Chris Brown Blog

Latest Posts Subscribe to this blog RSS

Move over Placemaking boys!

I’m increasingly encouraged by the visibility of (mainly young) women in the Placemaking world.

Urbanistas is spreading rapidly across the country led by an ever increasing number of dynamic women in our major cities.

And there has been some great writing on the role of women in our world.

And I sense a welcome change in the younger generation where the out dated idea of man as breadwinner is no longer assumed (at least amongst the women) even if in reality it is not turning out that way.

Indeed, in Britain, though possibly not in the built environment sector (does anyone know?), average hourly earnings are higher for women in the 22-39 age range.

As parental leave is now shareable between parents we must hope that this will start to have a positive impact on statistics like less than 10% of engineers, and the same for the construction industry, being women.

Anne Dowling is president of the Royal Academy of Engineering (the first woman) and Louise Brooks Smith is President of the RICS (also the first woman) and Cath Ransom is President of the RTPI with another woman to follow (the first time for consecutive female presidents as it was for RIBA a couple of years ago).

I’m not surprised at all these firsts. When I was at college mixed gender education was still arriving and women were in a minority. Combine that with women being better than men at most things and it is not surprising they are now taking over the built environment professions.

It’s great to finally have all these role models for young women. All we need now is for society to support men in taking an equal share of childcare and home chores and we will stand a chance of finally achieving gender equality in the built environment professional workplace for the next generation.

House building and construction however remain bastions of the ugly, old, white, male. This lack of diversity severely weakens these businesses making it harder for them to understand customers and to attract the best employees.

It’s not for women to fight for equal opportunities in these industries. Why would they even bother. It is for the senior men to say this is wrong, this is damaging, and to do something effective about it.

It’s prejudice guys and it’s nasty.

I long ago stopped going to construction industry dinners. 1200 pale, stale males dressed as penguins with a handful of women cast as objects to give out awards (to old white men) is also not acceptable behaviour in the 21st century. The men that organise and chair these antediluvian debacles should be ashamed.

It’s not easy though. Few women are attracted by the culture (I’d call it laddish but the average age is way too high for that descriptor). We will need to be very creative to attract women away from the law for example (itself not a great beacon of equality).

And this problem is urgent. The average age for surveyors is, horrifyingly, over 55. And by the way, 50% of chartered surveyors are……..public school boys (more gasps of despair).

Most people tend to recruit in their own image. It’s usually a mistake. Groups are stronger than individuals, they make better decisions, and diverse groups are better still and more resilient.

So it’s tough to start recruiting different kinds of people, first recruiters need to recognise their unconscious bias and try to correct for it.

Now the classic interview line (old male interviewer to young female interviewee) ‘so love, you planning on having kids then’ will now be changed (for male interviewees) to ‘so mate, you planning on having kids then and taking your fair share of parental leave to do your fair share of childcare?’.

It’s progress, of a kind.

The Right to Custom Build, but no Right to Affordable Housing?

Government is currently consulting on a Right to Build for Custom Build. Confusingly for Googlers this is not the Community Right to Build which is entirely different.

And even more confusingly it uses a different definition of Custom Build to that used by the minister in the house during the debate on the second reading of Richard Bacon MP’s Private Members Bill (which paves the way for the proposed Custom Build Register which is a key part of the consultation and which has cross party support), the day after this consultation was published.

Placemakers – A Duty to Society?

When I was invited to a conference in Dundee on a Friday afternoon on professionalism, place making and people I thought long and hard. I didn’t immediately recognise its importance. It took quite a while to sink in to my small developer brain. But after listening intently to the proceedings it felt to me like the most important challenge we have to solve. Getting it right solves, or at least substantially solves, some of our biggest challenges like climate change and mental ill health.

Housing – Health, Poverty, Employment and Climate Change

Being sceptical about Passivhaus is like being a climate change denier, expect attacks from the evangelicals.

To be clear, I am evangelical about reducing human impact on climate change and am a supporter of reducing energy consumption in new buildings.

Jacobs, Gehl, Moylan, Murrain and Real Life Better Placemaking

I was in Leeds this week, not for the first time, with a group of people with real passion to make their city more economically competitive and to pass on a better place for their children to live.

Estate Renewal – Community Coproduction?

Estate regeneration in London was the subject of a timely Future of London event this week. The London Assembly will shortly be publishing its report into this process in London.

