The shoddy quality of many British new-build houses is a disgrace—but one that has begun to be addressed. Now, cuts and a loosening of regulations could make things worseby Ben Rogers / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Pleasing development: the Accordia project, in Cambridge, became the first housing scheme to win the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling prize in 2008
Given the choice, which would you rather have, a new book or a used one? Some new pairs of socks, or old ones? A second-hand car or the latest model? New every time, right? But now try this: a brand new house or an old one? If you’re like most of us, you’d prefer an old house to a newly constructed one. Only a third of Britons will even consider buying a new-build.
It’s tempting to put this down to old-fashioned snobbishness. But, when polled, the reason most people give is that they think modern houses are featureless and mean, and new housing estates lifeless. But are new homes really that bad? And, with the government busily recasting the planning system—a flagship localism bill will be published any day—will they get better or worse?
Four years ago Cabe, the government’s architectural watchdog, published an audit of a sample of new homes by the big housebuilders—Barratt, Wimpey, Persimmon and so on—between 2004 and 2006. This used a now well-established national measure, Building for Life, to score the homes against a range of criteria, including architectural integrity as well as sustainability, quality of public realm and social mix. Its findings made for depressing reading. Only one in five were assessed as good or very good, and 29 per cent were poor—meaning, in Cabe’s view, that they should not have been given planning permission. Two years later, the exercise was repeated for “affordable” housing association homes built between 2006 and 2008. Again only a fifth were assessed as good or very good, and another fifth were poor. And last year, a Building for Life audit of new homes found that a shocking 54 per cent of the schemes backed were poorly designed. Some wit rechristened the programme “Building Slums for the Future” and it stuck.
It is worth comparing these findings with audits of “core” public services—after all, while private housing is a market good, providing affordable housing is a public service in the same way as education, healthcare or policing is. Where a fifth of new affordable homes were judged poor, only 7 per cent of councils and 4 per cent of schools were, on last inspection, deemed poor or inadequate (the equivalent measure).