26 Feb 2015

1998 revisited

I've just had my 500th article published. I started freelancing in 1997 and have mostly written for Homebuilding & Renovating since then. But in the early days, I used to find all kinds of unlikely spots to take my musings and here is one of my earliest pieces dated December 1998, written for the Velux company. It's about the nascent housing crisis and it's interesting to reflect how the slant has changed over the intervening years. Back then, we built twice as many homes as we do now, but mass immigration had yet to take off and become such a political hot potato.

Where will all the new homes go?

The future of new housing in Britain has reached a crucial stage. For the first time, there is a debate about how much housing is needed and where it should go. Until now it has always been assumed that new homes are generally a good thing: no more. We live in an age when many of the previous generation's assumptions are not only being questioned but also being actively rejected.

Until World War II, British housing had been largely developed on a piecemeal, laissez-faire basis. Developers were able to buy land more or less wherever they chose and build houses for either rent or sale. It resulted in a great expansion of towns and cities throughout the country: as we become more prosperous, we wanted more space and builders were happy to meet these demands where they could. The downside of this was that new housebuilding tended to sprawl out along roads in what is now called ribbon development. After the war, the political climate changed and planning controls were introduced. The idea of these was not (and never has been) to prevent building, but to direct it into locations which it was felt would be less damaging overall and it would be easier and cheaper to provide the essential services like schools, shops and medical services. In order to stop ribbon development, green belts were introduced around towns so that post-war housebuilding has tended to be channelled into what are called infill areas, mostly between the pre-war ribbons.

Throughout this post-war period we have been building around 200,000 new homes each year. Some of these have been replacements for older houses but most have added to the sum total of homes in the country which currently stands at around 25 million, one home for every 2.3 people. In 1972, the ratio was one home for every 2.8 people. The statistics here don't lie. Our total housing stock is expanding by nearly 1% each year whilst our population is virtually static.

Why do we need more houses? Haven't we got enough already? Or is there something wrong with the ones we've built to date? The truth is that nobody can answer these crucial questions with authority. Much of the evidence we have is anecdotal and often contradictory. Some sources cite the fact that much of our existing housing stock is simply in the wrong place and that people have a need to live near to their work so the new housing is tending to get built in the prosperous areas. Others say that we are still undergoing a profound social transformation which is seeing the breakdown of the traditional family and the rise of the singleton household and the single parent family. A third theory has it that we are simply getting richer and want more space to store our possessions. What isn't in doubt is that there remains a pent-up demand for new housing of all sizes and in all locations, though the bulk of this demand is coming from South-East England.  

Set against this is an increasingly strong conservation lobby. The government has outlined a target figure of 4.4 million new homes needed between 1991 and 2016 (very similar to the rate we have been building since the 1960s). But, for the first time, this figure is being challenged by many different parties and people are objecting to loosing more and more countryside to housing. Elected politicians have been quick to notice this and have been caught in something of a cleft stick, not wanting to upset either potential new house buyers nor existing residents who are fearful of development. Their response to date has been to try and persuade housebuilders to switch away from the time honoured practise of putting up houses in fields and to get them to concentrate on the conversion of existing buildings into homes — a phenomenon known as brownfield development. 

Just how many brownfield sites there are suitable for redevelopment is itself a matter of dispute. At one extreme, Friends of the Earth claim that there is the potential to create over 7 million new homes without touching an acre of greenfield: at the other end of the spectrum, many are saying that the government's own target of 60% of new homes to be built on brownfield sites is hopelessly optimistic and that many of the potential brownfield sites are located in areas where there is little demand for new housing. 

To date, the debate about the future of housing has concentrated on the simple numbers of new homes that should be built. It is just as important — yet so far it has been largely neglected — to look at the size and amenity of the houses that will get built. As discussed, one of the driving factors behind the growth in household formation is said to be the shrinking sizes of families and the increasing number of single person households. Logically you would expect the demand for new housing to be largely met by small homes, perhaps one or two bedroom flats. However, the actual demand seems to be spread much more evenly across the spectrum and, indeed, in recent years there has been a significant growth in the numbers of large four and five bedroom homes being built. It would seem that many one or two person households would actually very much like to have some extra space, perhaps a study to work from home or a hobby room. Just because households are getting smaller doesn't mean they are all getting poorer and it is beginning to look as though our individual space requirements are actually growing. If this is so, then one way of reducing the overall demand for numbers of new homes would be to build larger houses. 

Now in the minds of the conservation lobby, the large executive-style houses are the worst offenders of all because they invariably sit in their own grounds and all built with garaging, driveways and other space hungry features. It's a very low density form of housing and, worse still,  it tends to get built on greenfields. The actual living space in such homes is often surprisingly small and it has been shrinking over many years. A four bedroom house built today in a typical greenfield site has between 1100 and 1500 sq.ft of internal floor area: an equivalent built in the pre-war years would have been around 30% larger. 

Greenfield housebuilding isn't going to cease, whatever the wishes of the conservationists. However, it could greatly reduce it's demand for greenfields if it adopted design and building techniques which would allow a greater development density. The high cost of building land has tended to concentrate the minds of housebuilders on shaving actual build costs down to a bare minimum and this has, paradoxically, caused them to build smaller and smaller houses. Furthermore the the methods of construction used nowadays tend to prohibit extension of the dwellings once built. The floor plan is often so very tight that it becomes difficult to build a useful extension at the side or the rear and the loft space is constructed in such a way that it is virtually impossible for the householder to use the space for anything more than storage of suitcases and cardboard boxes. The Victorians and Edwardians habitually built homes with cellars and attics, giving the homeowner the option of expanding the living space as and when circumstances dictated. In contrast, the twentieth century Elizabethans have specialised in creating a form of housing that is both cramped and inflexible. The standard response to needing more space is to move house rather than to adapt what is already there.

It therefore seems likely (though of course it can't be proved) that part of the demand for new housing is being driven by a general dissatisfaction with what we are currently building. Were we to rediscover some of the techniques and designs of our forebears, we could be building extendible housing which would reduce the overall demand for new homes which would, in turn, save many greenfield sites from development.