty."
Nansledan, the prince's newest planned town on the north Comish coast, certainly ticks all those boxes. Dubbed Poundbury's Big Brother, or Surfbury (it's on the edge of Newquay), it is taking shape on 5OO acres of Duchy of Cornwall farmland, with 4,000 homes planned over the next 30 years. So far, 230 have been built, all of which St Ives have sold.
Even though the first house was completed only four years ago, it already feels like a real English village, not a housing estate: it has town squares, a discernible high street, old-fashioned street lamps and a mix of architectural styles, from Victorian to art deco to cute clapboard. They are all inspired by Cornish vernacular, with local slate and granite, timber sash windows and a rainbow of candy colours. ''We almost went too far with the blue and green here"; says Ben Murphy, estate director for the Duchy of Cornwall, pointing to one cottage done up in mint and turquoise shades.
"We were encouraged by HRH to be bolder and bolder. You can get away with more by the coast."
The streets, which have Cornish names, are narrow and higgledy-piggledy, which lends an old-world feel and slows traffic. "Most highway engineers design out obstacles," Murphy says. "We design them back in." The houses are built right up to the pavement, creating a sense of neighbourliness, but those pavements are wide, to promote walking - cars are hidden from view, relegated to back-alley courtyards where there are garages with flats above them. One-bedders are on sale for £130,000; houses range from three-bedroom terraces, which cost £370,000, to four-bedroom semis for £500,000 and detached properties for £675,000.
Each home is meant to be within a 5- to 10-minute walk of shops, only a few of which have opened so far: the heart of the community is the Little Cornish Pantry, a deli that sells artisan sausage rolls, organic beer by the Atlantic Brewery and Roskilly's Cornish ice cream. There's also a barber, a bridal shop, a beauty salon, and a recruitment consultant.
The Ladyvale Bakery opens soon, and a hotel and pub are in the works, but there's a way to go before Nansledan bustles, and you have to hop in the car for staples. But the duchy has curatorial powers to ensure the right mix of shops: it favours start-ups over chains and can support them with flexible deals. Poundbury's shops and businesses add £98m a year to the local economy.
The duchy also adds natural capital. Converting pesticide-ridden farm fields into green housing with parkland is a net gain for biodiversity, Murphy says. In Nansledan, homes have bricks with holes for bees' nests and bird boxes are built into the roofs. (I spot a sparrow poking its beak out.) Fruit trees, berries, and grapevines are planted on the streets, and a potato field has been turned
into a wildflower meadow that will have paths for walking and cycling. The duchy is leasing land to the Newquay Community Orchard, where unemployed people work to build their confidence.
A grand Arts and Crafts pile on the edge of town calls to mind the mansion in Rebecca - it's the new primary school. "Building a school in the early phases is one of the best things you can do to establish a community and attract young families," Murphy says.
Poundbury has a reputation for genteel retirees, but Nansledan resident Theresa Ferguson says that, although she is retired, her neighbours are in their thirties and forties. Ferguson, 58, moved down from London to be near her sister. But 60% of buyers are locals, according to Murphy, with the rest mostly incoming owner-occupiers. Holiday lets are banned. Ferguson says there's a buzz: she chairs the Nansledan Community Association, which organises barbecues, wine tastings, quiz nights and dubs for football, cycling and walking.
She says she was drawn to the town by the colours and traditional design. Indeed, the duchy asked locals what kind of architecture they wanted: Charles's manifesto says this sort of consultation is essential to end nimbyism. "The vast majority prefer something traditional - it's deeply embedded in the British psyche," writes George Saumarez Smith, one of Poundbury's masterplanners.
Modem architects don't like to hear this. They will say that Nansledan feels a bit Toytown, Stepford Wives or The Truman Show - the 1998 film in which Jim Carrey lives in a creepily perfect chocolate-box town that is, unbeknown to him, a film set. That movie was shot in Seaside, Florida, built in the 1980s as America's first "New Urbanist" community, the US version of Poundbury. (The latter's original architect, Leon Krier, consulted on Seaside.)
At this early stage, Nansledan feels a bit like a film-set version of Lyme Regis: new and quaint at the same time. It lacks texture, but in a century it should have the time-worn elegance of a Tenby
or Southwold. And, given the choice, most buyers would rather live in a pretty model village that's full of life and thoughtfully designed than in a drab identikit estate where you have to get in a car to buy a pint of milk. If Nansledan is the future of housing estates, I'm ready to drink the (Duchy) Kool-Aid.
