Design quality of new homes across the UK remains ‘stubbornly low’, finds University of Glasgow-led study



Dr James White

An in-depth study published by a team led by the University of Glasgow has found that the design quality of new homes and neighbourhoods across the UK remains stubbornly low.

The report - Delivering design value: The housing design quality conundrum - which looked at all four UK nations, said new homes and neighbourhoods fail to meet the aspirations of the national planning policy statements in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The new report, which sets out 12 policy and practice recommendations, is timely coming just months after a design audit by the Place Alliance found that many new homes and neighbourhoods built in England were poorly designed with homebuyers increasingly frustrated with the quality of new builds.

It argues that the four UK governments, local authorities and the housebuilding industry have been collectively accountable, in different ways, for failing to deliver well-designed places to live and must share the blame for the poorly designed and unsustainable neighbourhoods that are approved and built in the UK.

Lead report author, Dr James White, MRTPI, senior lecturer in urban design at the University of Glasgow and a co-investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE), said: “Delivering Design Value is the first in-depth study to examine the process of planning and designing new housing in well over a decade. It uniquely features case studies from all four UK nations and is based on interviews with a wide range of people involved in the planning, design, and development process at the local level.

“The research shows that the housebuilding industry is dominated by a small number of large and powerful developers that have little interest in creating well-designed places. On the contrary, the research reveals that small and medium sized developers are motivated by design but struggle to gain a foothold in the industry.

“We also recommend that governments should identify ways to support small and medium sized developers to enter the housebuilding marketplace through tax incentives and changes to the way land is allocated for housing development.”

While national planning polices in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland draw a direct link between well-designed places and climate change abatement, the report found design is consistently marginalised by under-resourced local authorities and development processes. 

It also found that housing and neighbourhood design is undervalued across the UK with planning decisions driven by the need to achieve housing targets or to make a planning decision quickly and efficiently.

The report team – from the University of Glasgow; University of Reading and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) – looked at case studies in five local authority areas in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The five case studies are East Lothian (Scotland), Bridgend (Wales), Belfast (Northern Ireland), South Oxfordshire (South of England) and Rotherham (North of England).

Incoming president of the RTPI, Dr Wei Yang FRTPI, said: “The RTPI is delighted to have co-authored this report as part of the Institute’s involvement in CaCHE.

”Future planning reforms across the UK must put place-making and design quality at their heart and more must be done to translate positive policy rhetoric on design quality into actionable, measurable and well-funded solutions.”

Dr Wei added: “Local authority planning teams across the UK have seen reductions in funding over the past decade, with design quality suffering as a result. Housing is not simply a question of numbers. A survey of RTPI members, carried out in 2019, revealed that at least half of professional planners said they had limited influence on housing design, while an overwhelming 87% said they wanted more of a say. Nearly 80% said they believed design is of equal importance to factors such as affordability and the availability of infrastructure.”

The primary recommendation of the report is that housing and neighbourhood design outcomes should be more directly regulated by the four UK governments. 

The four governments should consider adopting minimum ‘design standards’ that establish basic urban form and site layout parameters that support the creation of sustainable and resilient places. These standards should be implemented by local authorities using local plans that are ‘design-led’ and which set out a clear design vision for the authority as a whole and incorporate design frameworks for existing neighbourhoods and masterplans for new housing development.

The research shows that local authorities are under-resourced and often make too ‘siloed’ decisions that fail to prioritise design and rarely monitor the quality of completed housing developments. The report recommends that local authorities are better resourced by government to ensure that skilled designers are involved in championing and shaping design outcomes at every stage of the planning and development process.

Dr White added: “Future planning reforms must put design at their heart and the four UK governments must do more to translate positive policy rhetoric on design into actionable, measurable and well-funded design governance solutions.”

The report research team included: 

  • Dr James White, MRTPI is Senior Lecturer in Urban Design at theUniversity of Glasgow and a Co-Investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE).
  • Tom Kenny was Policy Officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute and a CoInvestigator at CaCHE until July 2020.
  • Professor Flora Samuel, ARB is Professor Architecture in the Built Environment at the University of Reading and a Co-Investigator and ‘Place’ theme lead at CaCHE.
  • Dr Chris Foye is Knowledge Exchange Associate at CaCHE
  • Dr Gareth James is Knowledge Exchange Associate at CaCHE
  • Dr Bilge Serin is a Research Associate at CaCHE and is based at the University of Glasgow.


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