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.