Can we please stop treating builders as the Ugly Sisters, says Paul Finch
Christmas panto time at Portland Place. Act 1: The RIBA produces a report pointing out an inconvenient trend: that many house-builders are producing smaller homes on average than they were four years ago. Moreover the institute has identified, in the form of drawings, the missing area it says should be added to standard house types. It wants minimum space requirements enshrined in Building Regulations. Nothing wrong about this you may think. Too many volume housebuilders are cynical about space standards.
However, things are not as simple as that. Act II: The RIBA Housing Group, a special interest body which operates outside the institute’s formal oversight, has complained bitterly about the report and its tone. It argues that, apart from some question as to the validity of the facts presented, this is no time to be browbeating an industry that provides work for many practices, and which is being courted by the government to do all it can in the battle to provide more homes.
Why demand new regulations from a government that has a fundamental dislike of them, especially when numbers rather than space standards are what matter?
Squabbling about 4m² resembles disputing the number of angels you can space-plan on the head of a pin
The list of names objecting to the institute attack on volume builders is a powerful one, including architects who really understand the industry, and whose practices produce big numbers, often of very decent design. At the very least, you might have thought consultation (or more consultation) should have taken place. Why should housebuilders or the government take RIBA criticism seriously when it lacks the support of major figures in the profession?
It is an unwise organisation that antagonises significant figures among its membership, especially when there is a far broader issue than the simple one of space standards to consider. That issue is this: how can we build the required number of homes without sacrificing design quality (including space standards), at a time of limited construction capacity, a shortage of serviced sites, a tight mortgage market, and more or less uncontrolled inward migration?
Squabbling about 4m² resembles disputing the number of angels you can space-plan on the head of a pin. What should be a matter for further debate, given the RIBA’s good previous research on this subject, is an acceptable strategy that might achieve the required numbers, particularly one that would appeal to a government with a budget problem, and which appears to have very little idea about how to deliver homes on the ground.
The government pretends it is the fault of the planning system. That system has approved 200,000 homes waiting to be built in London. And before anyone repeats the usual claim, it is not generally the case that housebuilders are simply sitting on land.
A good question to ask is how many homes would be built by the private sector if it were freed from the shackles of community infrastructure levy, planning gain, affordable homes, Crossrail levy etc. My guess is it would make some, but not a huge difference, because quite understandably housebuilders are in business to sell to people who can get a mortgage. If you made the same demands of bakers (‘affordable loaves’), you would quickly have a bread shortage.
So can we move to Act III? Public housing is the Cinderella of the industry, and needs to be recognised and promoted. Meanwhile, can we please stop treating builders as the Ugly Sisters. We want their product. But would they mind acknowledging the underlying truth of the RIBA’s report? It is simply not good enough to provide bedrooms so small that a standard-size cat, swung in any dimension, would perish on the first arc.