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Riette Oosthuizen Interview

Following the first series of Creating Better Places interviews from 2010 to 2013, I have been invited to continue these interviews with a focus on the RTPI's CPD priorities.


Riette -oosthuizenMy first interview in the new series is with Riëtte Oosthuizen, Planning Partner at HTA Design LLP, winner of the RTPI Awards for Planning Excellence 2015 for Planning for the Natural Environment for the zero carbon scheme at Hanham Hall, Bristol.

Interview by Martin Willey FRTPI (RTPI Past President 2009-10).


Riëtte, my subject is 'land as a resource' tell me a little about your background before we get to the subject matter?

I was born and educated in South Africa and studied for two degrees in planning in the '90s then worked as a lecturer in the University of Pretoria, Dept. of Town and Regional Planning before moving to the UK to study and work as research fellow at CURS in Birmingham. I was really interested in the philosophy of language and how it affects communication, policy and practice. Whilst teaching I specialised in planning theory and the role of communicative rationality as explored by a number of people at the time including Bent Flyvbjerg and Patsy Healy. I looked at the language of structure plans over a 10 year period; how they changed from pre-apartheid to post-apartheid. In the late 1990's we were especially interested in integrated development plans in South Africa as part of restructuring a very disjointed urban landscape. I was then employed at Knight Frank as a planning consultant then moved in 2007 to where I am now with a small planning team at HTA Design LLP; a firm of nearly 150 people in two offices. I have been involved with getting planning approvals for the delivery of over 3,600 homes in the planning team portfolio alone. We specialise in creative collaboration and homes and places that would encourage sustainable behaviour.

There is a different approach to land and planning in South Africa because there is much more land. In cities much of it is underused as people don't tend to build tall. Areas of high density population are often associated with deep poverty. The urban landscape still bears scars from apartheid - public transport networks and affordable housing areas are not best located for opportunities. Nonetheless, my PhD at CURS was concerned with the experience of social exclusion in a post war estate in Birmingham, understanding the structural issues addressed by New Deal for Communities and Area Based Regeneration and their influences on life and behaviour. I worked as a coffee morning volunteer for three years for a charity and gained a deep insight into the barriers to getting into work, but also the problems of single parent mums, the long term out of work, asylum seekers and refugees and the disabled who couldn't get into work.

In South Africa, land is a political issue where apartheid meant moving people out to 'Homelands' and creating barriers to wider movement to jobs although the World Cup did at least result in a rail line from Pretoria to Johannesburg Airport now frequently used by the wider public. Many new housing developments are still about creating a barrier for reasons of perceived safety. After first graduating, I worked for the Government's Land Affairs Department for a short while looking at returning land to those forcefully removed. The Restitution of Land Rights Act came into force in South Africa in 1994. It aimed to resolve questions about land where people were forcefully removed as a result of racially discriminatory practices.

Contrast this with the UK where there is a perceived shortage of land and the questions are about where new housing should go. The scarcity of housing land is the primary reason for the lack of affordable houses in London. HTA is really interested in the efficient use of land and in London there is resistance to the use of back gardens as a collective resource for housing and the primary solution appears to be a wide range of often undesirable individual permitted development terrace house extensions. Take another example, why can't a Green Belt site surrounded on three sides by motorways be released for housing? Green Belt has been turned into an artificial policy artefact for political reasons. Much of it is not actually 'green'. How do we balance policy for the sake of policy and common sense? HTA promote the concept of "Supurbia", the more efficient use of suburban housing land in outer London. We promote the use of Local Development Orders in areas of low density suburban housing to permit new housing in back garden blocks against clear design codes set out for example in a Plot Passport, similar to the Dutch Custom Build model, rather than permitted development which often leads to poor and haphazard design.

How does the local and national policy environment affect your work Riëtte? Has some recent guidance had unintended consequences?

Since the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2012 and the focus on the need for an adequate housing supply, there has been a lot more emphasis in our work on interrogating Councils' housing delivery figures. This is the primary angle we use when working with local authorities resistant to new development. We work with a number of clients in areas out of London with sites suitable for development that takes a very long time to come forward simply because of out of date local planning policies.

The NPPF placed a renewed emphasis on design quality, but we see local planning authorities get paralysed by input from Design Panels. I'm afraid that Building for Life standards do not always reflect people's behaviour or aspirations for a home.

The Deregulation Act will also have a maybe unintended effect. The changes to the Technical Standards for Housing and consequent requirements for local authorities to now provide evidence for wheelchair housing need is something we start seeing in schemes. In London, whilst the delivery of the wheelchair access housing component is not normally a problem, the requirement for delivery of wheelchair car parking for each wheelchair access unit can be challenging on very tight, high density sites. The demise of the Code for Sustainable Homes also makes it more difficult to convince some developers to develop highly sustainable housing and adopt sustainable technologies.

