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Getting housing moving

What needs to happen to increase the production of quality homes? The AJ brought together an expert panel to debate the issues.

Good, available, affordable housing should be a right. Sadly, for many families and individuals, it’s more of an impossible dream. Fewer new homes are being built than in the 1920s - and when they are built, they are often dull and cramped.

As part of the AJ’s More Homes, Better Homes campaign, we brought together a top-flight panel - including a major housebuilder, an MP, and a member of the government’s independent challenge panel - to debate the issues. We asked them to identify what needs to happen to improve design quality while also
increasing the production of quality homes.

Sponsored by the Rooflight Company, the discussion over lunch was wide-ranging and recognised the overarching challenge of finance. It considered qualitative issues such as confidence, aspiration and inspiration, as well as quantitative concerns such as Building Regulations. And it threw up ideas for practical steps that could be taken to help ease the current housing crisis. We look forward to your feedback.

What needs to change?

Increase public funding

Nick Raynsford The biggest single issue at the moment is confidence: no one is investing, no one is putting money in. I don’t think it’ll happen without a big slug of public money.

I think the Institute for Public Policy Research got its finger on the right button recently when it said there’s something very odd that we’re spending about
£1.5 billion a year on housing investment and £22 billion a year on housing benefit.

If we can just begin to shift the balance with more money going into direct investment, rather than paying disproportionately high rents in housing benefit, we could get that extra public impetus, which would give some confidence, would allow more mixed-tenure developments and might get a virtuous cycle going.

Gerard Maccreanor I’m not too concerned with the subject of ‘better’ at the moment, I’m more concerned with holding onto the position of where we are.

I don’t think it’s got anything to do with regulations or planning. There are thousands of homes consented within London at the moment and those are not coming forward due to lack of confidence and lack of demand.

The lack of demand is from banks not willing to lend.

The lack of demand is from banks not willing to lend, at the same time making large amounts of profits and stacking up their balance sheets.

It’s also to do with developers - some developers are not willing to build out because, by not doing so, there’s an increase in demand; they increase their profitability and therefore they increase their land value.

There is a problem in London with big sites - they do need up-front costs, which make people nervous. That is something the government may be able to help with, to take away part of the risk.

The other issue is public-sector rental. One fifth of people in London now live in the rental sector and that is increasing dramatically - 63 per cent of Londoners can no longer afford to get a mortgage and rental values are going up between 12 per cent and 25 per cent.

Developers tell you that yields don’t work in the private rental sector and it suggests there needs to be some help from government to make that model work.

Claire Bennie In terms of delivery, certainty is crucial. We’re subject to lots of very short-term funding rounds and developers feel this too through their registered provider partners, and it doesn’t help. In a way, housing is infrastructure for society; if we can fund it on that longerterm thinking basis, that would be great.

Improve land supply

Andy von Bradsky A lot of emphasis is placed on shortage of money and money supply, but if you had more consented land - ie made planning and land supply a lot simpler - then that would increase supply far more than the simplification of Building Regulations.

Local authorities are in a good position to improve quality.

Paul Karakusevic With local authorities owning 30 per cent of the city fringe area I think it is absolutely key to get housing moving and increase numbers. Local authorities are in a very good position to improve quality because they’re sitting on land that is, not quite free, but subsidised. That would be the easiest place to start.

John Slaughter The honest answer to how we see getting both volume and quality would have to be based on there being a much better land supply. There is a view that if land supply were sufficiently free, competition on quality grounds would arise naturally because the marketplace would put a premium on that.

Matt Bell In the short term I’d point to public-sector land. We worked with a report for government over the summer, which identifies 18 sites that should deliver 23,000 homes. Politically that fits into a narrative where you’ve had Nick Clegg talking about ‘think beautiful’ and Nick Boles’ proposals about ‘building beautiful’. That public-sector land is where you could combine both of those and unlock the quality and the volume argument.

Sherin Aminossehe One of the things I’m particularly concerned about is how you tie the supply of surplus public land and private land. One of the things that underpins how you put these two things together is data and how you ensure that everyone in the public sector knows what they own and what it can be used for. We’re putting together something with the Department for Communities and Local Government in terms of a database to make that happen.

