How can we unlock sites for new homes?
We recently held a Brunch Seminar to discuss the current delivery challenges that are impacting the unlocking of brownfield sites, especially for affordable housing, as well as how we ensure design quality and environmental sustainability is truly embed into new homes and neighbourhoods.
Donna Bowler Assistant Director of Place (Neighbourhoods). Rochdale Council
Caroline Baker Managing Partner North West. Cushman and Wakefield
John Sawyer Strategic Advisor of Nick Moss Architects
Richard Sterling National Head of Land and Development. Willmott Dixon
Louise Seymour Head of Development Projects. Leicester City Council
Chris Bowen MD of Torus Developments
Liz Male MD of Liz Male Consulting
Steve Baker MD of Goram Homes
Andy Von Bradsky Strategic Advisor of Nick Moss Architects.
Helen Spencer Executive Director of Growth. Great Places Housing Group
Warren Taylor Director of Property. Cityheart
Nick Moss Director of Nick Moss Architects
Predictably, funding, or the lack of it was a prominent feature, leading to a discussion about what new and innovative steps can be or are being taken to gather sufficient funding for projects.
There are a multiplicity of challenges regarding the unlocking of brownfield sites, not least of which are land values. Invested parties are turning to a range of funding opportunities in order to deliver developments, such as:
- Levelling up fund.
- Brownfield fund.
- Housing fund.
- Evergreen fund.
Current funding structures appear to be only partly helpful to the process. The point was made that generally speaking, successful delivery of brownfield sites has been dependent on gap funding. Rochdale Council has previously put in funding for infrastructure and are willing to borrow to do so.
The example of an award winning scheme in Stockport that did not appear deliverable on paper demonstrated a flexible approach to funding. Stockport Council and the Combined Authority put in long-term equity, representing a third of the viability. Cityheart raised the rest of the funding through private investment and private equity markets. It proved to be an award-winning scheme.
There was some discussion of many Local Authorities’ reluctance to become involved in any risk, which can significantly hamper progress and is proving to be a problem in the regeneration of town centres. For many, not doing anything is seen as a bigger risk in the long-term.
How to ensure high quality design and sustainability are embedded in the delivery of new homes and neighbourhoods was the next topic for discussion. Pressures for people to save energy, whether in the quest for sustainability or as a consequence of the cost of living crisis have resulted in greener homes becoming increasingly desirable. The problem is how to support people who can’t afford to make choices. Concerns were expressed about emerging technologies such as air source heat pumps which could prove to be disastrous, if they become ‘old technology’.
With regard to high quality design, there was a consensus that local authorities vary in their commitment to it. However, they are often hamstrung by skills gaps and resources, which returns to the omnipresent issue of funding. In Bristol, for instance, design quality is always a given. There is very little volume housebuilding and anything of scale must be of good quality.
Goram have found that design competitions have been a successful strategy, especially as it allows residents to engage with the process. The involvement of architects at an early stage generally allows them to feel they have input into the scheme.
The point was made that value is often only spoken of in financial terms, when environmental, social and community factors are also deeply valuable entities. And longevity needs to be given high priority in terms of sustainability. Short-lived developments are not helpful to the environment when they have to be demolished. Methods such as the use of insulated render are not long-lasting and some regeneration work has worn very badly.
Initiatives such as the Liverpool Terrace House Competition were cited as an example of good practice- how to create value for the thousands of existing terraces in Liverpool that are not going to be knocked down.
The discussion then moved on to the issue of ensuring that existing communities are allowed to make a positive contribution to and accept new developments.
The example of Leicester City Council’s scheme to create fifty new houses within a 1970’s housing estate was used. The community engagement took place during the pandemic, which created challenges. Nevertheless, it proved to be successful. To date, there have been three stages of engagement- 2500 homes were consulted, the services of a digital engagement company was employed and the first round of consultation was advertised in local shops. In the first stage, there were 300 responses and 700 website hits. 70% of the responses were by phone. Under 18’s were accessed through schools and the third round of consultation had 1,000 website hits.
It was stated that the challenge for architects is to communicate in a language that the community can understand. Trust is generated through simple, consistent messaging.