Everything’s been tried: Help to Buy, lifting council house building caps, modular homes. But still the government is nowhere near to hitting its target of 300,000 new homes a year. There’s only one solution. Call in… The Luvvies.
The latest architectural grandee to flounce through the corridors of Whitehall isn’t strictly an architect; he is ‘Conservative philosopher’ Sir Roger Scruton. The champion of classicism and tormentor of modernists was anointed by the otherwise sensible housing secretary James Brokenshire to chair the government’s new Building Better, Building Beautiful commission. Its remit: “To advocate for beauty in the built environment.”
His inaugural lecture in the role, last month at the right-leaning Policy Exchange think tank, gives a flavour of what’s to come: “The highest example of rules [of composition] is given by the classical orders, as these were expounded by the followers of Vitruvius in the 16th and 17th centuries.” Try selling that to the board of Persimmon.
However, Sir Roger is only the latest in a trail of luminaries that successive governments have been deluded into thinking will make any difference to the design of British homes.
In 2015, David Cameron tasked the Design Advisory Panel to advise on designs for the Starter Homes Initiative, intended to provide 100,000 discounted homes. He chose an incongruous duo of wedding cake classicist Quinlan Terry and Lego block post-modernist Sir Terry Farrell. Their recommendations, like the starter homes themselves, never saw the light of day.
Arch-modernist Lord Rogers was appointed by deputy prime minister John, later Lord, Prescott to chair the Urban Task Force in 1997. Its report, ‘Toward an urban renaissance’, contained more than 100 recommendations, including on sustainability, design and infrastructure, and has been gathering dust ever since.
From 1999 for over a decade, housebuilders and other developers had to contend with phalanxes of under-employed architects moonlighting as ‘expert advisers’ for the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE).
“Don’t talk to me about CABE,” muttered the chief executive of one of the larger housebuilders, who complained of numerous, apparently pointless meetings and having to contend with a multitude of different agendas. CABE was eventually swept up into the Design Council during the ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’ in 2011.
Taking a swipe at Scruton
Veteran commercial developer Sir Stuart Lipton, the first chairman of CABE, recently lambasted Sir Roger in an interview in Building magazine in which he also had a swipe at housebuilders.
“The housebuilders are reincarnating Victorian workhouse houses. Shameful.” He thinks Scruton should go and guess who should replace him? “Why on earth can’t they reincarnate CABE? Instead they go and hire a Georgian revivalist.”
That’s hardly going to happen. Next best thing is he’s planning to set up a housebuilding operation with Lipton Rogers – the firm he set up with his Stanhope co-founder Peter Rogers five years ago – and First Base, the mixed-use developer run by his son Elliot. It will initially aim to build flats on brownfield sites in and around London.
This wouldn’t be the first time companies steeped in commercial development have given housebuilding a whirl. Scandinavian property and construction giant Skanska and private UK contractor Laing O’Rourke bought tracts of land and a few years later quietly exited stage left when they couldn’t compete against the big guns.
I shudder when I see the dross some housebuilders churn out. But there are regular examples, such as from Countryside and Crest Nicholson, of good modern design respecting the local vernacular (sorry, I’m now sounding like Sir Rog). You can hardly walk through reception at Urban Splash without tripping over a few of the Manchester developer’s 730 design awards.
However, it’s always a struggle to make the numbers stack up. Even if buyers are prepared to stump up a little extra for something better, lenders’ valuers will still assess it against the same sized units in the more mundane neighbouring site. With high costs, it can only come off margins or land values, in which case someone with less lofty ideals will outbid you.
Alternatively, there’s the risk that if Sir Roger gets his way builders will merely slap on fake pilasters or mouldings and persuade the overworked local planning officer that they are recreating ancient Corinth on the edge of Milton Keynes.
One partial solution might be to empower and resource planning departments to make it as easy as possible to wave through developers that have established a track record of good practice – the equivalent of a BA fast-track pass. Most authorities frankly know who are the good and bad guys.
What housebuilders don’t need is more pearls of wisdom or disdain dumped on them from on high by the Great and Good.
Of course, that is unlikely to stop ministers from continuing to swan around building sites accompanied by a succession of ‘National Treasures’. Anyone for Stephen Fry or Dame Judi Dench in hard hats?