The housing revolution starts here

Today the RIBA publishes the finding of its Future Homes Commission. Hugh Pearman reports.

After a year of thorough, wide-ranging research involving all the key players in new housing around the country, the RIBA’s Future Homes Commission, chaired by former CBI director Sir John Banham, has produced its report.  Part of the RIBA’s spirited and sometimes controversial “Homewise” campaign, it’s a useful, well-argued document: everyone knows that our housing market is broken and that the design quality of what little housing does get built is too often poor.  More hand-wringing will get us nowhere. The question is, what to do about it? The report offers solutions.

“Britain needs a revolution in the scale, quality and funding of home-building if we are to have any hope of meeting the housing needs of our growing and changing population,” it begins. “The challenge is not just to massively increase the number and standard of homes being built for many years to come, but to develop communities which enhance the quality of life for both new residents and existing communities nearby. All this has to happen without additional government funding.”

Quite some challenge, one of the biggest facing the nation.  But, says Banham’s team:  “The Future Homes Commission is convinced that such a revolution is possible.”  Five big changes are needed in our approach to housebuilding, it says. These are:
 

1. The number of new homes being built each year must triple, to over 300,000. – “land will be needed in or close to virtually every city, town and village”. Half could be sold on the open market, half for rent or shared ownership in sustainable mixed-tenure communities.

2. A £10 billion Local Housing Development Fund must be set up to kick-start the big build – financed and owned by local authority pension funds, which have combined assets of over £180 billion. Once the new communities are established in this way, they will attract conventional risk-averse investments.

3. Better designed new homes for today and tomorrow – today’s home buyers are often dissatisfied with the new homes available, because they do not meet their needs for space, storage and privacy and are inflexible. Better design would please both buyers and sellers because of the perceived added value.

4. More power for the consumer – because there is currently too little choice, and builders offer too little relevant information to prospective buyers. The valuation of properties should reflect design quality so that there is an incentive for developers to invest in it.

5. More action by local councils – who should take a lead role in promoting new communities under the powers of the Localism Act. With their land-holdings, and with access to the new Housing Development Fund (above), they could bring development partners together to do great things.

Finance and design quality are at the heart  of this report. As it says: “The lack of government funds means councils and local authority pension funds have to lead this revolution. While councils have the powers and often the land, the pension funds have the money.”

But it is not enough merely to find the means to build: what is built must be well-designed, adaptable, and durable. “During the inquiry the Commission was constantly reminded of the need to learn from the terrible mistakes of the past, and avoid the poor quality, unpopular and unsustainable development which has become commonplace.”

It can be done, says the Commission, which adopts a positive tone. “The evidence we have heard and the inspiring examples of new developments we have seen have shown that the revolution we are calling for is both essential and possible.”


The RIBA Journal will analyse the full report of the Future Homes Commission in its December issue.  In the meantime, you can see the report online at http://www.architecture.com/HomeWise/