Eight Years On & It’s still Work In Progress – Wayne’s View on Housing

Its almost 8 years since I wrote the infamous Independent article, the “Wimpeyfication and Barrattification of Britain” tirade against Britain’s mass national house builders. I accused them of building the pastiche identikit rabbit hutches that were blighting the nation.

The housing  industry  has ridden  along on a 15 year giant bubble fueled by greed and stupidity by the mortgage lenders and a complicit public who couldn’t do the maths (buying a “new build” house or flat has never outperformed cash investments over the long term). The bubble has thankfully burst now and whilst there is unfortunate short term hurt I don’t think that developers will be rushing to build pokey “Buy to Let” or “Buy to Leave Empty” investment properties mainly because the public are unlikely to be so foolish again. The good news then is that the public and local authorities who have seen their towns and cities blighted by flatted developments that now lie empty are likely to get something better: that’s when liquidity returns to the market. 

But for now the housing industry is on its backside and almost nothing is being built and the industry is shedding its workforce at an unprecedented rate. It seems an ideal time for me to take stock and look at what I have learnt since 2001. Where am I with this crusade to prove that housing can well designed, can be part of long term positive legacy of leaving great places to live, can be sustainable and can be profitable? 

What I have learnt is that it is possible and when you do offer something that outperforms the norm then the house buying public respond. HemingwayDesign has led the vision and been part of the delivery of two significant, profitable housing developments; The Staiths South Bank in Gateshead and The Bridge, Dartford. Both have and continue to outperform national sales rates and whilst it is still early days at The Bridge, both developments are proving popular with residents. Much has been written about these developments and their success isn’t down to “rocket science”. Following the Building for Life principles is a simple way of ensuring liveability. By addressing Building for Life’s 20 principles based around community, distinctiveness, open space, public transport and access to necessary services it is possible to avoid delivering the slums of the future that the country has consistently delivered since the 1960’s and led to that wasteful sector, Regeneration (it perplexes me how we can celebrate a sector that is having to attempt to put right the crass errors of the recent past). 

In the eight years since the Wimpeyfication and Barrattification article there has been much more talk about place making and long term thinking (and thus sustainability) in the housing industry, but in the end its down to people and that is what I have learnt the most, people working in the various aspects of housing delivery, capable of delivering what the public deserve are few and far between. 

The easiest target has always been the house builder. Most of the leading house builders are Public Limited Companies and their primary duty has been return on shareholder investments. In the boom years with a customer base ready to snap up properties as fast as they could build them then to ensure decent returns on shareholder investment all they needed was accountants and specialists in keeping overheads / build costs at a bare minimum. Regular research by the likes of Savills was showing that only between 20 and 30 per cent of those looking to buy a property would consider buying new from a housebuilder but with demand outstripping supply these kind of damning figures didn’t have the effect of bankrupting housebuilders like they would have done with industries that had healthy competition that didn’t result in product shortage. 

The next phase of the history of housing delivery though is not going to be predicted on people buying property as an investment. The price drops that we are witnessing are likely to put pay to that concept for some time. People are going to be looking to buy homes, homes to live in, to put down roots in. My experience is of house builders who don’t have the experience of delivering what most of us want from our homes (good sustainable design, in great, connected places, with access to decent services,  public transport and public space). In what industry do few of the senior employees use the products they sell? It really is rare to find an employee of a house builder living in one of their own companies products, they used to” invest” in them but that’s another story. In what industry do the “shop windows” regularly look filthy and uncared for? (It never fails to amaze me when I go on a housing  scheme that is still being delivered and there is builders rubbish blowing round like tumbleweed, pavements are damaged and newly planted trees knocked over by lorries). And is there an industry where the sales forces are so lacking in knowledge about the design and sustainability detail? I know it’s more complicated building houses than manufacturing a blouse but a house is probably the most important thing anybody invests in and you’d think that the “retailers” would invest more in sales training and in “display”. But house builders  haven’t had to whilst the likes of Top Shop, Primark, Asda and M & S have been in a proper open field battle to please the customer and have invested heavily in staff and display.

It is pretty rare to come across senior and middle management in the house building industry who have a real passion for the product and the consumer. At my first company Red or Dead we all lived and breathed the product, it was our passion and it was that the sustained the brand and built its durable public popularity. Housebuilding companies on the whole don’t have public popularity (in fact I would argue some have a brand name that has a negative value with the public). If they are going to come out the other side of this downturn then they are going to have to learn to love what they produce for other reasons than a big fat Christmas bonus. At the moment many are just middlemen (or spivs?) adding their 20 to 30 per cent and employing consultants to do any work other than sums. 