Simplify regulation

Andy von Bradsky This huge complexity of standards and overlapping complex arrangements we’ve got at the moment desperately needs clearing up. Separating out planning and Building Regulations in a way that is simply defined and easy to implement would help. You need to disaggregate building performance from planning in a way that simplifies Building Regulations and supervised planning - and put it all in to a national standard.

Roger Zogolovitch Recently I had one of those moments when it’s as if you’ve been wearing a tight shoe and you take it off and suddenly you think: ‘My God, have I really been living my life in that very tight shoe?’

The place I took the shoe off was in New York. I was offered a small site in Williamsburg, and so I said to the realtor: ‘What’s the story here?’ and they said: ‘Here’s the site, it’s a 50ft frontage, 100ft depth, plot ratio’s three to one, you can build to 70ft,’ and I said: ‘Where’s the affordable housing,’ and they said: ‘What?’ so I said: ‘When can I go on site?’ and they said: ‘Well, tomorrow?’

I’m just thinking I could come here to New York, build 15 apartments, what I wanted to build, not what somebody else was telling me I had to build, I could build it at a height of my choosing. And then you come back here and you’re in your eighth meeting with the planning officer, and you’ve gone through your Code Level 3 sustainability, and you’ve paid the guy that’s going to give you advice, and he said: ‘Yeah, but that fee that you paid me didn’t cover you for the assessment on the flood risk, and there isn’t a flood risk.’ But it doesn’t matter, you still need the assessment…

There’s a kind of insanity that we’ve all bought in to. What do we do to make it easier to just get on and build stuff? So I completely endorse those issues of deregulation. Is there a framework of reference that we could feel we were more comfortable with, a set of absolutely consistent guidelines?

If we would try to Americanise the UK system, I think every local authority throughout the land must have a choice of 10 masterplans for every part of their borough. And we just come along and say: ‘Thanks very much. Here’s the plan, we’ll build to the plan.’

Reform planning

Geoff Wilkinson If you can change the mindset within local authorities and introduce competition between them, and if you introduce the concept of private, approved planning consultants, then I think you potentially have the solution to opening up the marketplace.

Paul Monaghan In terms of what I would change, it still has to be part of the planning process. It never ceases to amaze me how we can be working on major schemes with multiple architects, and that one could be discussing the scheme with planners for a year and a half and nothing gets discussed about height and massing until three months into the planning process.

Matt Bell In the longer term, I don’t think there’s any lack of confidence in the development industry. The confidence issue is really in local government - they’ve taken a kicking over the last few years and I think it has been thoroughly unproductive. There needs to be a way of getting alongside and repairing the damage that’s been done to local leaders and planning authorities.

The art of planning needs to be reskilled. Those people are the gatekeepers of quality.

Claire Bennie The art of planning needs to be reskilled and reprofesssionalised. Those people are really the gatekeepers of quality. I would love it if planning policy were less obsessed with exact tenure and size mixes. We would love to just go to an area and say: ‘These are the kind of homes we want to do.’ We get tied up in this kind of hideous knot of meeting exact policies, which may not suit a particular area.

John Slaughter Perhaps we could build on the current planning reforms so that we move more to a committee development rights or a zoning approach with regard to how certain areas would be considered suitable for development.

Rethink how property is valued

Alison Brooks There needs to be a fundamental restructuring of the way that properties are valued. At the moment there is no incentive and no scientific criteria by which design, space, standards, sustainability and quality are valued. As a result of this, developers don’t have any incentive to build in value - such as extra space, extra amenities, extra features - because the property market is valued on a very old-fashioned system based on the number of bedrooms.

Nothing can shift until the surveyors who do mortgage valuations and agents who do property valuations have a very specific set of criteria on which properties are scored. Then suddenly developers will have an incentive to build in better design from the outset.

Promote different types of development

Alex Ely We need to look at the third sector of housing, which is the custom-build market, and really increase the opportunity for custom build to become a much more viable and substantial part of the delivery process.

We’ve seen so much consolidation of the industry with so few suppliers building such a large proportion of our homes, that if we can free up land or finances or encourage a more viable custom-build or self-build market, we will hopefully raise quality.

Geoff Wilkinson We need to look away from new build as the only solution for new homes. There is an enormous amount of property lying vacant at the moment. If we can attempt to change the planning system to enable it to be easier to convert property into residential accommodation, I think we can solve a lot of the problem.

