The Master Developer role in delivering quality places

Post Date
23 March 2023
Christopher Gray
Read Time
4 minutes

This article has been written by Christopher Gray, Associate Director at OPEN (now part of SLR).

Current UK ‘Levelling Up’ Secretary, Michael Gove, supported calls over the festive break for a new school for urban design which would focus on delivering skills and knowledge that would allow a new generation of built environment professionals to “build beautiful, sustainable places in which people and communities can thrive.” The recurring issue of design quality in new places has been tackled by numerous reports over the years and there is no doubt that the quality of new housing delivered in the UK in the past few decades has been poor. There is an argument that much of the opposition to the considerable number of new homes which are so desperately needed across the UK comes from public fears that such new places will continue this negative trend.

Just last year, “A Housing Design Audit for England” by UCL audited the housing of large housing schemes in England and produced a damning report which “showed that there has been a small overall improvement in housing design quality nationally since the last audits that were conducted between 2004 and 2007. However, because this improvement is from a low base – what the Chartered Institute of Building Engineers at the time called “An uncompromising and unflattering picture” – the large majority of new housing developments are still ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’. Three quarters of the audited projects fell into these categories.”

The research found that improvement was only apparent in aspects of Secured by Design, but many other design aspects were of poor quality. The report highlighted overly engineered highways infrastructure, the poor integration of storage, bins, and car parking and little evidence of establishing a positive new character for development.

The authors specifically highlighted the failure to deliver a green and bio-diverse landscape in many projects which, in the context of a climate and biodiversity emergency, amounts to a sub-standard response to the considerable environmental challenges we face.

OPEN (now part of SLR) have always ensured consideration of landscape and the environment has been fundamental to the work we do, whether in masterplanning, architecture, landscape architecture, or environmental planning. Landscape and the environment considerations aren’t just about ‘greening’ a plan – we always approach projects from the standpoint that the green and open spaces within the designs must work hard to be multi-functional spaces which form a quality framework and setting to a place. They are a fundamental aspect of a plan and must be considered from the outset if we are to form new places which are good for residents and good for the environment.

With this background, the issue is less about skillset deficiencies and more about how to deliver designs within the commercial realities of the housing market. At OPEN (now part of SLR) we have considerable experience in supporting clients in their role as Master Developer, an approach we feel can address many of the concerns highlighted through housing audits relating to quality and establishing sustainable new places where people want to live.

In the Master Developer approach, a single organisation undertakes to promote the site, secure planning permission, deliver enabling infrastructure works and common open spaces, and create serviced plots of land for sale to a range of builders and developers. The role has been described as a ‘guardian of placemaking’ seeking to deliver a high-quality result, however the bottom line is that creating a quality place drives better returns. Master Developers have seen the value that can be generated when there is a genuine interest in delivering a place and are willing to take on that responsibility rather than pass it on to others.

The table below provides an overview of differences in approach between Master Developer and traditional volume housebuilder. This is not to say that a volume housebuilder doesn’t sometimes draw on the same approaches as a Master Developer, but latest research shows that in general, volume housebuilders are still behind when it comes to recognising the importance of design and quality development.

In our experience, having a Master Developer allows for variety within larger developments - housebuilders actually like other builders there (up to a point) because it allows for differentiation and market choice. It also allows housebuilders to focus on the process of building houses without the distraction of wider strategic issues such as infrastructure, utilities connections and drainage in which they may not be experienced or specialised.

With more support for such a long term, bolder approach we believe there is a genuine route to achieving improved quality in our new places across the country.

Master Developer approach compared with Traditional Volume Housebuilder approach

Recent posts

  • Insight

    07 December 2023

    4 minutes read

    Understanding the new EU Nature Restoration Law

    by Ida Bailey

    View post
  • Insight

    06 December 2023

    6 minutes read

    The role of nature-based solutions in meeting the climate challenge

    by Stewart Lenton

    View post
  • Insight

    05 December 2023

    5 minutes read

    Future Assured Insights: Positioning your organization for success under a sustainability agenda | Part 1

    by Michelle Gluck, Carol-Ann Fletcher

    View post
See all posts