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Mark Winterburn

Mark Winterburn is a Policy Advisor at the Royal Institute of British Architects.

After decades of fudges, excuses and hand-wringing, politicians finally seem to have gotten serious about the housing crisis. Yesterday Sajid Javid set out his vision for fixing what he called a “broken market” in need of “radical, lasting reform”. The measures contained in the Housing White Paper, from diversifying delivery to investing in infrastructure, will not be sufficient on their own – but they are definitely a step in the right direction.

And the scale of the ambition is significant. Javid wants to take us from building 190,000 to up to 275,000 homes a year. If successful, he will have achieved the greatest turnarounds since Harold Macmillan and his contemporaries dragged housebuilding from the depths of wartime slump to a post-war boom of 300,000 homes per year. There are many who rightly look back to those heady days for inspiration. And there is much to learn from Macmillan’s approach, not least the role he allowed local authorities to play in delivering the goods.

But there is another side to that story. In the rush to meet a dire need for more houses, too little thought was given to their design and quality. Those decaying council homes on which New Labour had to spend £22 billion to make habitable? Macmillan’s legacy. Those post-war estates which the Government is currently looking to regenerate? Macmillan again.

Nobody is suggesting that we are about to repeat mistakes on that scale, but there are some facts today which should concern us. Thirty-eight per cent of those who buy a new build property report at least 11 problems to their builder within the first few months of moving in (we have no idea how many more they find in subsequent years because the data isn’t collected at the moment). We build the smallest homes in Europe. And despite much exemplary practice out there, no one would dispute that too many new housing schemes are currently dull, uniform, and uninspiring.

The Government should care about this if it really wants to solve the housing crisis. It is no good building homes now which are harmful to the wellbeing of their residents, or which have to be replaced within the next few decades.

And there is also a short-term interest. Too often the public associate new build homes with the worst examples on the market – rather than some of the great new projects you can see around the country. Polling for the RIBA found that 31 per cent of people said they would not consider buying a home built in the last ten years, or would only consider it as a last resort. Of these, 60 per cent said it was because the rooms are too small, 46 per cent said they lack character, and 45 per cent were concerned about the lack of outside space.

Public attitudes have shifted positively in recent years towards housebuilding. Yet people are still far less likely to object if they could see themselves (or their children) living in new homes in their neighbourhood, and if those homes add to the beauty of their local area, or provide new schools, health centres and public space. Conservative MPs and councillors need to know that they can campaign for more housing without it coming back to bite them at the ballot box. So I hope that they will support the measures that we think can help.

In short, local people need confidence that they will like what comes out of the planning process and development pipeline. This is the logic of Neighbourhood Planning, where residents take charge of future of their local area. And it works. Government figures suggest housing may get a ten per cent boost in areas with a neighbourhood plan in place.

One of the best bits in the White Paper is that local and neighbourhood plans will be expected to develop detailed expectations for new homes, in consultation with the community. As ever, politicians must resist the temptation to oppose any development to appease those that are already well housed. But if done well, it could mean local people (i.e. you and me) working with architects and other experts to actively shape the look of what is built in their area.

It’s a flying start. Yet there’s much more to do. Rules currently require local authorities to dispose of public land to the highest bidder, not the builder that will deliver the best designed homes and neighbourhoods. Cash-strapped local authorities oblige. Shoddy and unaffordable housing is too often the result as sky high land prices leave little money to design or build high quality.

This is absurd, to say the least. Some countries in Europe fix the price of their public land and then make bidders compete on design and affordability rather than price. That could work here, too. Or we could go for a compromise: have local authorities balance financial value with social value (think affordable homes, beauty, and infrastructure) when they consider bids.

On larger schemes, local authorities and developers benefit from the expertise of those who have been there before. Across the country, groups of architects and others have formed Design Review Panels who willing to provide their services. Their input can avoid blunders which would have come to blight future residents’ lives; their value is such that the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework requires local authorities to have design review arrangements with them in place. But in many cases this isn’t happening on the ground. The Government should make sure quality design review is in place when major new developments are built under Javid’s housebuilding drive.

And finally: this is the time to up our game in terms of standards, not to undermine them. In what appears to be an ill-considered response to some aggressive lobbying by a vocal minority among the housebuilders, the Government has indicated in the White Paper that it may undermine local authorities’ ability to enforce minimum space standards in new homes.

This is not about getting rid of red tape. The pioneer of space standards was none other than Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London. He recognised that smaller homes are not cheaper for buyers, just more profitable for builders and land owners. In London, as a result of his initiative, we are seeing homes become larger. Where space standards aren’t or can’t be enforced we are seeing two-person homes of less than 14 square meters being built. If that represents the future of housing in England, it would be a disaster.

The Government must take its own words seriously and treat this as an opportunity to build the right kind of homes in the right places. RIBA is convinced that quantity and quality are not mutually exclusive and that good design is the key to good housing. Architects across the country will be cheering Javid on, and will be ready to lend a hand when they can.

13 comments for: Mark Winterburn: We must build better, as well as more, homes

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