Defend quality

Nick Raynsford We’ve got to have that focus on quality, insist on standards and not allow those to be sacrificed.

Paul Monaghan A simple guide like the London Housing Design Guide has worked really well.

Claire Bennie Volume is important, obviously, but quality is absolutely everything.

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Getting into specifics, the experts nail down what action needs to be taken to effectively tackle the problem.

The panel on…

Regulation

Nick Raynsford Let’s go back to the paradise of the 1980s when these things didn’t apply, it was a pretty free market and housebuilders were pretty free to build what they wanted. What they produced were low-density, extremely energy-inefficient houses, which gobbled up the countryside, which required car access and about which everyone in the 90s and the early noughties said ‘this is not the future - and certainly not on a small island with a limited land mass’.

That is the reason we got into the regulatory nightmare described. And actually there have been a lot of successes because we have produced better quality buildings, which are far more energy efficient and far more sustainable.

Roger Zogolovitch But surely in terms of energy efficiency the building regulations are now providing you with energy efficiency; in 2016 we’re actually looking towards zero carbon.

Nick Raynsford Yes, it’s done and it’s fantastic.

Roger Zogolovitch That’s just a technical regulation that we conform to. Equally it’s very easy to set density standards. If the use of land is inefficient with a low density, you set a high-density standard. That’s not any brake to production.

Nick Raynsford All I’m saying is that the view that if you get rid of a lot of regulation you will get a virtuous cycle is not necessarily proved by experience.

Andy von Bradsky You can simplify systems in a way that puts everything in one place. At the moment you’ve got a mixture of guidance, a mixture of standards; there’s confusion about what is a regulation and what is guidance, and that all needs to be consolidated and put into a very simple document. It could be called National Technical Standards or Housing Technical Standards, which then becomes part of building regulation.

Taxation

Andy von Bradsky In terms of the issue around taxation, the Community Industry Levy (CIL) is going to be a massive problem and a blockage to developments of the future. There are ways in which the tax system could be used better. Our houses should be calibrated so that there is some kind of tax benefit from having a high-performing house.

Nick Raynsford We’ve never, as a country, found a satisfactory solution to the issue of how you tax development gain. The only mechanisms we’ve got left are Section 106 and CIL. The idea that somehow this is an unfair imposition on developers seems to be quite wrong. There is a gain from development.

Simplification and standards

Paul Monaghan I was very involved with schools at CABE and one of the things we saw was that every single local authority wants to create their own unique school, and every single headteacher wants to - and there is no notion of standardisation.

I think the same is true of housing. But in my experience some of the things that we’ve always done best of all have been very simple projects - for example, a project we did with Gerard down in Barking, where we basically built a modern version of Coronation Street. We spent money on very simple things like a good brick and gave them bigger windows, and everything else was very standard. Standardisation is not bad and could improve quality.

Matt Bell There’s a lot of money in house building and you’ve almost got to be slightly daft not to make it. The issue is about predictability - the investment doesn’t come when you can’t predict. So, if we’re looking at a focus for a campaign, I wouldn’t go for another big-systems or standards idea. The key thing I’d say is stop fiddling, just let it be for a bit so people can get a hold of the current system.

John Slaughter Less is more. I think we can be a lot, lot smarter and simpler in terms of regulation about how we go about doing it. And that is very important in unlocking the supply.

Public-sector assets

Sherin Aminossehe You can’t think of how you’re going to dispose of your surplus assets if you’re not aware of the full picture.

We’re working on one single database for the whole of the public sector, so that people can think about how to use these assets for growth. That’s the start of being more aware, and asking: how much of these do we actually use for housing? Do we need them all for housing? If we put some of our assets together, will they make a better development? Would they make a better community?

Paul Karakusevic If everyone could just talk to one another and have this database, then maybe things could start to be channelled and get towards planning.

Nick Raynsford A lot of the good examples we’ve heard today - whether it is good use of public-sector land, whether it is the exemplary developments that have set a higher standard, whether it is sensible regulatory pressure that’s improving the quality of products - depends on the understanding between public and private sectors. That’s got to be the future.

