Guest blog: Build, build, build (but don’t forget quality)

Published: by Steve Akehurst

Ben Marshall gives us the public’s perspective on the importance of design.

Ben Marshall is a Research Director at Ipsos MORI – @BenM_IM

Build, build, build (but don’t forget quality)

During the general election one of most striking Ipsos MORI poll findings was 69% of Britons agreeing that “unless we build many more new, affordable homes we will never be able to tackle the country’s housing problems.”

The backdrop to this is one of most remarkable shifts in public opinion in the past five years. In 2014, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, 56% of English adults supported the building of new homes locally, double the proportion in 2010.

The housing crisis is recognised by most, and felt by many. While there are different policy solutions to increasing the volume of new homes and these rightly command attention, we shouldn’t lose sight of the issue of what should be built. This is because that softening ‘anti’ sentiment, while welcome, is also likely to be very conditional. In the past few years we have polled for several local authority and developer clients and our surveys have detected significant swings in opinion on supply depending on the proposition and its implications – building on brownfield, greenfield, location, affordability, infrastructure, community benefits etc.

There are also numerous design aspects. For example, demographic change means that we must surely cater better for older homeowners and renters – an issue covered in the excellent Demos report Top of the ladder. Another challenge comes in the form of the image problem that new builds have; the public see them as more expensive and smaller than existing, comparable stock. We saw first-hand how poor design and space blights lives in our research for RIBA in 2012.

For Berkeley we asked Londoners to trade off quantity and quality in respect of new housing supply and, in 2013, quality edged it, while our polling for New London Architecture found Londoners more likely to agree than disagree that tall buildings have made London “look better”, but they would much rather work in them than live in them.

Most recently, our polling for Create Streets found that unpopular types of housing can sharply decrease support for building new homes – reducing this by 64% – while the most popular housing would appear to be the most conventional in form, style and building materials. The research also highlights differences in tastes; for example, those living in London, and renters, are relatively more favourable towards the less traditional-looking developments.

Of course, all housing is local, and this requires careful management especially when opinion is more ‘Maybe to homes’ than outright ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there is such a thing as consensus.