Good design is overrated

Avid listeners to the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning will have heard Neil Parish MP, Chair of the Environment and Rural Affairs Select Committee, explaining how design is at the heart of opposition to new homes, and how we could greatly increase support for housing if local communities were better engaged in designing new developments.


In my experience, this is sadly a major oversimplification of community responses to new homes. Usually, the people directly affected by new homes — i.e. those living along the boundary with a site, whose views or access may change as a result – will have some very specific concerns about development, which may or may not include design.  But in the wider community, those we might class as NIMBYs (I always think of NIMBYs as the people we have all met who will oppose homes no matter what) will oppose regardless of design.  They may use design as an excuse, but even if you created a house type they loved they would come up with new issues like traffic, local infrastructure or a ‘lack of need’ for new homes. 

Here at MPC we know from our research with Shelter and YouGov, that in most communities there will be a large number of people in favour of development, and a large number fairly indifferent to it if they don’t feel directly affected.  There are a myriad of reasons which may encourage these people to support or oppose development, of which design is just one.  Our Shelter research enables us to map communities by postcode, giving us a clear sense of which areas will support or oppose new homes, the reasons for this and, critically, show us the factors that would make them more inclined to support.

Planning is a complicated game, and no one would ever suggest one factor alone will help you achieve a planning consent. Public consultation is arguably even more complex – ‘the public’ by their nature are a diverse range of people with different backgrounds, aspirations and concerns.  To try to boil down public engagement to simply the issue of ‘design’ is a naïve oversimplification, leading to endless charrettes, design workshops full of Post Its and eager architects, and not much more achieved in terms of community buy in. Via our Shelter work, the housing industry has the tools it needs to treat pre-app engagement with the same degree of sophistication as other disciplines. The sooner it begins to use these tools, the sooner it will find the path to successful planning significantly easier to navigate.

This article was written by Anna Sabine-Newlyn, CEO.