Soft Cities

Colm Lacey - Soft Cities

If more housing developers braved ‘risky’ sites we would all reap the rewards

First published in Architects Journal 03/05/17 – https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/opinion/if-housing-developers-braved-risky-sites-we-would-all-reap-the-rewards.

There is still ample opportunity for housing development in the suburbs, if only developers were prepared to take on difficult sites, writes Colm Lacey.

We’re delighted to have received planning permission recently for our first batch of development sites in Croydon. The overarching aim of Brick by Brick is to create properly designed new housing supply throughout the borough which is affordable to a range of incomes, while maintaining a robust and sustainable commercial business model. This, of course, is not without its challenges and our experience with this batch of sites has proved no exception.

By definition, increasing housing productivity within an established economic system means creating supply where it didn’t exist before. Existing suppliers may be able to increase their capacity somewhat, but without major changes to their hard and soft corporate infrastructure this is unlikely to be significant, and it certainly won’t be quick. In other words, the established housebuilder fraternity won’t solve the housing crisis.

Enter the new suppliers, a motley crew of local authority companies, newly married housing associations, institutionally funded specialist developers and self-builders raised on a diet of Kevin McCloud and Elle Decoration. It’s early days for this lot (we happily count ourselves among them) and their impact on housing delivery remains to be seen, but their very existence at least points towards a delegation of the responsibility of supply, surely a positive development in a static market.

People in severe housing need simply don’t have time to wait for a new eco-town.

Of course, all new suppliers need new materials to work with, and the availability of land suitable for development is therefore crucial to their productivity. This basic problem – new development needs new land – has historically led us down the blindest of alleys. People in severe housing need simply don’t have time to wait for a new eco-town.    

It is perhaps helpful to focus less on allocating new land supply, and more on the appropriateness of existing sites. Developers (read: their funders) have a surprisingly tiny appetite for risk, a trait which leads many of them to discount much of the potential land before them. Several of our first batch of schemes deal with the intensification of a suburban, low density development context where rapid development in the 1920s and 1930s has focused mainly on flat sites with great access. Many of the developments on these sites have taken a design path of least resistance. The historic commercial decisions of previous developers are all too plain to see, and not a lot has changed since. 

But there are still sites remaining for those who are willing to look hard enough, and while it is certainly true the various reasons for their lack of development to date can become more apparent on further inspection, it is rare that they present a development problem which can’t be solved by good design.

Many of the developments on these sites have taken a design path of least resistance. The historic commercial decisions of previous developers are all too plain to see, and not a lot has changed since. 

More importantly, the potential impact of these sites on the future sustainability of the suburbs is huge. Much as planners define the form of the city through the layering of opportunity and constraint to create a context for development activity, developers equally shape their environment through their choice of development site and the attendant impact on the design of their homes. In this sense, more innovation and risk-taking in site selection could not only create additional land supply and commercial development opportunities, but also genuinely foster local placemaking. 

Colm Lacey is Croydon Council’s director of development and CEO of its housing-focused delivery arm Brick by Brick.