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Getting to the heart of better places

I read something recently by the Policy Exchange on the need for growth to be market led, and a separate article on Grant Shapps’ proposal to dispose of public land. Both raise the issue of economic geography, state-market relations and leadership. In other words, placeshaping.

For the Policy Exchange, growth should happen where there is demand. In this growth, aspects of form like density should be driven by the market, not imposed. The economic geography implication is that there should be no growth where there is no demand. Who demands what, where and why are important issues to consider. So is thinking about who has the ability to access what resource. If fairness is a key driver of more informed decision-making, then what is growth of whatever wherever linked only to demand enabled by those who do have access to resources?

For Shapps, there is the dual issue of asset disposal and meeting housing need. Disposing of public land to the market would, he suggests, create over 100,000 homes by 2015. Building this amount of housing this fast is a big ask. Especially when you consider the economic geography of this land: a good proportion is located in areas where market demand is low, or non existent. It’s just land.

What is the market, in areas of market failure for more residential development? Recently, Professor Michael Parkinson suggests that the decision not to progress the housing market renewal initiative is a ‘breach of trust’ for the communities in these areas. Houses are boarded up. Streets, empty. Hope, dead. Parkinson argues that it’s no use saying if these houses were somewhere else, they would fetch a fortune. They aren’t. They are where they are. His question is this: would you live there?

Housing on its own doesn’t make a place. Place provides a framework for how we live our lives. Quality of place is the sum of those factors, culture, health, safety for instance, which together make somewhere attractive to live in. The residential offer is the composite of housing related factors such as range, quality and value for money. Together they inform a household’s locational choice. Put it another way: if all you get in a location is a house, then everything else you need is somewhere else.

This doesn’t work for everyone, all the time. Take for example, initiatives like ‘Shifting the Balance of Care’ which seeks to provide more primary care in the home. If, when the doctor leaves, there is nothing to enhance your wellbeing outside the front door, what’s the difference between being in your home and being in a bed in hospital? What kind of place do we need to create to shift the balance of care effectively, respectfully and economically?

Meeting housing need is important. It is though one dimension of human need. According to the Place and leadership research at CURS in Birmingham, placemaking can work across dimensions of human need through an understanding of:

  • The consumption habits, constraints and aspirations of different residents/households and housing market segments
  • The fit between economic trajectories at the regional level and how this translates to consumption at the neighbourhood level
  • The investment strategies of key stakeholders.

The key here is clarity on the kind of place we want to create. It is a question of leadership.

The opening of the ‘Green Arena’ in Raploch, Stirling was marked by a community planting ceremony on stalled spaces. ‘Raploch on Film’ was screened in the lee of the castle. This is a story about a regeneration area, a place where the market had failed, a place where the place is being rebuilt through partnership. As the story unfolded, an old man wrapped his arm round his wife.

This was not a symbol of demand, it was a symbol of pride, an essential prerequisite of investment value over time, place value.  The DNA of leadership required to deliver better places comprises clear core values, collective responsibility and humility. It starts with lives. Houses, facilities and services are built around them.

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