Giving cash to housebuilders solves nothing — the government needs to tackle the real issues
Housing — or rather lack of it — is on the government’s “to do” list but giving £400 million to housebuilders to “unblock” stalled schemes is not a housing strategy, as David Cameron and Nick Clegg claimed this week — it’s a huge waste of money.
We have been here before, of course. When the housebuilding industry ran into trouble two years ago, the Home & Communities Agency doled out vast sums so that schemes, over half of which failed a design assessment, could be built.
The motive was jobs rather than leaving a legacy of well-designed housing, and the same is true this time around. Despite all the fine words about design, and the promise of a summit, the £400 million has nothing to do with tackling our lamentable reputation for low quality housing — and everything to do with votes and keeping housebuilders on side.
This is regrettable because the coalition has a mandate to sweep away the past. Most of what was built under New Labour was impoverished in terms of space and quality, so the coalition has an opportunity to do better.
Will it? Richard Rogers for one seems to think so. Clearly he doesn’t want his contribution to the debate remembered as One Hyde Park. But he is honest enough to say why low-cost housing has not been on Rogers Stirk Harbour’s books before — it’s hard work and low profit and that really is the nub of it.
The hard work is partly created by the plethora of regulations, compliances, assessments and legal agreements required by local authorities, and which the National Planning Policy Framework has failed to do anything about.
The low profits are the architects’ fees, partly a result of the long list of other consultants now needed to work on a single planning application, but mainly to with developers being clobbered by unrealistic demands for affordable housing. No wonder that just 454 new affordable homes started on site in the first half of 2011 — 97% fewer than a year ago.
The government has not been afraid to tackle areas where it thinks money is being wasted on building — namely schools — and it has been quick to come up with alternatives. It needs to do the same with housing. Money on its own is no longer enough.
Taking another look at Britain
No one has bettered Owen Hatherley’s observations of New Labour’s dysfunctional approach to regeneration. His journey around Britain in the noughties made him the architectural equivalent of AA Gill — no city or regional development agency was safe while he was about.
Urban Trawl became a book (A Guide to the New Ruins of Britain) and we expect his latest series for BD will also be repackaged between hard covers. This week though is his last and ends, fittingly, with the City of London where Hatherley is at his acerbic and bolshie best.
But the joy of his journey around the UK has not simply been the demolition job he’s done, but his equally powerful provocation to look again at places and buildings we might ordinarily dismiss and to wonder where we went so wrong. We hope he’ll be back on these pages soon.