Time to tackle our house building crisis


Geraint Talfan Davies says that as well as more we need better homes

Housing is in a mess. There aren’t enough homes for people to buy or rent. And for many those that exist are unaffordable. There isn’t enough money available for lending, yet total UK household debt, of which house purchase and improvement is a major component, has reached an astronomical figure, now counted in trillions.

Prices are climbing again and newspapers, perversely, treat it as good news, unlike the Governor of the Bank of England who, fearing another housing bubble, last week closed the bank’s Funding for Lending scheme to household mortgage hunters. The news came only 16 months after the scheme was launched, and a mere 16 days after the Welsh Government limped in with its own mortgage guarantee scheme for first time buyers.

The volume house builders, who are bidding to overtake farmers as champion  whingers, complain that they would be building more houses if only the pesky planners would not get in the way. In Wales, they have bludgeoned the Welsh Government into backtracking on environmentally sensible building regulations. Even then some of them tell us that, in south Wales, they will not build in the upper Valleys, above what they clearly see as an economic snow line.

Yet, according to the Local Government Association, the big house builders have been sitting on no less than 400,000 plots across England and Wales on which they already have permission to start putting spades in the ground. Money not bureaucracy is the problem, yet this did not stop the government in England from caving in to the house builder lobby with legislation that incorporates a ‘presumption in favour of development’. No doubt they will be pressing for a similar carte blanche in the promised Welsh Planning Bill that is soon to be published in draft before going out to public consultation.

But even if Eric Pickles in England or Carl Sergeant in Wales were to wave a magic wand and set people to work on every site that had permission, what kind of houses would be built? That was the question that was posed at a Design Commission for Wales seminar in Cardiff last week. It asked how innovative design could drive the delivery of good quality, sustainable homes which people can afford?

There is a desperate need to challenge existing practice in house building. We need to stop building houses that are too small, that do not have the flexibility that growing families might need, are often too poorly built, and squeezed into estates that are comprised mainly of unimaginative car-lined cul de sacs, or high rise blocks that sit in tarmaced deserts.

A report by the Royal Institute of British Architects, recently launched a campaign for better quality new homes because it feared that we would see a further fall in standards as a result of this prolonged recession. It has drawn attention to the fact that we are already building the smallest homes in the EU. New homes in Denmark are 80 per cent bigger than in England and Wales, in the Netherlands 53 per cent bigger, and in Ireland 15 per cent bigger. Even new homes in Japan, a country renowned for space economy, are 21 per cent bigger.

The RIBA commissioned Kevin McCloud, the presenter of Channel 4’s Grand Designs, to produce a short video. He demonstrated that the space in an average one-bed new home in the UK is the same as that in a single carriage of the London Underground. It is no wonder that people feel so aggrieved at the bedroom tax. The spare room – if, indeed, it is spare at all – may be the necessary small extra space that makes the rest of the home properly habitable. Our new homes are being built as open plan, not as a design choice, but because there is no room for walls. It’s no wonder there is a consumer website for housebuyers named Swingacat.

We should not marvel at these obvious shortcomings when England and Wales are the only EU countries with no minimum space standards for housing, and local authorities are not obliged to log the floor sizes of homes when assessing planning applications. Scotland does have standards.

At the Design Commission seminar there was no shortage of innovative thinking. Ed Green, of Cardiff-based Pentan Architects, made the case for homes that are spacious, flexible, adaptable, beautiful, low energy and healthy, and thought that all these attributes could be delivered in a package that is affordable. This year his firm’s ‘Barnhaus’ concept, an eco home designed to be self-built for as little as £41,000, won the ‘Self-Build on a Shoestring Award’ at Grand Designs Live. Last year his firm won the British Homes Awards ‘future house’ competition.

Niall Maxwell, of the Rural Office for Architecture, based near Newcastle Emlyn, saw possibilities in the simple form of many agricultural building in order to produce a new, ecologically sound vernacular architecture for rural areas. Mark Barry, of Architype, based in Hereford and London, is a proponent of the Passivhaus standard, a fast growing energy performance standard developed in Germany in the 1990s.  By concentrating on the fabric of the building he thought there was a way of sharply reducing energy consumption and costs, and saw no reason why it should not become a UK standard, as it has done already in the German city of Freiburg.