"People are tired of seeing the same old cheap boxes on the edge of towns," says Ben Bolgar, senior design director for the Prince's Foundation, "At the moment, 70% of homes are built by volume
housebuilders. But people, and government, want real places, not cheap rubbish that adds no value to the host community."
Yet how realistic is it to replicate this model en masse? Sustainable mixed-use towns take more time and money to build. The Duchy of Cornwall owns swathes of land and has deep pockets: it can afford to invest in quality and play the long game. The average farmer, by contrast, usually sells to the highest bidder: a big firm that will build quickly and cheaply to maximise profits. A small builder that prides itself on quality and craftsmanship can't compete.
There is another model, Murphy says: the landowner can sell for a lower upfront price to a smaller builder, and in return take a percentage of each home sold for years or decades, at every phase of the scheme. "The way we do it is more profitable, it just takes longer to get there. It's patient capital. A PLC housebuilder might offer you £30m for the land upfront. A local small builder can only offer £20m. But by giving you a percentage of the sale of each home, over the lifetime of the scheme, that smaller builder may be able to give you £60m-£80m.
"And you realise added value in placemaking - they sell for a premium. There's a greater economic dividend for the landowner and the local economy."
Some landowner farmers have told Murphy they regretted selling to the highest bidder upfront. "They've got to walk into the pub and face their local community," he says. "People see they have
ruined the area's character. The developer they sold to has built cheap, homogenous homes and hasn't delivered on the affordable housing or the community centre."
Another way to boost the number of Nansledans, Murphy says, is to streamline the planning process to favour placemaking landowners and builders, rather than speculative land promoters and cheap-box developers. The prince's manifesto is meant to help local authorities set "placemaking standards" that will help them to prioritise the good proposals when they allocate land for development as part of their local plan.
Even if more quality schemes get built, however, they cost more to buy. If this is a model for the few, not the many, surely it won't solve the housing crisis? Murphy insists that each scheme has 35% affordable housing, and covenants stipulating that they must be sold as affordable in perpetuity; big developers rarely uphold such covenants after resale, he says. Homes on the duchy's estates also have few snagging issues, unlike the big builders' schemes.
Typical housing estates also don't create local jobs, as they aren't mixed-use. As we drive past one bland new scheme near Newquay, Murphy says: "It's £100 less per sq ft than Nansledan, but it's not delivering the same social infrastructure - no jobs, leisure or culture - and it's completely car-dependent. Someone hung a banner outside their window saying, 'Don't buy here, it's rubbish.'
Look at it. It's made of cheap baked brick. It's could be Anywheresville, Arizona."
Ultimately, Murphy says, if more Poundburys were built by more developers, the schemes would lose their USPs and premiums would fall. The idea is catching on. Tornagrain and Chapelton are two New Urbanist towns in the works in Scotland. "Big landowners visit Poundbury a lot," Murphy says. "Five a month come to look. Institutional investors come, too - Legal & General visited. They're getting into housing in a big way to disrupt the volume housebuilding market. They share the same vision and business model as we do. They believe in the added value of placemaking."
Yet can we afford to wait for all this, when we need homes now? "There's no denying it takes longer," Murphy says. "But if every county was delivering these, we'd get them sooner. The answer isn't building more cheap rubbish faster. Planners have to grant permission for two Poundburys, rather than one cheap, homogenous estate."
HRH'S DESIGN MANIFESTO
• Consign the monocultural housing estate to the past. Insist on beauty at the beginning of the planning stage; impose quality controls on large builders. Offer low rates and rents to start-ups.
• No more car-centric design. Pavements should be at least two metres wide; kerbs should be lowered to prioritise pedestrians.
• Slow traffic by placing an "event", such as a public space or change in building line, every 60-80 metres.
• No more towers: bring back mansion blocks and mid-rise developments. lncentivise landowners to design and build a better longer-term legacy. Build more flats and maisonettes above small
employers to encourage social vibrancy. Empower small and medium-sized developers, as well as different housing investors, to create diverse, mixed-use communities. Place affordable housing
seamlessly among other types, and keep it affordable in perpetuity.
• Find ways to save and repurpose historic buildings. Make use of fast-track factory fabrication. Create green spaces and access to nature to boost physical and mental health. Include bee bricks, bird boxes, and edible planting.
Download a copy of Housing Britain: A Call to Action at princes-foundation.org/resources
By Hugh Graham