Posted by: Adam Roake | December 24, 2009

WHOSE HOME ARE WE BUILDING ANYWAY?

CABE’s latest thought piece, “Who should Build our Homes“, is out now. Six of the great and good “… tell us what they would change to deliver more housing, better designed, at affordable prices”. What seems singularly lacking from any of the solutions offered is an analysis of what sort of housing people actually want. The following quotes were the closest I could find to an approach which might include the consumer of the housing proposed:

“Housing in multiple occupation needs to become an option of choice for the many, rather than the few.” (Dickon Robinson)

“Central government cannot do it all – people must see that they or their children or others they care about will benefit from building more, better designed and more sustainable housing.” (Christine Whitehead)

However, what is also needed is some additional input from the wider public to ensure that the design and management approaches being sought align with the qualities that people really want for their neighbourhoods.” (Peter Studdert)

“We seem to be a nation obsessed with home ownership – even Labour ministers view it as the single most significant route towards upward social mobility. The result is that renting is regarded as second best. This is an attitude that both central and local government needs to change.” (Liz Pearce)

“Developments currently too often fail to reflect the needs and contexts of the local community. Housing is a fundamental need and one that individuals should be encouraged to group together to fulfil for themselves.” (Stephen Hill)

“Sustainability will increasingly form part of a business brand for developers, as consumers and clients at all levels demand higher quality in sustainable design. Developers will be called upon to create a coherent proposition for consumers based on offering a high-quality way of life underpinned by principles such as zero carbon and zero waste.” (Pooran Desai)

There’s an awful lot about how “public attitudes” need to change or be changed but precious little analysis of what those attitudes might be; what are the drivers affecting the purchaser; what sort of housing actually might have a market. Savills Research published a really telling paper in 2007 called “Occupier Demand Survey Report“. It revealed the features which were important for prospective purchasers as follows:


Four out of the seven most important features related to ‘Location’, whilst ‘Size/Layout’ (of individual properties) ranked well down the list, the most important (‘Size of Rooms’) only making it in at no.12 in the chart. Basically people buy in neighbourhoods which they like, near good schools and which they perceive as safe. That people want to buy rather than rent is an obviously sensible choice given the incredibly helpful tax regime, the historic capital gains generated from housing and the likelihood of that trend continuing. I don’t see any of this changing in the near future. People don’t value eco-friendly features, at least not enough to pay for them; they don’t want to share in any great numbers, or build their own; they don’t want to rent, and why would they when buying delivers untaxed capital gains on both their capital and the value of the mortgage.

In this light, I’m not sure what the benefit might be in suggesting that these attitudes need to change or be changed. Of course, were this to happen, then we would be living in a different world, where currently perceived problems might no longer exist. But the point is we live in this world were these attitudes are dominant (they really are) and where we need to balance what people demand with what, as a society, we can afford to be delivered. As for the proposition that it is the role of government to change what people want, isn’t that putting the cart before the horse just a little? Perhaps it would be more honest to say that government needs to take the tough decision and legislate to require better designed neighbourhoods, more eco-friendly buildings, and to provide appropriate funding to deliver sufficient new homes to meet need (I’ve never understood why anyone thought the private sector would produce sufficient homes so that house price inflation would disappear – that’s not in their interest, is it? – but that’s another blog!). Actually that might meet our needs for good housing and leave the market to meet our demands, within the constraints of well-designed neighbourhoods and homes and low levels of energy consumption, for anything better.

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