The basic challenge, to deliver a ’20-minute neighbourhood’

IF it is the intention of government to genuinely deliver the concept of the ’20-minute neighbourhood’ – as espoused by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in her introduction to her government’s programme for 2020/21 – it will mean the transformation of large housing developments into, essentially, fully-functioning and self-sustaining villages.

That applies as much to developments still on the drawing board as to already-existing ones. As far as the latter is concerned, the blunt truth is that many of them are no more than only housing (at their worst, some the size of a large town and not even having a pub).

But the happy, historic fact is that many of these developments – particularly those from a few decades ago – were built with generous amounts of amenity land – in the form of large gardens and common spaces – which might just hold the key to delivering the variegation necessary for a ’20-minute neighbourhood’.

The ’20-minute neighbourhood’ is about life’s essentials – including food, health, recreation, education, culture and work – being within a 20-minute walk or cycle journey. A not unreasonable assumption is that such places can also help generate community cohesion, perhaps with the assistance of some pro-active community activism.

Assuming it is possible to use amenity land for additional housing (and safely, bearing in mind the seemingly high prevalence of COVID-19 in dense neighbourhoods), the economics might just stack up.

That prospect becomes potentially even more achievable in those housing developments originally built by local authorities, where lots of the land will continue to be owned by the authority (even following the introduction of Right to Buy legislation, now no longer operational in Scotland).

Were it possible to persuade a local authority to lend its land for no more than a token amount, then all manner of benefits might flow: not just the delivery of a ’20-minute neighbourhood’, but also much-needed ‘affordable housing’ and refurbishment of existing stock.

With land costs set at near zero, it might be just possible to ‘kill two birds with the one stone’; ie deliver housing at affordable prices while still providing sufficient surplus revenue to undertake both a programme of refurbishment and neighbourhood variegation.

The crunching of the numbers would require to be supplemented by research into the critical mass required to turn a hitherto soulless housing estate into a bustling village. Just how many households are required to make viable a cafe, a convenience store, a GP surgery or a dental practice?

Some of the required research should be relatively easy to source – there has to be modelling behind the building of schools undertaken by volume house-builders, as part of a trade-off when securing planning permission. But does anything similar exist in, say, the retail industry?

Other possible areas of research include not just the most appropriate legal structure – surely, not-for-profit – to deliver a ’20-minute neighbourhood’ but how to protect against the inflationary pressures of the likely gentrification that would be taking place.

Especially if concepts such as robust environmental credentials, providing wildlife habitat, self-sufficient food production, car sharing and cohousing were added to the mix, such neighbourhoods could become extremely desirable, with resulting upward pressures on the price of housing. 

Mike Wilson is a member of the editorial team

Pictured: Stenhouse, in Edinburgh. Housing takes up only a portion of the land taken up by the estate. A first-stab re-imagining of the area (here) – by Edinburgh-based architect practice, StudioDuB – suggests as many as 254 new apartments could be built there, using 98 per cent of the existing drainage system, involving the loss of some trees (but the planting of many more) and with some re-configuring of car parking, roads and footpaths.