Housing: the big questions

Paul Finch, chair of CABE
8 March 2010

A letter from Paul Finch, published in the Architects' Journal on Friday 5 March 2010.

Rolfe Judd's Woodberry Down housing scheme in east London has received Kickstart funding

Rolfe Judd's Woodberry Down housing scheme in east London has received Kickstart funding

With a general election almost upon us, it will be interesting to see exactly where the UK political parties position themselves on the knotty question of housing supply. There are several reasons why this question is not quite as simple as it looks, if simplicity means predicting how many homes we will need in the coming decade and taking steps to ensure that they are supplied. If it were that simple, we would not be in our current position of having completed, in the last year, the lowest number of new homes since the 1920s. Put very crudely, we are lucky if we complete 120,000 homes a year, compared to 1.2 million in Japan.

Bear in mind that plenty of people do rather well out of a housing shortage. Housebuilders find themselves in the position of being able to sell everything they build with ease. Admittedly, this applies more in good times than bad, but it explains why some of the dreadful rubbish produced by the rumpend of the industry finds buyers. The National House-Building Council thinks that if people are prepared to pay for rubbish it must be okay, which is rather the same argument that employers of child labour deploy.

Quite apart from the supply side, the owners of existing homes do rather well too. Despite the recession, house prices in London rose on average nearly 10 per cent in the last year. Since 70 per cent of the public own their own home, or at least have a mortgage, shortages can contribute to a feel-good factor.

From a government point of view, it is important to look as though the problem of shortages is being tackled, which brings us to the Homes and Communities Agency's Kickstart programme. Wearing my CABE chairman's hat, my perspective on this programme starts with the truism that the government desires to deliver numbers not of homes completed, but of homes that can be said to be 'starting' (those with planning permission and the funding to proceed, with that funding coming from the taxpayer in the absence of private-sector support).

You can see why housing minister John Healey is averse to discussing anything that might get in the way of those numbers. And he has a point when he says that, if the schemes have planning permission, why should consideration of design quality suddenly become a hurdle to a start on site? If a scheme was of sufficient quality to obtain planning permission, what is the problem?

For all those with an interest in the quality of our housing stock, the answer is that far too many planning authorities approve designs that are woefully inadequate. I was truly shocked to see designs for back-to-back housing (two storeys, three party walls, single aspect) being given permission and Kickstart funding; the Planning Act of 1909 was introduced to make this sort of thing illegal. If planning authorities hold their noses and grant permission to obviously useless design, should the government follow suit and funnel in taxpayers' cash?

This is the real question in the great Kickstart debate, and one that has a general implication for our built-environment policies at a time of financial stringency. For CABE, the question is not whether a particular scheme is a potential Stirling Prize winner, nor whether the design is 'good' in the sense of being a potential RIBA Award winner. The question is whether it is 'good enough'.

This is a principle that has been accepted by the government in relation to the Building Schools for the Future programme, where joint work with CABE has resulted in a minimum design standard that any scheme must reach if it is to stand a chance of being built with public money. The Building for Life standard, developed by CABE and the Home Builders Federation, is another attempt to define a decent benchmark that we believe the public is entitled to expect.

There may be all sorts of sound and fury over which builder scored what points on which scheme in relation to the Kickstart programme, but the real question is about finding the appropriate balance between quality and quantity, and how we manage this better in years to come – without resorting to the provision of rabbit hutches.

A letter from Paul Finch, published in the Architects' Journal on Friday 5 March 2010.