Mike Roberts managing Director at HAB Housing (Happiness, Architecture, Beauty) thought it was not just about the houses but also about creating great places in which to live. We had created a nation of ‘nimbys’ because new houses are never seen as an asset by existing communities. There was a danger in good design being seen as a niche product – it had to become mainstream. But he doubted that could happen without changing the whole system – how we build, how we fund, how we market. The problem is how to achieve that, in a situation where the volume builders seem to have so much leverage over legislation and regulations.

In free market Britain there is a reluctance to intervene in the housing land market – although the Welsh Government seems less reticent in the commercial property field. The relationship between local authorities and house builders is adversarial, possibly because funding and taxation is arranged in a way that ensures the interests of both parties are not aligned. The operation of the land market has squeezed out many medium-sized and small builders, in favour of the big volume suppliers, thus limiting choice and competition.

And the industry has been hopelessly conservative both in its approach to design – external rather than internal – and in its approach to construction. It has favoured largely traditional methods, rather than factory built systems that could deliver better quality, high environmental standards, improved design, and more consumer choice at a more affordable cost. The current system is in every way sub-optimal, and no way to build homes fit for families and fit for the future. But it would be a mistake to think that change is too difficult. There are opportunities here for Wales to innovate.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

9 thoughts on “Time to tackle our house building crisis

  1. Interesting piece and I’m sure things could be done better as GTD asserts. The puzzling thing is: why isn’t it happening now? It can’t just be the conservatism of house builders can it? There is some competition in that market and if the incentives were right wouldn’t they respond? Where are the roadblocks?

    Now may I ask the editor an unrelated question: how much censorship is there on this site? Mr John Walker alleged on a recent thread that Jon Jones was banned from the site. Is that true? If not can you deny it and if so can you state the grounds? It is a most disturbing allegation.

  2. Mr. Tredwyn is right – the banning of Jon Jones is disturbing and he was not alone.

    Lee Waters’ response is also rather disturbing since Jon Jones was banned on the 17th of July, 2013 but the comments policy linked to did not appear until the 22nd of July, 2013. On the face of it the comments policy may have been cobbled up afterwards but Jon Jones had no knowledge of it when he was banned.

    The only conclusion I can draw is that a number of the IWA’s voiciferous anti-democratic contributors have decided that they can’t stand the competition! Jon Jones’ unique compilation of statistics on the relative failure of WM education must be a cause for extreme concern, to people on the Welsh language gravy train, which they really need to have removed from the public domain, along with any open rational informed discussion, since their weak case will not stand any kind of robust scrutiny on any level.

    If it looks like a conspiracy to silence the opposition then there’s a fair chance it was a conspiracy to silence the opposition! We have seen these bullying tactics used before on other web forums in Wales. Would Lee Waters care to provide a more comprehensive explanation or is this the beginning of ‘First they came’?


  3. The comments policy has been in place for some time, but you are right it was not published. However, it was drawn to the attention of several contributors who were dominating the debates with off topic posts. The decision to prevent a very small number of people from crowding out relevant discussion to the posts was not taken lightly. Please read the comment policy, I think it is reasonable

  4. I could not agree more with GTD. U.K. housing policy is in a terrible mess and that we see some of the worst excesses here in Wales where unfortunately we try to ape Westminster policies at every opportunity. He does however fall for some of the key fallacies perpetuated by powerful producer interests.
    Housing policy in the U.K. has been driven for decades by two fundamental ‘conventional wisdoms’ or myths that seem to be almost unshakeable. The first of these, is that house prices always rise in real terms – a falsehood that recent history has shaken somewhat around the developed world – but house owners and governing politicians in the U.K. and in Wales, cling to at any cost. The second, is closely aligned of-course, and sees housing demand as nearly always insatiable in all local housing markets regardless of statistical and sometimes even visible evidence to the contrary e.g. empty homes, derelict accommodation, under occupation and void private lettings in all our university towns and hundreds of city centre apartments that have never been occupied. This information rarely if ever reaches the public domain and the media remain uninterested …often because of their own commercial interests. I have written before of how the Western Mail regularly publishes up beat assessments of house prices but rarely reports on negative house price data or the dangers of household mortgage debt. Judging by the size of it’s Property Supplement, this is no surprise!
    Finally, that the Welsh Government has slavishly but belatedly followed it’s UK counterpart in initiating a mortgage guarantee scheme is particularly disappointing. It is now widely accepted by economists that this will render the greater availability of mortgage finance but not the availability of houses. It panders to the construction industry lobby and the volume house builders who already operate a highly effective cartel and control the availability of land brought forward for development. A crisis looms, no less than the miss-selling banking scandals of recent years, for young families and people have been induced to take on unsustainable mortgages by the Westminster government predicated on …the myth of ever rising real house prices and, even if they escape a sharp correction in house prices they will still face a lifetime of penury. Unfortunately, the ‘housing policy’ community in Wales is suffering dreadfully from a lack of both ideas, originality and courage, to mitigate…. let alone solve the many distinctive problems it has on it’s doorstep .

