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.

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