Striving for design excellence in the West Midlands
13 September 2007
Adrian Passmore, chief executive of RegenWM, argues that the housing audit shows a growing enthusiasm for good design in the West Midlands.
CABE's Housing Audit for the West Midlands provided robust evidence of the challenges we face in consistently creating higher quality homes and neighbourhoods. The Audit provided a wake-up call for the West Midlands with standards just not high enough compared to other regions. But the response to the Audit shows that there is a growing commitment and enthusiasm among public and private sector partners to make good design a hallmark of all new schemes in the region.
RegenWM, the Regeneration Centre of Excellence in the West Midlands, is working with partners across the region to harness this momentum, stimulate the debate about design quality and build on this collective commitment.
Using Building for Life
In July this year, RegenWM and CABE hosted a large meeting of key public and private sector partners in the region. The group explored how the West Midlands could commit to improving housing quality and looked at using Building for Life as a common reference point for design standards. Bringing partners together also provided an opportunity to address cross-sector approaches to the skills and training requirements for raising capacity to deliver higher quality housing.
Building for Life has already been adopted by government, industry, English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation as the national standard for well designed homes and neighbourhoods. Now the West Midlands are looking at ways to operationalise this national commitment.
With the Regional Development Agency and Government Office on board, as well as partners from across the development sectors, this network of organisations will work to promote and champion design quality in housing.
One of the main themes of the meeting was the skills and training requirements to ensure that practitioners are ready for the challenge ahead. What is needed is culture change, and this is where RegenWM can support the process. RegenWM runs design visits, seminars series and practical training sessions to foster debate, create common values and to identify shared understanding of "What good looks like".
We believe that learning from good practice is crucial to improving housing quality in the region. Our work with partners (such as MADE, Advantage West Midlands and Urban Vision North Staffordshire) through the Designed Environment West Midlands network (DEWM) showcases different ways of thinking about architecture, design and the delivery of high quality places and neighbourhoods.
We also need to celebrate our successes more. An example is Birmingham's Attwood Green, a sustainable and vibrant mixed-use community with a long-term future. Phase One was awarded a Building for Life Gold Standard in 2005 and Optima Community Association, a tenant-led organisation, are working successfully with local residents to build a stronger and sustainable community. A walk of its streets, parks and squares shows what is achievable.
Encouraging development teams to take their schemes through the Design Review process is another way forward. There are currently two Design Review services in the West Midlands hosted by MADE, the architecture centre for the West Midlands, and Urban Vision North Staffordshire. Their services support clients, planning officers and councillors in understanding and measuring good design, encouraging good schemes and identifying and resisting poor quality development.
A key outcome from the July meeting was a collective pledge to create champions for the design quality agenda. There is a strong commitment to 'up the game' in the region amongst the willing, but our task now is to ensure penetration of this message into all authorities and all house builders. To date the support from colleagues in the house building industry has been robust; they too appreciate the potential for improvement.
Across the West Midlands, we have a successful history of creating partnerships that do deliver. Now we need to ensure that delivery is of the highest possible quality. We need to work towards a shared vision and shared aspirations. There are nearly forty local authorities in the West Midlands and the challenge is to ensure that we deliver both quality and quantity.
The vision going forward is simple: Building for Life is adopted as the touchstone standard for quality. We have been audited once against the standard and next time it happens we will be doing much better.
It is our ambition to celebrate more exemplar good practice schemes in the West Midlands. Housing quality needs to be high on the agenda and Building for Life is a tool we can use to help achieve this. Momentum is building and these are exciting times ahead in the West Midlands.
Adrian Passmore is Chief Executive of RegenWM, the West Midlands Centre of Excellence for Regeneration.