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Why isn’t housing design getting better and better with every decade?

It is more difficult to get basic details about space, volume, materials and systems in a new house than it is for a new car says Paul Finch

One of the questions asked in the Farrell Review of UK architecture is why housing design is not that great (I am paraphrasing). Some of it is great, of course, but much is not. Indeed most purchasers would run a mile rather than have to live in the hutches provided by companies that are essentially land speculators and marketing operations.

Nick Boles, the minister who says he dislikes ugly buildings, has correctly identified mass housing estates as a problem. Unfortunately he has gone on to say that we need to put such estates on Green Belt land. Even if you think it is indeed necessary to do this (include me out), no minister of any political persuasion has told us how you avoid horribly designed developments, further enraging local communities, making them more determined to block development - even the good stuff - whenever it shows signs of making an appearance.

In theory, good-quality design is what we should get as a result of the National Planning Policy Framework. But this also includes very substantial protections for Green Belt land and many other sites where nature is important. It doesn’t say that if a design is good enough it should outweigh worries over the natural landscape; it says this land should only be built on in exceptional (ie not routine) circumstances. If that rule is applied then it excludes Green Belt development as an answer to the housing ‘problem’.

The government must be wondering why, even with its generous underpinning of the mortgage market, housebuilders are not rushing to build the 500,000 homes for which planning permission already exists, and where they own the land (or have options on it). The answer lies in the formulae applied to a site, market demand, mortgage availability and anticipated selling price, which determines whether proceeding makes sense. There is no huge financial pressure to build.

Unless you resolve the question of making serviced land available at modest prices, the current supply system will trundle on, satisfying only parts of the market (overseas investors, though their numbers can be exaggerated). Parts of the private market and most of the social market will not be properly catered for.

Even if you sort out land, there is still an issue as to why design standards are not better than they should be. Over the past 40 years, fridges, washing machines and dishwashers have become better designed and more energy efficient - while becoming increasingly cheap in real terms. The public has lapped all this up, going for products with more stars, prompted by consumer testing and recommendations.

This last point is surely a clue as to why housing is so backward. It is more difficult to get basic details about space, volume, materials and systems in a new house than it is for a new car. The concept of volume in the housing market relates to the number of homes built, not the cubic capacity of the dwelling.

Imagine what would happen if every new housing estate was subject to a Which? test, grading everything from size to value for money. That is one of the few things that would put a rocket up the fundament of the house-building sector. Needless to say, not something that any government has contemplated doing, so in thrall are politicians to the propaganda of the ‘volume builders’ - with the honourable exception of Boris Johnson, who has got their number and simply insisted on higher space standards.

‘But we can sell everything we build’. That is because there is a vast second-hand market, where most transactions take place and people prefer to buy homes from almost any period except the present.

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