Housing: Great shakes

If you look hard enough, something positive has come out of this turbulent world politics and frenzy of electioneering - a Tory commitment to encourage smaller developments and off-site manufacture

In the last few months, international politics has been in the proverbial cocktail shaker, with the result that what were once familiar tipples now have entirely new tastes. A reality TV personality tycoon, who funded the Democrats and then took the Republicans hostage, is president of the US. A 39-year-old former Rothschilds banker founded a new party, En Marche, and is president of France with a mandate to modernise the country (good luck with that one, Monsieur Macron).

And as the election looms here at home, our own political mix is almost unrecognisable from just a couple of years ago, and I wonder if the result is to anyone’s taste. Before last year’s referendum, all UK political parties – bar Ukip – wanted to stay in the EU. Now only the Liberals dare represent the 16 million voters who wanted to remain. Ukip itself has realised its single mission and is a dead duck. The Labour Party, while veering to the left under a leader with 1970s nationalisation policies, has decided that £80,000 a year is a reasonable minimum wage before having to bear higher taxes. And lastly, the Conservative Party has been taken over by stealth and has become the “Theresa May Party” by an ex-Remainer promising Brexit at any cost and her own, surprising new collection of One Nation Theresa initiatives.

Most interesting among these is her pledge to build new council houses along with a new Right to Buy. She promises a £1.4bn investment and the encouragement of smaller developers and off-site prefabrication. Now, that’s actually a great mix!

A lawyer client of mine said to me: ‘Jack, the Romans built walls with bricks and roofs with clay tiles. You lot have not moved on much.’ Too true

When I was president of the RIBA, 10 years ago, the housing crisis had already hit. Back in the 1960s and 1970s governments built 100,000 houses a year. By the millennium, publicly funded housebuilding had ground to a halt and I reckoned we needed to build 250,000 a year for a while to catch up. Instead of which, we gave the responsibility for social housing, aka affordable housing, to the private sector as a “tax” on housebuilding. But in 2015/16 only 32,110 affordable homes were built, which was 52% down on the previous year. It’s not a reliable mechanism.

There is so much wrong with our housing policy and provision, particularly in the South-east; it’s difficult to know where to start. I went to see an elite London university last week to talk about regeneration, to be told that their first problem was retaining staff as they could not afford to live in or near London.

The basic problem is that supply and demand have been allowed to get totally out of sync. We live in smaller families and require a larger number of units to house them and of course our population has increased. We don’t build enough housing of any type and the major housebuilders eke out supply like diamond merchants eke out diamonds to maximise their profits. Private sales of land rarely come on open sale as deals are done off market by the housebuilders’ land agents. Most large pieces of building land are in public ownership, of some sort or another, and too often these are sold off in large parcels that only the “big boys” can afford, increasing their dominance.

The major housebuilders eke out supply like diamond merchants eke out diamonds to maximise their profits

As RIBA president I argued, with others, for minimum sizes for housing – mea culpa. These are now set out in the government’s minimum space standards so, for example, a one-bed flat with a double bedroom has to be a minimum of 50m2. This is a real shot in a Londoner’s foot as it makes the bottom rung of the ladder unaffordably high. Zone 1 and 2 prices rarely drop below £8,500/m2, making the minimum price for a flat £425,000. The Collective and other co-living providers have shown that there is a real need, and appetite for high-quality micro units with great ancillary facilities – a common wealth. However, unhelpfully, these cannot be provided under current planning law residential use class orders. But this sort of innovative thinking in the for-sale market could lower the bottom rung of the housing ladder in a fun and affordable way.

Finally, how we hand-build houses feels so out of date, so slow and so expensive. A lawyer client of mine said to me: “Jack, the Romans built walls with bricks and roofs with clay tiles. You lot have not moved on much” Too true. It’s taken a long time after the progressive collapse of the prefabricated 22-storey tower Ronan Point in 1968 for us to come back to really exploring the benefits of off-site construction. But, I think that we are getting there; volumetric, structural insulated panels and pre-cut kit systems are all being trialled and rolled out and the next decade could be very different with better, faster, cheaper and more sustainable housing construction.

So, who would have thought it, the side effect of beastly Brexit may be a new era of public housebuilding using modern methods of construction and breaking the dominance of the volume housebuilders. I’ll drink to that!

Jack Pringle is principal, managing director EMEA at Perkins+Will

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