  5. Anyone who reads this blog site knows I seldom agree with Jon Jones and I am a strong supporter of Welsh language education. Yet it is with great concern that I hear he has been banned and I urge his unbanning as soon as possible. He has a skewed view of educational issues in my opinion but he always brings evidence to bear in support of his arguments. I welcome the injection of a few facts into discussion. All too few people do it. Posts are moderated after all; it is possible for the editor to exclude one if it is too off-subject. I do not think it is reasonable to ban a correspondent entirely because he has diverted a discussion from time to time. I don’t think I have agreed with Mr Walker before, or not often, but he is right that this banning opens the IWA up to suspicion of silencing opinions it finds disagreeable.

  6. an excellent and thought provoking article on the housing crisis in wales from geraint talfan davies. i feel theres not so much a ‘housing crisis’ in wales as a ‘affordable housing crisis’….as for many people in wales the truth is that buying is simply not an option and the only hope of housing is at best thru the rented social housing sector, or at worst the hitherto unregulated and much more expensive private rented sector. Result being that there are now a huge number of people in wales on housing waiting lists – shelter wales has suggested as many as 90,000! And for this shameful state of affairs mrs thatcher’s tory government of the 80s has a lot to answer for, not in as much that many tenants on moderate incomes were able to buy their own homes but rather that much of the council housing stock in wales that was sold off wasnt replaced, or rather wasnt allowed to be replaced by restrictions placed on local authorities by the then central government at westminister.

    Sadly however a change of government at westminister in 1997 – and devolution coming to wales – hasnt seen any meaningful improvement in the chronic lack of affordable housing availabe in wales. Indeed less counci houses were actually built during the blair and brown years than under mrs thatcher and john major. Further the blair government and the welsh assembly effecively bribed councils to flog off their remaining housing stocks via ‘stock transfer’ to so called ‘community mutuals’ or housing associations.

    Clearly the case for more social housing in wales is overwhelming, indeed aside from the unarguable moral case for a significant social housing building programme in wales there is a very good economic case too ie people would need to be employed to build them. But sadly there doesnt seem to be the political will or interest from wales current political class to consider embarking on such a programme. Its also worth reflecting that one of the principal reasons why many welsh councils have tried in recent times to offload their housing stocks was so that they wouldnt fall foul of the welsh assembly’s so called ‘housing quality standard’ – a laudible concept in one sense but in another sense somewhat laughable when you consider that tens of thousands of people in wales are without a home of their own at all.The massive social housing waiting lists in wales are surely the lowest ‘quality standard’ of all and one which successive welsh government’s have thus far done little to address.

  7. Erthygl ddifyr iawn – cytuno â’r pwyntiau ynglŷn â grym y cwmnïau mawrion dros y system sy’n creu problemau i’r amgylchedd, prisiau a’r iaith.

  8. To get back to housing…..

    Why aren’t we/WG making more of the Coed Cymru Ty Unnos concept? Tried and tested, fully compliant and uses welsh timber, grown and processed. Cladding to suit and modules care of Elements Uk. The costs are highly competitive, insulation qualities second to none, and demonstration sites/examples a plenty – see the 4 houses at Dolwyddelan, where they are even outperforming the very high standards originally set, as a report on the first 18month experience will show!

    Shame on Wales, will we never learn/make use of our home grown excellence….

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