"The theme of this week's conference - building for a better future - is both topical and very dear to my own heart. My views on building, town planning and architecture, many of the issues before you this week, tend - I'm afraid - to be widely reported from time to time, but usually with a good deal less accuracy than I would like. So I am grateful for this opportunity to share some thoughts and hopes for how the immensely important work of the Housing Corporation, and of the many housing associations you represent, might develop in the coming months and years.
At this stage I ought perhaps to declare another interest. For some years I have been the Patron of the London and Quadrant Housing Trust, which has carried out interesting schemes in Kennington and other areas with restoration and sympathetic new build projects. And last year I also became the patron of The Guinness Trust, an organisation which has, I believe, been working hard to promote more thoughtful and far-sighted approaches to the layout and composition of new housing projects.
The Guinness Trust has also been immensely helpful - in fact it has been crucial - in my own practical efforts to provide new housing, of a decent standard for both buyers and tenants, at Poundbury, in Dorchester. Here, on Duchy of Cornwall land, and amidst considerable controversy and initial scepticism, we have now secured a development programme where housing for affordable rent and for open market sale is successfully under way alongside new factories, workshops and community amenities. My hope is that this development will prove to others that it is possible to build in a way which can enhance, rather than detract, from the surrounding countryside and landscape by using sympathetic design and architecture, and local building materials. Through careful planning, Poundbury is beginning to add a new district to the town of Dorchester, not as soulless suburban sprawl, but as a place which in its own way will have as distinctive a character as Hampstead has in London, or Clifton is in Bristol. And this is happening as a completely commercial project.
I have always taken the view that seeing is by far the best way to believing and many people from different local authorities and organisations now visit Poundbury. If I may say so, there is an open invitation to any of you to come and see what we have achieved at Poundbury. It would be interesting to see if you were as enthusiastic as the members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Housing!
Poundbury is a scheme which in the broadest sense is about integration, not segregation, where the conventional distinctions between rented and owner occupied housing have gone, where tenants and owners are next door neighbours and where, quite against the grain of recent convention, homes are cheek by jowl with workshops and factories. The homes, the workspace and the wider layout of streets, squares and lanes have been designed and built with the surrounding landscape and architectural typologies very much in mind. In short, we are building a place - somewhere which is recognisably a neighbourhood, and where, over time, it should be quite possible to live, to work, to shop, and to take leisure, all within an easy walking distance. Far from being 'old-fashioned', Poundbury has merely tried to revisit those timeless principles that are best able to create a real sense of community.
I mention Poundbury partly because it is a project which represents what for me are fundamental qualities which distinguish good housing development from bad. These qualities are widely accepted as ones which help to sell historic homes; they are the essential ingredients for many of the villages, towns and cities which people most enjoy visiting, yet they remain curiously absent from most of what we build today. Could this partly explain why there is such a knee-jerk reaction to new build development?
The most basic of these characteristics is a respect for the human scale in building, layouts and designs. This doesn't need to imply small scale or lightly populated places either. Think of Edinburgh New Town, historic Bath, Chelsea or Marylebone. All of these are highly 'liveable', prized locations in which to live, yet densely populated too. But these, and many other examples, have a well developed sense of scale, proportion and geometry, so that, despite their busy nature, the public realm remains comfortable, functional and often exhilarating.
We are what we build (as we are what we eat!), and although our lives are more complicated and less fixed than they once were, we still have a fundamental need for a sense of locality, for a place which is ours, but one which we can share easily with others. To create a place is to create something which tells us where we are, (in particular, which county we are in), and, by extension, much about ourselves as a society. Yet so much of what has been built, and much that continues to be built, ignores the basic rules of place-making or, to borrow Al Gore's phrase, 'liveability'. Houses are thrown together in chaotic disorder, or segregated by isolated cul de sacs and walls. Shops are bundled into large retail centres or malls, and workplaces are separated off into so-called 'business parks'. All of this undermines the interactions and encounters which sustain good quality community life and corrodes the character of neighbourhoods. People stop walking because everything needs a car journey, or at least a bus ride to get there, causing more pollution and congestion. This is obviously still more of a problem for those who have no access to a car, or can ill-afford a bus journey, a situation faced by many, if not most, housing association tenants. Physical and social disintegration is almost inevitable in these circumstances.
