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Shake up your designs and sell more homes, government tells housebuilders

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Encouraging housebuilders to move away from standardised designs for their homes could encourage faster building rates, according to the latest update from a government-commissioned review of housing delivery

In a draft analysis report, former cabinet minister Oliver Letwin said housebuilders were currently afraid of building too quickly for fear of depressing the prices they can achieve.

However, he said that a greater variation of design, as well as tenure and size, could create greater market segmentation, which could help overcome the problem.

Letwin said in his report: ‘I have been told many times by those engaged in marketing homes on large sites that the choice of a newly built home is much influenced not only by “hard” facts such as location, size, price and tenure-type, but also by “soft” facts such as architecture, interior design, garden, setting and surrounding landscape or streetscape.’

He went on to conclude: ‘Accordingly, it seems extraordinarily likely that the presence of more variety in these aesthetic characteristics would create more, separate markets than can be created within the high degree of uniformity that characterises many (though not all) of the large sites that we have visited.’

Letwin claimed that such variety could increase ‘absorbtion rates’ (the speed of sales) and allow for quicker housebuilding.

He promised to draw up policies to achieve his desired outcome in time for this year’s Autumn Budget.

However, speaking to The Architects’ Journal, Nicholas Boys-Smith, director of urban design campaign group Create Streets, said: ‘I am not convinced that having more variety of designs would affect absorbtion rates.

‘Design is not the key distinguisher in opening up the market – it is much more about the cost and tenure. People make decisions primarily on how much they can afford to pay and where they work.’

In his report Letwin also highlighted the current shortage of bricks as a potential barrier to a rapid increase in housing supply.

But he added that, if there were a reasonable level of assurance about future levels of demand, ‘investment in increased domestic production of all materials is likely to follow’.

He said a move towards modern methods of construction could reduce dependence on bricks in the short term.

But, David Birkbeck, chief executive of Design for Homes, said: ‘The issue will be with the planning system, which in lots of places is wedded to brick.

‘Imagine councils in York, Bath, Bristol of Manchester approving composite homes with green, blue and white panels in their city centres.’

Birkbeck suggested one compromise solution would be to encourage the domestic production of brick panels.

Letwin’s draft analysis found that on average, developers only build out large housing sites at the rate of 6.5 per cent of consented development each year.

Letwin said his final policy recommendations to speed up housing delivery would aim to ensure that they do not impair the capacity of major housebuilders to continue large-scale construction.

New figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government show 163,250 homes were built in England in the year ending December 2017.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Perhaps, if Brexit eventually lumbers off the ground, we'll see less desire to truck bricks in from continental Europe and greater incentives to revive brick-making in this country.
    But in among the Letwin findings is it really credible to say that housebuilders are 'afraid of building too quickly', or is the truth more likely to be that they're in a sufficiently monopolistic position to exercise a stranglehold on housing supply and indulge in greed-driven price-gouging on an industrial scale.?
    Did you learn nothing from Carillion, Oliver, or do you consider it just to have been an unlucky company wrecked by events beyond its control?

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  • What needs building are the pretty standard 3 bed homes with a drive at the front and a decent garden at the back. Piddling around with excuses for building more cramped and smaller homes and using the Architecture as an excuse to cram more on the site is not the answer.

    When I bought my home a few years ago we looked at 3 separate housing developments that were in the process of being built and another one that was in for planning. All were the same, - 3No. 3 bed houses each with at least 5 people listed against them hoping those in front of them on the list would drop out, 8-10No. 4 to 6 bed houses which were mostly available because most could not afford them, and 50-70No. 1 and 2 bed flats which were mostly available because nobody wanted them.

    The answer here is to stop pratting around and get on with building what is actually needed.

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