Thursday, 15 September 2011

The rabbit hutch house: market failure or regulatory failure?

To the RIBA for the launch of the Institute's 'Homewise' campaign, which majors on the fact that new homes aren't big enough, but clearly should also branch out into the question of whether the square metres (or more pertinently, cubic metres) of space being offered in new homes are laid out sensibly or not.  They have been pretty astute in appointing a Future Homes Commission with members who are (a) very eminent and (b) not architects, and in fact not even very architect-ey.

One member, Which editor Martyn Hocking, made the point that as a consumer, he would buy a  new TV or car in preference to a second hand one, but would only buy a second hand home and would not expect to find a new home on offer that he would want to buy. 

At the Q&A, an aggrieved representative of the Home Builders Federation asked why they should be expected to take part, since it appeared that everyone had decided to gang up on them- and attributed the profession's downer on the housebuilders, effectively, to snobbery.  The HBF will generally claim that there isn't a problem, since their members sell all the homes they build, and surveys show that a very large majority of buyers are happy - though it was pointed out that someone who has made the biggest purchase of their life is unlikely to admit very readily that they have made a ghastly mistake (it would be interesting to compare surveys after say 6 months and 5 years). 

Problem or no problem?

The average product of the average housebuilder (characterised by Alan Bennett as a f***-hutch) is not big enough and not much good, and there is a problem, whatever the HBF think. There was a massive response, in the form of comments on the BBC website story about the launch, which makes it clear that it is not just architects who think this.  But is this market failure or is it regulatory failure? Housing supply is rationed because of the planning system - that is not the stated aim of the system but it is the practical effect.  If it was de-rationed, a freer market might operate, and we might get better homes.  But since that is unlikely to happen, it would be better to increase the amount of regulation and find ways of making the housebuilders improve their product - both in size (easier to achieve) and in the quality of the design (much harder). I suggested to the Commission members that they steer well away from questions of what new homes look like (awful for the most part, but the issue is a mare's nest) and stick to how people are meant to live in them - a more important consideration where the present market is failing to deliver.

This does seem to be a rare example  - if the warning above is heeded - of an important issue where the profession can be at one both with the general public and with ministers, who can fairly often be heard to bemoan the quality of new homes.  A new Parker Morris standard is not said to be on the cards as part of the RIBA's campaign, presumably because they know the Government want less regulation, not more.  The trick will be to think of some fairly irresistible 'nudges' that can be said to stop short of regulation.   Best of luck to the campaign and the Commission.

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