The high price of new housing in London increasingly forces people into rented housing. We are starting to work on a number of private rented schemes and the question for these developers is whether there could be flexibility in terms of housing standards. Smaller units could be compensated for by high levels of well designed communal spaces and landscapes.

However, questions about housing affordability in London does make me worry about what planners are doing about increasing levels of child poverty. This issue is not adequately covered in most local or national policy and is a growing unintended consequence of recent changes.

Can we hear a little more about Hanham Hall?

01. Hanham _Hall -credit Tim CrockerHTA's planning team specialises in difficult infill sites. We have worked on a number of schemes with the London Borough of Islington redeveloping garage sites, or in Luton with Wates using left over land - such as grass verges - for housing. We make it our work to get approval on challenging projects through building good relationships with people.

At Hanham Hall, the energy of the design team and client, with very challenging objectives, open communication channels, an enthusiastic local planning authority and not underestimating the capacity of the local community to embrace planning objectives - all combined to deliver both an efficient use of land and an energy efficient and community welcomed, profitable, and sustainable project. Residents both future and current had expectations for housing that was light inside as well as energy efficient and that had space for the ironing board and for kids play and has a generous front door. Energy efficient housing does not need to look like it has come from outer space.

Other important issues in delivering green schemes are the experience of the architect and of the contractor and their sub-contractors. The correct skills are beginning to emerge, but however efficient the use of land, unless the construction is carbon neutral, and the design fitting the technology, the benefits are less. At Hanham Hall we had a continuous dialogue with Kingspan to maximise the benefits of offsite manufacture which relies on precision components and precision construction. The benefits, the luxury of having the whole team in one room from the outset, from brief to design, to consents, to construction, occupation and management was really essential to the delivery of the scheme. With the local community, having a good old argument helped us to overcome objections or respond to them, but the dialogue increased understanding and respect on both sides. As a planner you have to move from one stage to another.

If you just plan to fill a site with boxes you are bound to generate objections and it may be profitable, but it doesn't create a sustainable place.

Turning more specifically to the use of land, Riëtte, what criteria did you use at Hanham Hall to address efficiency and sustainability?

The criteria for assessing need, designing and distributing different uses were applied by different stakeholders, but against a collective aim of a zero carbon scheme. The architects and developers were keen to maximise the number of units, dealing with detail and commercial drivers. The planners wanted to address the wider context, history and neighbourhood character and develop a design that took account of physical and environmental constraints, but created a high density, liveable environment. We wanted to create streets, and make houses and flats more personable, especially for the active elderly or young people who may want to live in the space long term. The significance of climate change was uppermost in our minds and we wanted to take future residents with us by introducing resident management arrangements for both rented and owner occupied housing that were sustainable. We sought more than a technical energy efficient performance, inviting people to buy into a new lifestyle. This would include sitting out on a verandah, growing their own food and sharing management tasks across a whole community.

How has your work at Hanham Hall addressed the issue of climate change - in particular using planning to persuade people to change their behaviour?

We used dialogue with neighbours, the HCA (English Partnerships at the time) Design Panel, South Gloucestershire Council and the Hanham Abbots Parish Council in sometimes challenging, but intellectually explanatory ways. We used conflict, whether amongst partners/stakeholders or locals, to bring people onto a different and higher level of understanding about climate change and zero carbon rationale. We also displayed our own willingness to learn from these exchanges as the project moved forward – a form of continuous, interactive and constructive communication.

The team of Barratts, Sovereign Housing, HTA, Arup, Kingspan, HCA and South Gloucestershire Council could only work together if we each understood each others' behaviour patterns and could anticipate and secure each others' aims. We achieved this through workshops and technical testing of all evidence and sharing it with the community. The impact on the use of land was considerable and as the scheme evolved the intensity and distribution of components led to the scheme that has won the RTPI and other awards.

How important was winning an RTPI Award for Planning Excellence and what next?

To win against outstanding competition from large practices, and to receive the critical acclaim and feedback was hugely beneficial to our small team, but also other partners.

We intend to grow but in terms of knowledge and experience as well as value and I would be happy to share my experiences at an RTPI event if that would be welcome.

Finally can you offer some lessons learned in the efficient use of land as a resource?

I suppose if I was here to return to where I started from as planner - the value of open communication and how that could create an energy and new level of understanding, the most efficient use of land comes through thorough collaboration. We are so often as planning consultant and planning officer in an adversarial relationship with each other. Good planning is about pro-active partnership working - with everyone involved.

Thank you very much Riëtte.

Interview by Martin Willey FRTPI (RTPI Past President 2009-10).


Find out more about Understanding land as a resource (demand for energy) at the RTPI.