I seem to have spent the last few weeks reading research reports about housing. Housing really has become a “sexy” political issue and it’s been long overdue. When I started publicly criticising the housing industry in the late 1990’s it was done with gut feeling and no inside knowledge or detail other than some leaked research from a friend who was working for a mortgage company and was able to show me some in house research about the publics attitude towards new mass housebuilding including the shocking statistic that only 29 per cent of those looking for a house would consider a new build house from a mass housebuilder. Thats a similar percentage of car buyers who would consider buying a Rover but the difference being that car buyers have a fantastic choice of brands, models, designs and service to cater for all tastes and pockets.
Armed with the plethora of research coming out of the likes of CABE and MORI it would be easy to have a go at the housebuilders but after five years working with housebuilders I now know that just blaming them would be naïve.
The recent “What Home Buyers Want” report from CABE (downloadable from www.cabe.org.uk) conducted by MORI is probably one of the largest and most detailed investigations undertaken on attitudes to new housing in England and it makes pretty damning reading for the industry. Look underneath the old chestnuts of the “over half the population wanting to live in a detached house” and the vast majority of the rest wanting to live in bungalows and semis and it becomes clear that as a nation we actually aspire to the traditional suburban lifestyle so sneered at by some commentators and it is clear that we would like to reject the apartment dwelling “urban lifestyles” that The Urban Task force and PPG3 tried to impose on us in 2000. Or maybe its that we want to reject this in the current form it is being served up to us.
In the past decade the number of flats being built has risen from 10 % to 24% of all new dwellings and as a nation we are not happy about it. Ok its not acceptable to carpet the nation with housing and tarmac but its also not acceptable to provide homes that are clearly not what we want.
Quoting from “What Home Buyers Want” .
“Consumer choice in the housing market is limited not only by affordability but by migration and geography. The planning system limits the potential supply of new homes. Consumers looking in the new homes market need to find somewhere within a limited radius of search. Consequently they may settle for a less well-designed home because choice is limited within that radius. It si not, therefore, inevitable that housebuilders will perceive the need to innovate and offer a design edge. Nor will they necessarily feel the need to differentiate the design of their products significantly to secure a market. They can get as many customers as they can supply by relying on basic standard products which offer little individuality.”
The only solution to this is a planning system that is more dynamic, informed, creative and in touch… a planning system that can work with and guide housebuilders to offer us what we want. A planning system that can look at reports like I have been reading and act on the facts that gardens or access to some form of secure private or semi private space is important to our well being , that we care about light and window size, that porches and defensible space mean a lot to us, that a richness of detail makes us feel good. If any of you have any ideas how we can raise the planning bar then throw them this way.
Housebuilders should also read these reports. Figures such as 85% of respondents saying that shape and proportion is important to them gives lie to the oft held belief that it is all about “kitchen upgrades” Housebuilders could also do well to read another recently published CABE survey “Does Money Grow on Trees” which finally shows hard evidence that we will pay more for well landscaped / green environments. Landscaping greatly influences the perceived quality of an area. Yet how many schemes do we see with any street planting… but then we go into another area that needs a kick up the arse… councils and their “jobsworth” attitude to “adoption, maintenance and insurance”. Dont get me started on that one!