Charlotte Denning and Conor Green were overjoyed when they moved into their first home on a new hillside housing development on the northern fringes of Plymouth. But the reality of living for three years on an estate designed by housebuilding giant Persimmon has been frustrating in many ways.

“Almost every house has young families in, but there is literally nothing here for kids at the moment,” said Denning, 23, as a ferocious storm lashed the windows of their living room in Palmerston Heights. “They have to play on the road. Sometimes we move all the cars, so they at least have somewhere to run around.”

Their experiences are far from unique. Matthew Carmona, a professor at University College London, whose team has surveyed new housing schemes across the country as part of a major forthcoming report, says big developers are producing too many estates with serious design flaws. “At present we are just not meeting the basic requirements for civilised living that we should expect in a country like our own,” he said.

Carmona claims housebuilders are not investing enough in good design, especially in less affluent areas. “These are large companies making a lot of money out of housing development and having a huge impact on our country. They should be building sustainable estates which stand the test of time and allow communities to thrive,” he said. “Anything else is just not acceptable.”

The worst new estates lack nearby amenities such as shops, pubs and cafes. They are unconnected to surrounding areas, with few public transport links. They lack enough green spaces and playgrounds. They do little to encourage cycling and walking. The architecture is standardised and undistinctive, with affordable housing sometimes concentrated in particular areas, rather than mixed in with private homes.

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Denning and Green, who are both in the armed forces, said residents in Palmerston Heights needed to use cars nearly every day because there were few amenities within walking distance. “You have to get in a car to go to McDonald’s or KFC. The nearest pub is 20 minutes away. It’s not like popping over the road,” said Denning.

Other residents voiced similar complaints. A mother in her 30s said there was nowhere for kids to go on the estate. “People drive really fast around here,” she says. “I’m a bit of a worrier, so they can’t go out on their scooters as much as I would like.”

The closeness of the homes makes housing association tenant Ashlie Austin, 24, feel uncomfortable. “Everything is so squeezed in, so close together,” she said. She gestured down her hallway towards a window overlooking the rows below: “You can see them in their bathroom. I don’t like it and it must be hard for them.”

There are few places for people to get to know each other nearby. Janette McPherson, 48, said she only spoke to one neighbour. “I don’t know anybody really,” she said, keen to get out of the rain. “I’ll probably try and sell as soon as I can. It feels really claustrophobic.”

Local architect Mark Pearson, who assessed the estate for the UCL report, which was backed by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said it was one of the worst estates he had visited in the south-west. “The cumulative effect of all the design flaws and the isolation of the estate make it a miserable place to try to exist,” he said.

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The design code for the development, which will eventually see 873 homes built across 32 hectares, specifies distinctive architecture and a high-quality, accessible environment. But, Pearson, who is the executive director of the Architecture Centre Devon and Cornwall, said: “Residents have got the opposite.”

The original plans for Palmerston Heights included a gently sloping diagonal street, but permission was later sought for it to be replaced with steep steps. “It would be impossible for disabled people or people with prams to navigate,” he said. “People that were less mobile are virtually trapped in their homes.”

Persimmon, claimed Pearson, created the overlooking problems by giving over too much space to parking and opting for conventional two storey homes rather than the split-level homes mentioned in the design code. “It would have been a way of integrating the slope into the built form rather than just making platforms to stick conventional houses on,” he said.The streets are laid out with parking spaces in front of most houses and no storage for wheelie bins. “You have got to navigate around a bin or car before you get to the doorbell. It looks shabby. It doesn’t instil pride in a place, which is an essential ingredient in making a community,” he said.

Pearson argues that big developers are putting profit before good design. “It is immoral. It is the systemic whittling away of design quality in order to increase the profits going to shareholders and paid out in bonuses.”

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A spokesperson for Persimmon Homes said: “Palmerston Heights has been developed according to plans that have been approved by the local authority following extensive consultation. This process is the same for every developer nationwide.”

Last year, the housebuilder completed 15,855 homes and made an annual profit of £1.09bn – the biggest ever reported by a UK housebuilder.

Local planning departments don’t always have the resources to challenge the worst schemes and are under constant pressure to approve new homes. “Councils are really reliant on big schemes to boost housing numbers,” said Carmona. “They try to tweak their plans but often they don’t have the capacity to even get the basics right.”

Almost half of local planning authorities have no dedicated in-house design capacity at all according to UCL research by Urban Design Group charity in 2017. Carmona wants the government to make it clear that badly designed schemes should not be getting through the planning system, while reducing our dependence on private developers to deliver new homes. “The national planning policy framework states poor quality design should be refused. But substandard development is getting through because housing numbers trump other concerns,” he said.



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