Will Housing Infrastructure Fund help drive quality landscape opportunities?

A £2.3bn fund that could "unlock" 100,000 new homes in areas of high demand was launched by the Government in early July. But will it unlock the landscape essential to all those new homes and communities?

New homes: Image - Pixabay
New homes: Image - Pixabay

Communities secretary Sajid Javid used a Local Government Association conference in Birmingham to say the investment would help fund infrastructure such as roads, bridges, energy networks and other utilities. The absence of these, he insisted, is holding back housebuilding.

This cash pot is called the Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF) and Javid invited local authorities across England to come forward with bid proposals to help ensure homes are built faster.

Once proposals have been approved, local authorities will immediately begin building the necessary infrastructure for the homes to follow quickly afterwards.

Kings Landscapes managing David Houghton echoes Javid's positive vibe, insisting the £2.3bn investment for infrastructure is "very good for landscaping" even though it will take at least two or three years before the landscape industry can benefit from the fund.

"The Government owns a lot of land and the main reason this new fund is good is it's less likely to be watered down on landscaping. The Government has staked a lot in the HIF and ministers will therefore make sure standards are high and get the right consultants on board."

Houghton adds: "I'm very interested to see where the sites will go and have a feeling they will be looking at areas along the route of the new High Speed 2 (HS2) railways. Much of this is heading north to areas around Leeds and Manchester, which is a good place for housing and landscape. But we still need a lot of housing in the south east of England to keep up with demand."

HOUSING QUALITY

Landscape Institute policy committee chair Kate Bailey has welcomed the announcement of the HIF in the Autumn Statement last year, but insists housing quantity cannot be divorced from housing quality. People want desirable housing, not just any housing, and committing to good landscape in every new development is one way of achieving that goal, she explains.

BALI chief executive Wayne Grills is a little guarded too — for another reason. While he believes the fund could be good for the industry, there is also a danger that the skills gap will worsen if we keep adding major infrastructure projects and do not look at addressing the workforce shortage, he says.

"We must also future-proof these developments by ensuring there are sufficient funds available to maintain the green infrastructure in which hopefully they will be built," adds Grills.

"The industry that creates and maintains managed landscapes contributes over £13bn to GDP. Yet ongoing maintenance very often gets overlooked at the planning stage."

Urban Design Group (UGD) director Robert Huxford echoes this and adds that local authorities are in a state of "impoverishment". The UDG is a charity promoting high standards of urban design.

He says: "Any new funding in a time of local government shortage is to be welcomed. But the £575m-a-year HIF must be seen against the general decline in local government funding, which has seen £2.2bn cut in the revenue support grant in just one year."

That shortage of revenue funding is leading to a reluctance by highway authorities to adopt trees or landscaping beyond the most basic of specifications, leaving a legacy of "bleak, treeless housing development", he warns, adding that the HIF will not address a "systemic national problem".

On the fund itself, Huxford worries that while guidance includes blue and green infrastructure including sustainable drainage, parks and green corridors, the administration of the fund is "highly competitive" and these investments will be up against conventional road infrastructure with a "bias" towards upping road capacity rather than sustainable investment in walking, cycling and greenery.

"Unless changes are made to create a level playing field, the HIF won't change the situation. Unfortunately, many councils are still using old-style street design standards based on questionable or outdated Government guidance withdrawn a decade ago."

For example, some local authorities erroneously hold it is unlawful under any circumstances to plant trees within 15ft of the centre line of a highway, he says. Others, meanwhile, prohibit sustainable urban drainage within 5m of an adopted highway, in effect banishing them from residential developments.

"My concern is that much of the money will be spent on old-style infrastructure that serves vehicles but leaves pedestrians, cyclists and the wider environment bereft. If there is to be a serious claim to sustainable development, the HIF must prioritise blue and green infrastructure."


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