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Sometimes you just don't know whether to laugh or cry

The Home Builders Federation’s more thoughtful members are interested in good standards, not bad ones, says Paul Finch

Talking to the Centre for Accessible Environments last week, discussion turned to the question of regulation. Does Part M do the trick, or would we better off incorporating its provisions in other parts of the Building Regulation system, rather than have a separate section? This is a philosophical discussion that can rapidly turn political: Saturday’s Guardian lead headline read: ‘Bonfire of the building rules’, with the explanatory subhead ‘Government wants to ease regulations to boost construction industry’.

Can it really be true that the government is thinking about ‘tearing up standards including fire safety and wheelchair access’? If so, why stop there? Why not let the ‘construction industry’ self-certify structural integrity, and, when buildings collapse, let the families of the victims sue for damages? It would have nothing to do with the government, you see.

You might have thought, given the lessons of light touch regulation in the financial sector, that this government would be chary about applying deregulation elsewhere, especially where it involves the buildings in which we conduct our lives. Unfortunately, some politicians with a deregulatory bent assume benefits will flow automatically, and that there is no downside. They are generally ignorant of particular industries and are certainly ignorant about history. How silly to bring in regulation, of all things, after the Great Fire of London.

Regarding the regulations in general, and the housing market in particular (which is what this deregulatory initiative is aimed at), there are two profound reasons why it is a dumb idea, doomed to failure - either because it is abandoned or, worse, because it succeeds.

The first is that Building Regulations do not inhibit or delay housing or any other form of construction. Ironically, since a version of ‘deregulation’ was introduced to their operation, no one has to queue at the town hall to get designs approved. A variety of approvers, public and private, operate very successfully. A problem was resolved and, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

There is a second reason why this review, which, to be fair, will also cover voluntary standards like the Code for Sustainable Homes, is unlikely to make much difference to real-world housing. That is because the industry as a whole doesn’t particularly want it. It is true that the Home Builders Federation has welcomed the idea, but that is because it is a lowest common denominator organisation, in thrall to its worst members. I am sorry to say that the capable people who run it therefore have a default policy of opposing any improvement in quality of space or materials, sustainability or placemaking, and have been doing so for decades.

The federation’s more thoughtful members, for example the Berkeley Group or Crest Nicholson, are interested in good standards, not bad ones. The scare stories told about the cost of meeting Code 4 home sustainability have been exposed for what they are. The industry has responded positively in London to Boris Johnson’s hugely enhanced minimum space standards.

I had the pleasure of chairing the morning session of the first annual conference of the Good Homes Alliance last week and was delighted to hear a wide range of builders, professionals and analysts discussing ways to improve quality, even during hard economic times. (A big chunk of mortgage finance would help.)

Matt Bell, external affairs chief at Berkeley, and an old CABE hand, put his finger on the real challenge: ‘How do we get more good homes fast?’ The reality is that quality and quantity can go hand-in-hand, but the arse-end of any supplier group will tell you it can’t. Housing policy is too important to adopt that Neanderthal view.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Paul McGrath

    Paul Finch clearly moves in rarefied circles where mere morals are few and far between. To support the Berkeley Group and Crest Nicholson and denounce the lowest common denominators of the HBF is a clear bias in favour of the so-called great and the good. Commentator’s are acutely aware of which side their bread is buttered it would appear. If PF were a football commentator he’d only be interested in the Premiership and teams like Accrington Stanley wouldn’t get a look in.

    Rather than making regulations that maintain the dominance of the ‘big players’, rule makers should seek to encourage innovation and not stifle it at every opportunity. Minimum space standards are a case in point. Look at Japan and the ‘micro-homes’ movement; could that happen in the UK? Not if you follow the logic of Mr Finch it won’t. Is it just coincidence that with more and more regulation, less and less gets built?

    There is a certain irony that while LA’s are clamping down on illegal garden shed homes architects are suggesting garages could be converted into affordable homes. This suggests the priority is to get people housed in decent well-designed homes rather than arguing how big those homes should be or how energy efficient they are.

    Having read the Future Homes Commission report it is clear to me the future is with small innovative design led house-builders and not leviathan ‘market leaders’ like the big house builders.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • Paul Finch says: I rarely respond to this sort of generalized smear, but since the subject is important . . .
    1. There are large companies in the HBF who produce poor housing, so the analogy between the premiership and Accrington Stanley is meaningless.
    2. Building Regulations are themselves a lowest common denominator and favour the worst house-builders ,not the best. The latter work to higher standards which are not compulsory, eg the Code for Sustainable Homes.
    3. Since there are no formal minimum space standards in the Building Regulations there is nothing to stop micro-flats in the UK except the willingness of the financial sector to offer mortgages on them, and politicians (like Boris Johnson) who think the words 'home' and 'hutch' should not be synonyms.
    4. Let's see examples of 'decent, well designed homes' that have been created from garages. We can then assess the McGrath concept of decency and design.
    5. If space and energy standards fall outside definitions of good design, we are talking about hovels.
    6. I am all in favour of small, innovative, design-led house-builders, but they are unlikely to satisfy the pressing need for homes in quantity and quality in the short or medium term.
    7. Many volume house-buildes have upped their game over the last decade. They (and indeed their supporters) should be encouraged, not subjected to mindless abuse.

  • Paul McGrath

    I am truely honoured that I have elicited a response! My intention was not to smear Mr Finch but to counteract what I see as a one-sided view that pretty much uncritically supports the conventional wisdom of politically powerful lobbies. Always it seems, at the expense of the margins and innovative thnking. I would not like to see the Berkeley Group and Crest Nicholson - even with their 'raised game' - to become the Government's unofficial housing advocate.

    If anyone is actually interested in the McGrath concept - which I very much doubt as I am just little people - Mr Finch is very welcome to visit some of the 'hovels' I have designed. Then perhaps a more balanced opinion would result.

    The McGrath concept also puts its money where its mouth is. By purchasing a small, difficult brownfield site and trying to develop it as a home I am contributing to solving the shortage of housing in London (however small that contribution might be) and not taliking about it or using it as a vehicle for personal acclaim. The practical difficulties of doing so are emense. Consequently I would welcome the chance to describe to Mr Finch how difficult it is to actually build an affordable, accessible single house in London bearing in mind that every step of the way someone says no; never mind the myriad number of third party demands infill developments are now forced to comply with by the planning system as if it were a major project before any development can even start securing development funding. All told, it is no wonder London has a deficit in housing supply. It is almost true that a high number of 'hovels' is politically better than a one off house.

    As every jobbing housing designer out their knows the bigger the project the less scrutiny the 'authorities' seem to place on them. Compare big housing association schemes with say small private domestic extensions; one has a relatviely easy passage the other seems to attract the entire gamut of rules, regulations and standards the Local Authority can throw at it and are put under totally disproportionate scrutiny.

    Yes the subject is too important to always adopt utilitarian solutions. The AJ's support of better homes should have the support of everyone.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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