Political will

Gerard Maccreanor Every time government changes we have to change every single regulation under that government and the name of every single regulation. All that branding costs so much time and so much effort.

One of the main problems, certainly in an area where I have a lot of involvement around the Royal Docks, is that the London Development Agency has gone through four restructurings in the last number of years.

In Holland there’s a coalition government, which is very fragile and it falls constantly. But one of the good things is not having small changes constantly.

Nick Raynsford You are absolutely right. There is an absurd culture in this country, which resists continuity between different governments.

Paul Finch Do you think that housing in particular, and construction in general, is taken seriously by government? The housing minister is not in the cabinet.

Nick Raynsford Nor was there a housing minister in the cabinet when we had probably the biggest focus on housing ever in our history. In the post-war period the minister for housing was Aneurin Bevan, who was the minister for health and housing; housing was his second role. So I don’t think it’s to do with that, I think it’s much more psychological.

During the first three decades post war, there was a real sense that this was a national priority. There was a vast job to do, there was a political consensus. Then you got to an era when, in the 80s and 90s, there was a sense that the housing problem had been licked.

Now the current mindset is that we’ve simply not produced enough homes for a very long time.

London and the regions

Nick Raynsford The numbers of people living in London went down from 8 million in the late 1930s to about 6.7 million in the 1980s. No one at that stage would have expected London would now have a population of 8 million and be heading for 9 million quite rapidly.

The transformation has been very dramatic and I think it took a lot of policymakers by surprise. We were behind the curve, we missed the opportunity in my time to see there was going to be a rising challenge of need.

Geoff Wilkinson I think we need to recognise, for a start, that what we’re actually talking about is a national debate, this is not just about London. London sits within a bubble of its own and I think we need to start looking at that. In terms of regulation, there is no national scheme, there is no national consistency.

Gerard Maccreanor This is a very Londoncentric conversation. You should repeat this same conversation in Birmingham and you’d get a very different story - and it wouldn’t be about more homes. Contrasting the rest of the UK with London is important.

Nobody expected this ‘economic magnet’ effect of London. That’s now estimated at an additional 50,000 people per year who are gaining their economic lifestyle out of the city, and we’ve got to provide for them.

Nick Raynsford London is very special, it is a global city and, because of that, we have huge problems. Something like 60 per cent of the new homes being built in London at the moment are being marketed overseas.

We’ve got to sustain the growth of London - but it’s just as important that we deal with the very real problems that exist outside of London. There’s a lack of confidence among members of the public who don’t really want to risk buying a property because there is a fear they might end up with one that’s worth less than when they bought it. And that - for everywhere else except London - is the reality.

Value

Paul Finch The post-war period was a numbers game. Somewhere along the line, whatever happened to quality?

Alison Brooks Why are people willing to pay so much for a flat in a Victorian house? Why are things like high ceilings and big windows and good proportions, and all these very simple, basic things that the Victorians did, deemed to be above the minimum provision right now?

A developer will not build a loft that you can extend into because it doesn’t have any value at the mortgage valuation time or at the moment when the business plan is being developed by the consortia.

The values of an entire project- from the competition scheme to the Principal Development Agreement - are all based on predicted values by people who don’t know what is going to be designed, don’t know how to assess the quality of what’s going to be designed, and don’t attribute value to adaptability, sustainability and all of these things that people need. There’s no diversity in what’s being offered in the market because there’s no incentive to build it in the first place.

A fundamental change is needed so everybody can understand the basis on which properties are valued.

There needs to be a fundamental change so that everybody can understand the basis on which properties are valued and criteria are expanded to take in those things. Brent Council is an example of a local authority that is safeguarding and stewarding the development of its own land in an efficient way.

Andy von Bradsky It would be a good move to start better informing consumers in a very consistent way at the point of sale about the performance standards of the properties that they’re going to occupy.

We ought to have much more push in terms of getting customers more aware of the things in their homes. And that might actually feed in to reducing regulation.

Scale

Geoff Wilkinson We seem to be talking about the big developers - developing 600-plot schemes, 1,000-plot schemes. If you want to get house building moving, and moving quickly, you’ve got to start talking to small developers that deal with 5, 10, 15 units - that’s who the majority of my clients are. If you landed a 600-plot scheme in front of them they wouldn’t know how to deal with it. You give them a 5-, 10- or 15-plot scheme, they could start delivering that
and they can start delivering that tomorrow.