How heartening, then, it would be if we could see far more attention being paid to the layout of new housing, by housing developers of all types and tenures, and especially to the reintroduction of more traditionally-scaled streets and squares, which might begin to restore pedestrian, rather than motor car priorities. It is equally important that schools, shops and amenities are genuinely walkable, so that the car really does become a choice for people, rather than a necessity. I don't want to return to the past - of course that's neither possible nor desirable. But the future needs to be planned with a respect for those elements of urban planning and scale which have served not just for a few years or decades, but often for thousands of years. It is this appreciation of the timeless, which can, I believe, create the basis for an utterly contemporary urban future. After all, human technology changes, but the human soul - and the things it responds to - are timeless.
And let's do more to involve local people more closely in the shaping of new development, whether on greenfields or within towns and cities. I have been involved in many so-called 'community planning' events, and it is remarkable how, when asked, people tend to agree with extraordinary consistency about their preference for places of character and variety, which borrow and blend with the surrounding environment, whether urban or rural and which include a subtle balance between the public and private realms. It doesn't always work as smoothly in every instance, I have to admit! But it generally does, if only the trouble is taken to involve people fully from the start. The problem is that the whole planning process tends towards conflict and hostility, rather than involvement and reconciliation. This does nothing to help improve the quality of what is actually built, which then further undermines people's confidence in the very notion of new development of any sort. We used to have so-called NIMBY's, but now I'm told that we have a newer, even tougher generation, known fondly as BANANAs ('Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything'!)
We must also acknowledge that the relationship between any development, however small, and the wider habitat, whether urban or rural, matters deeply. There was a time when new building wasn't taken as a byword for destruction or uglification, and an aerial view of most historic market towns and villages, in this country and abroad, will usually display a fine blending of scale, layout, topography and materials, such that town and country coexist quite happily. Rarely do we build such places now. By contrast, the character of most new house building completely shatters any such relationship. Instead, the buildings seem to stand quite apart from the landscape - an alien intrusion instead of a sympathetic and logical extension of the natural and local environment. Is it surprising that resentment and frustration should flourish in such surroundings? An A3 standard house type therefore looks identical whether it's in Aberdeen or Exeter, Dover or Carlisle.
In many cultures, and over many thousands of years, such an invasion of the integrity of land and landscape would have been taken as sacrilegious. Whatever one's spiritual beliefs, I think it is clear that our individual and collective sense of well-being is deeply affected by the character of our natural and man-made landscapes, and by the relationship between them both. And if this generation builds badly, then of course it leaves a blight not just for now, but for generations to come. Ruskin famously said that 'When we build, let us think we build forever', a point worth making at a time when people speak widely about sustainability but less about its true meaning, which I believe to be about recovering that which is timeless - and, indeed, sacred.
I therefore firmly believe that if development of new homes has to take place on green fields (and, sadly, that appears to be inevitable over the coming years) then it should enhance and not detract from its surroundings, both built and natural. We should build legacies, not blots, on our landscape. Above all, we should build with a sense of reverence for the landscape and for the natural features contained in it.
There is also, however, a pressing need to make best use of what we already have. I strongly support the moves being made to encourage as much building as is possible to take place within existing towns and cities, on so-called brownfield land. Many empty or underused buildings, too, are perfectly capable of being put to use for new homes, together with workspace, shops and other amenities. I have been encouraged by the growing development - at long last! - of a more lively market in the reuse of old buildings, many of which have great architectural and historic merit, into new-style apartments, studios and community space. I have played my part in all of this some years ago by initiating two organisations - The Phoenix Trust and Regeneration through Heritage - both of which are dedicated to enabling more of these projects to come forward, particularly in the case of large and difficult buildings, where market interest is insufficient to achieve a scheme without some assistance.
My remarks so far may suggest that I am hopelessly preoccupied with the design, layout and architecture of housing, and to this I plead a qualified 'guilty'. I do believe that the built environment has both subtle and profound influences on the psychological well-being of individuals and entire communities. And, when you think about it, are you not more likely to attract business and potential employment to a place whose environment is in itself attractive and truly liveable.
Surely, everyone should have the opportunity to live in a place where the quality of buildings and the public spaces which they frame, is elegant and which brightens their lives. This doesn't need to involve much greater expense, but it does require care and attention to detail. An investment of this kind will produce enhanced value in the longer term, as we are seeing at Poundbury.
The ability to walk to a shop, to school or even to work; the provision of squares, parks and public spaces for casual encounters, children's play and relaxation; a range of house types and tenures to cater for differing circumstances and fortunes. These are the raw materials for successful urban living - essential ingredients to encourage community growth and solidarity and, surely, to help reduce the extra cost of having to deal with the social problems that stem from not including these raw materials in the first place.