Two forces are currently driving estate regeneration in London; the net present cost of maintenance (and in some cases decent homes standard) and the need for more homes.

The calculations for these two factors are reasonably easy arithmetic.

For maintenance cost, building and quantity surveyors work out what needs doing to the mainly 1960s and 70s, often tower blocks, and what it will cost and accountants subtract the net rental income and calculate a net present cost. Indeed there are well known firms of surveyors hawking around a simple message to local authorities - get rid of the financial underperformers to give yourselves financial headroom in your housing revenue account.

For more homes, urban designers (in practice usually architects so not the same thing at all) work out the capacity of estates within the constraints of planning policies as if the estates were cleared sites. Almost inevitably this results in more homes with estimates at the Future of London conference on the subject this week being that, in London, local authority estates have the capacity for at least 200,000 more homes. It was depressing to hear the development industry at the event mindlessly and boringly advocating crashing on with this approach.

These two calculations are then followed by a third piece of arithmetic. Given the number of homes we can build how many of these can we afford to be affordable. Time and time again the answer is ’not as many as were there in the first place’.

It was clear from the conference that maintaining the number of affordable homes, and maintaining them at the council rents at which they are currently let, is not the priority. The priority is the total number of homes, not, as a minimum, the like for like replacement of tenures and rent levels that were there before (together with any extra market homes that can be fitted in).

This can be justifiable. There is a huge deficit in provision, in inner London, of homes that are affordable to people on average wages. But many would argue that this has to be subject to explicit, voluntary (not forced as has been the practice in some cases) rehousing of existing residents and a calculation of the other social costs of this approach.

None of these equations calculates the most important costs. The costs that aren’t included are many, often because they are harder to calculate, and the two big ones are social costs and environmental costs.

One view is that the embodied carbon in the existing and new buildings is so great that the benefit of more energy efficient buildings will never repay the costs of demolition and new build. It was fascinating, at another event this week, to see the work Peabody are doing at Thamesmead to retrofit this age of stock to close to Passivehaus standards with no demolition.

The social costs are much harder to calculate. In relation to energy alone, it is not enough just to calculate the carbon, it is critical to factor in the costs of fuel poverty, related health costs, winter deaths and so on. But the bigger costs probably relate to health and wellbeing, particularly those connected to mental health and the importance of community. Mental health is a massive cost line in the nation’s expenditure (£70Bn pa) and is substantially impacted by the built environment.

We are currently miles away from being able to get a cost estimate of the social costs of estate regeneration anywhere approaching the accuracy of our estimates of building life cycle costs never mind capital costs. If ever there was a market gap for surveyors or accountants, calculating the value of health and wellbeing is it now that the accountants are close to cornering the market in carbon reporting.

I was taken to task at the Future of London event by the excellent Stephen Platts from Southwark over my description of the Heygate estate renewal as a social disaster. Loretta Lees, now of Leicester University, and an expert in gentrification and the impact of estate renewal has done some research on this but it falls short of trying to put a cost on the impact of the widespread relocation of the previous occupants across the south of England. Most people in senior positions in Southwark now openly acknowledge that the way the early stages of the project were implemented was not best practice and they can very intelligently dissect the lessons learnt, as well as highlighting the benefits to others. It was a shame that the Future of London conference didn’t get the full benefit of this wisdom. There are two sides to the story and both are worth listening to.

There are proxy ways of assessing social costs. Westminster, having been burned by political backlashes in the past, now ballots residents on estate renewal plans. This can give a likelihood of an average benefit rather than cost but it can still disguise those for whom the direct social costs are very high. Brent, for example in their South Kilburn estate renewal, undertake block by block phased rehousing which, done well, seems to even have positive impacts on mental health during the rehousing process although these benefits disappear once the rehousing support for the resident finishes.

These are important lessons. Getting resident consent and ensuring good rehousing support for all must be part of any comprehensive scheme. And some would go further. They would say very resident should re rehoused voluntarily, or, as a minimum, the total social costs and benefits for the project should be positive. While it is almost inevitable that there will be costs, and for some old people these will be life ending, it may be that the costs outweigh the benefits. Even then, decision makers, ideally drawn primarily from the local community, would want to think very carefully about how to mitigate the costs for the losers and whether it was worth undertaking projects where even a few people were going to experience large losses.