Allow architects to self-certify some of the projects.

That’s where the regulatory burden really kicks in. The likes of a large housing developer can afford a Code for Sustainable Homes adviser, they can afford an environmental scheme, they can afford a full site audit. Allow architects to self-certify some of the projects and remove some of the warranty requirements
- that will get house building moving on small plots tomorrow.

John Slaughter All the statistics at the moment suggest that the smaller players’ share of output is going down. If we actually want to tackle the housing crisis we’ve got to bring them back into the game. And a lot of that is about not making it too difficult to do things. If we ignore that side of it we’ll be missing a big trick.

Inspiration

Paul Finch ‘Inspiration’ isn’t a word we hear very much in relation to housing. Do we need more of that? Claire, will you promote some more competitions to get the juices flowing?

Claire Bennie Absolutely, I will definitely be running at least one, if not two, competitions next year. And yes, I think doing it is more important than constant policy bashing and talking about it.

I was involved in Greenwich Millennium Village on the design side, and the constant battle cry was, ‘Don’t make this something that costs more than anyone else could do; it has to be a blueprint for other people to be able to carry on.’

The difficulty with really big showpiece projects - and we’ve a number of them at Peabody - is that they just become a fascinating jewel and they’re not repeated.

Matt Bell We need projects that paint a different mood music, projects that are publicfacing and allow people to understand how good great new places are. This is why I keep going back to the public-sector land issue - it’s such an easy stick to manipulate the government with. If they can’t do it on their own land,
they can’t say anything about anything.

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Sponsor’s view

In the wake of the recent statement by Nick Boles that Britain needs to develop up to a third more land than is currently used for housing, there have been numerous suggestions of how best to do this. These include releasing surplus local authority land to housebuilders, relaxing planning and possibly even
Building Regulations restrictions, getting the government to secure loan guarantees to housebuilders, and encouraging more small developments of up to 20 houses.

The problem with all of these suggestions is that none of them addresses the appalling quality of developer housing. I believe if the incentives work, we would see more Noddy estates blighting the countryside because, in terms of improving housebuilder design, there are no initiatives proposed. Having a home and a bit of land may be a ‘birthright’, but the soulless housing environments created by the major housebuilders will, I believe, exacerbate the social problems we already face by the fracturing of family-based society. We need well-designed housing, built to last, rather than an emphasis on quantity.

A great deal of work needs to be done on the ‘better’ bit before doing the ‘more’ bit. Housebuilders sadly need to be obliged to submit more careful and thoughtful schemes.

This would be impossible to achieve without a sea change in the attitudes of planners, who have let housing design standards slip. Planners need to be empowered to refuse planning permission on ‘quality of environment’ grounds, and they should be free from the threat of being pursued legally for doing so. Further, a body like CABE - but specialising in housing only - should be set up to ensure that design quality is the first consideration in housebuilder design before it gets to planning. Finally, the RIBA has a role to play in running house-building competitions annually, which would lead to real projects and act as housebuilder design pathfinders.

A great deal of inspiring work has been done by the likes of Kevin McCloud to demonstrate that housing of a higher design standard is possible. We need to draw the line on housebuilding quality before any ‘more’ happens.

  • Peter King RIBA, Carden King Partnership, owner, The Rooflight Company

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The panel

  • Paul Finch, editorial director, The Architects’ Journal (chair)
  • Sherin Aminossehe, head of regional strategy, Government Property Office
  • Matt Bell, group head of external affairs, Berkeley Group
  • Claire Bennie, development director, Peabody
  • Andy von Bradsky,chairman, PRP Architects
  • Alison Brooks, director, Alison Brooks Architects
  • Alex Ely, partner, Mae Architects
  • Paul Karakusevic, partner, Karakusevic Carson Architects
  • Gerard Maccreanor, founding director, Maccreanor Lavington Architects
  • Paul Monaghan, director, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
  • Nick Raynsford MP
  • John Slaughter, director of external affairs, Home Builders Federation
  • Geoff Wilkinson, managing director, Wilkinson Construction Consultants
  • Roger Zogolovitch, director, Solidspace

 

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