It is sad that such elementary aspirations have been undermined, and continue to be so, by planning, property and financial orthodoxy. Land use zoning, single purpose developments, relentless road building and economic dispersal have all played a role in degrading the character and quality of urban development. It is easy to be pessimistic, even cynical, when one considers the long-term trends and powerful forces which underlie these frustrations, yet I detect some real interest in change, and it is precisely this interest which I would like to promote through my own limited efforts.
It seems to me that there is a growing public and professional awareness that we simply cannot go on as we have done. In our urban environment there is a reaction against the relentless building of more soulless and sprawling housing estates which degrade the quality of both town and country, just as in the countryside there is a reaction against the equally relentless growth of large-scale, industrial farming which degrades the quality of farm produce and the land on which it is produced. The extraordinary growth in consumer demand for organic produce, up by some 70 per cent over the last year alone, is a good indication that people are not just interested in, but are also willing to pay, for food which is produced by more healthy and civilised techniques. The same concern for quality can, I believe, be as relevant for the homes and the neighbourhoods in which we live, and which many of you here today will help to shape.
The challenge, therefore, is to break with a long-standing conventional approach which has boxed professions and ideas into narrow categories and functions and, instead, to see the subtle and not so subtle links between them; to understand better that the complexities of people's lives and livelihoods require a sophistication of thought and of planning which has been all too often absent in practice. But there can be little doubt that more creative thinking is now emerging. So, for instance, it is no longer a heresy to suggest that there should perhaps, be limits on the amount of new housing for rent which is provided in any particular development. Instead, many, even most, who work in the social housing world accept that mixed tenures are generally better than single tenure estates. Apparently, too, we have now all but accepted that dealing with traffic congestion by building ever more and ever wider roads is unlikely to prove successful in doing anything other than provoking yet more congestion.
It is this quest to promote a more integrated form of theory and practice about urban planning, design, architecture and development which has led me to create a new charitable Foundation. The Prince of Wales's Foundation for Architecture and the Urban Environment will bring together practitioners and theorists, students and professionals from different backgrounds in order to understand better how to create more liveable urban environments. The Foundation will act as an umbrella for some of the organisations which I have helped create in this arena, including the Urban Villages Forum, which is assisting in the planning of a substantial number of large urban regeneration projects around the country; my own Institute of Architecture, which will offer existing and new courses for students of urban planning and design, and work being done by The Phoenix Trust and Regeneration through Heritage, which, as I have said earlier, have a remarkable portfolio of schemes to bring new life to derelict historic and industrial buildings.
The Foundation will operate from a converted nineteenth century warehouse in Shoreditch, in London; a place from which an ambitious programme of activity is being planned. Although it will be some months before it becomes fully operational, the Foundation has already begun to promote its message. Just last Thursday I addressed the Foundation's first major event - a seminar discussion on the topical theme of planning successful town extensions - and I was delighted that we managed to assemble a first class audience of senior housing, property, landowner and planning executives, including many from the social housing world, to take the discussion forward. We will be publishing a report of our deliberations in the near future.
I hope very much that the Foundation will be able to offer the kind of service which all of you feel is relevant, perhaps even essential, to the work which you do. I see it as a resource; a place where those with an interest in the quality of where and what we build, can find support, ideas, contacts and inspiration. I want it to become a natural home for the kinds of ideas which I have been expressing this afternoon and, still more importantly, an academy and a network from which real change for the better can spring. I want it to be the crucible for a more humane and holistic approach to the way in which we plan and build in the twenty-first century.
The basic business of housing associations is to provide homes for those who cannot afford to pay market prices for their accommodation. It is a role which - unlike the private housing developer - is inherently long term, and one which also demands a multi-faceted response to the many difficulties which housing association tenants often face. By definition, most housing association residents are in need of support because of their circumstances, perhaps because they are unemployed, have a disability, or are on very low incomes. I believe that the housing association movement, and the Housing Corporation in particular, under the Chairmanship of Baroness Dean, is increasingly aware that these complex needs can best be met by taking a more far-sighted approach to the way in which new communities are planned and, indeed, how existing communities can be regenerated. For far too long, there has been an obsession with planning aspects of our lives and communities as separate entities, segregating houses from work; tenants from owner occupiers; old from young. My plea is to find a form of planning which can reunite the essential links between the many elements of life and community, and to design new and regenerated neighbourhoods.
It would seem appropriate to conclude with the wise words of the great American philanthropist, James M. Rouse, who once said that 'We must believe, because it is true, that people are affected by their environment·by space and scale, by colour and texture, by nature and beauty; that they can be uplifted, made comfortable and made important'."