There was a lot of detailed learning from the conference. Community consultation techniques should allow every resident who will be impacted to have their individual needs understood and provided for. Evening consultation meetings are not enough. This requires one to one support from the earliest stage of reviewing options through to the completion of a move.

One of the examples quoted where this was done was the Kipling Estate in Southwark managed by the Leathermarket Joint Management Board, a tenant management organisation (TMO) which is self-financing. There they interviewed every resident and worked out the number of new homes that were needed to completely remove over and under occupancy on the estate as well as to cater for individual needs like accessibility. They will also be allowing those residents to customise their own homes and will release more existing bedrooms for Southwark’s allocations than they are building new as a result of providing attractive alternatives for under occupiers (typically older empty nesters not affected by the bedroom tax).

This estate is well managed and maintained so rather than a comprehensive demolition and rebuild the TMO, supported by the local authority, are going for an infill approach where the power of providing homes for their neighbours, who have average incomes of around £9000 per annum, is proving a powerful motivator to support the project, even from those neighbours who will have their view or sunlight impacted.

Another lesson was in relation to leaseholders. Many of these former right to buys are now owned by absentee buy to let landlords. There was little sympathy for these owners with market value plus a bit being the usual compensation but with a clear need for a quicker compulsory acquisition process to avoid these people holding the project to ransom. Owner occupier leaseholders on the other hand were best treated with a direct like for like replacement in the new scheme. While this might result in a much more valuable home this was seen as a necessary, equitable and social cost minimising approach to compensation although it is not one that is recognised as necessary in current legislation and case law.

Similarly, market rent tenants needed special treatment to avoid the social costs of them becoming homeless or requiring substantially increased housing benefit and again the optimum solution for many would be a new home, within the scheme, at the same rent they were previously paying.

One of the particularly interesting trends was for local authorities to take the role of developer. Lambeth, Ealing and Southwark are amongst those doing this, often, as with Lambeth’s Somerleyton Road project which Deputy Mayor for Housing, Richard Blakeway name checked, through a process of coproduction with the local community, and it is increasingly clear that the housing associations and other private sector developers are now in competition with their local authority clients. Pat Hayes of Ealing’s view was that local authorities can buy in the development management services they need, and provide finance, more cheaply than through procuring housing associations and developers.

While few of these lessons apply outside London, where values are lower and so the potential cross subsidy from increasing density and introducing market units is often non-existent, it is important to learn them in London.

The starting point for estate regeneration need not be a decision in the council, it could be a decision by the local community, given all the evidence including a detailed understanding of every resident’s needs and a detailed assessment of social, environmental and financial costs and benefits. And more often than not this is likely to mean infill and retrofit rather than rehousing, demolition and redevelopment will be the preferred outcome.

It will be interesting to see what conclusions the London Assembly reaches on this.

 

Professionalised Design Sterility

I attended an event organised by the Legatum Institute this week. I’m sure that some would describe Legatum as a shadowy right wing think tank and I must admit that, having not come across them before, I am struggling to understand quite where they fit on the political spectrum. They do however have some blog relevant programmes of work including the global Prosperity Index (they use the word prosperity instead of the better understood word wellbeing) and, closer to home, a fascinating Architecture of Prosperity programme. One of their recent events on wellbeing, built environment, creativity and mental health with the former planning minister sounds really interesting.

Custom Build and the Secret Death of Affordable Housing?

The world of Custom Build housing in England has gone ever so slightly mad this week. The launch of the Lyons review of housing was followed by the publication of the Government’s Right to Build consultation and then by the second reading of the dynamic Richard Bacon MP’s Custom Build Register private members bill which has cross party support and sailed through its second reading.

Planning for Wellbeing

WP_20141014_001This week saw an important report published by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing. Despite being limited in scope, the inquiry considered how policy could enhance wellbeing without increasing public spending, it made some strong recommendations in relation to the planning system.

Barriers to Innovation in the Built Environment

I’ve spent some more time this week with people trying to innovate in the built environment. The UKGBC did some great work a couple of years ago as part of an ongoing encouragement to the industry to build a culture to innovate solutions to the pressing problems of our time.

This week it was organisations like the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills on behalf of the Construction Industry Council and Innovate UK with the Future Cities Catapult who were pursuing a similar course.