I have met some good planners who do understand livability and peacemaking but there aren’t enough (are you listening those of you that make excuses to leave meetings at 4.45 so you can be away bang on 5?). In my role as visiting Professor of The Built Environment I see a real shortage of young planners desperate to make a difference. I do, however, see big batches of Far Eastern students sent over to benefit from our excellent Planning Schools. My eldest daughter is in her final year of an Urban Design and Planning degree and said she is seen as a second class citizen by the Architecture students. There may be issues with the planning system (sometimes these are to do with powers that can be wielded) but people can solve issues. Until planning is seen as “sexy” career (and those cords, Cornish pastie shoes and jam jar bottoms don’t help… only joking!!) and a career that is allowed to “make a difference” then bright, creative young people will choose other career paths. 

What I have learnt is that to deliver great housing in great places then it is, like with any product, down to human endeavor from talented and committed people. As in planning there is a real shortage of these attributes when it comes to architects. Far too often housing is seen by architects as “not proper architecture”. They see “glory” in delivering libraries, museums, galleries and signature head offices but what can be more “glorious” than delivering places where we spend most of our time, places where we lives as families? 

There’s one thing I have omitted when it comes to talking about people, and that’s the dearth of women working in decision making positions at the major house builders. Its naturally genetic that the women of our species are the nest builder, the homemaker. It doesn’t take retail statistics to show us that its women that make the lion’s share of decisions when it comes to the home. The situation is better in planning and architecture but is far from parity. 

We do get our fair of female government ministers but no sooner have they got to understand the issues than they are transferred. 

Come on government, come on house builders, start to understand that housing isn’t a process or set of codes, Housing is central to our lives, our relationships, our family, our happiness and it’s people that are going to make an improvement in the delivery of great, sustainable places to live. It’s people who are going to bring us out the other side of this downturn. It’s people who are going to prevent us making the mistakes of the past or indeed, repeating them .Give them a choice and it’s people who are going to decide where they want to live and where they want to live. The consumer has a long history of making the right decision on behalf of the supplier. The housing industry has been remiss in not allowing the consumer proper choice and chance to make these decisions. 

It’s the people, stupid and they are not stupid… My relationship with the housing industry is very “much work in progress”. My “crusade” is now entering its second stage and it’s time to gather a group of people who understand what housing can deliver in terms of great product, happy residents and profit and go out and deliver.    

Transcript from BBC4 

Today programme Friday 10 April (Good Friday) 7.20am (non verbatim) 

The National Housing Federation says the government should invest in a 6.3bn house building programme to produce 100,000 affordable homes. 80,000 planned homes have been mothballed because of the recession. 

James Naughtie (JN): Will these affordable homes be ones we’d want to live in? 

Gavin Smart, director of research at the NHF and Wayne Hemingway, designer, who sits on the government’s ecotowns advisory board. 

JN: What’s happening in terms of provision of affordable housing, eg through not for profit organisations? What’s the position? 

GS: Housing Associations are still building, but the environment they’re building in is tougher. There are opportunities out there, there are sites available still. There is a great need for affordable housing, there are currently 1.7m households on the waiting list. We expect that to rise to 2m by 2011. We’re saying to the Chancellor, we know you’re considering a fiscal stimulus package to get the economy on its feet, so think about investing £6.3bn to provide 100,000 affordable homes. It would house a quarter of a million people and have a massive impact on the economy and will help keep the construction industry going. 

JN: Your claim is win-win then? 

GS: Yes. The value to the economy as a whole would be about £20bn. Housing Associations would be expected to match government money. 

JN: How about the design point of view Wayne? You also want people to have affordable homes in which they can live. You’ve been quite critical about some of the affordable homes that have been built. What’s your difficulty with it? 

WN: There are opportunities now. The problem is the process is not serving us well. It’s left us with a legacy of housing that’s as bad as it was in the 60s. Poor quality buildings, poor quality places. Places people don’t want to live in. It’s a mess in some parts of Leeds and Manchester, especially Northern cities that suffer. Housebuilders have left us with a legacy of empty buy to let, empty buy to leave empty. Homes that are not suitable for affordable housing because the space standards are too bad. Now they are turned to poorish quality student accommodation. The situation is, yes sites are available and yes, we’ve got to get building, but we’ve got to change the system. I can say where it’s been going wrong. We’ve been selling off big chunks of land to big developers. This is completely against what’s happening in Europe. Imagine, a bid for land for 1,500 homes where different big housebuilders bid. One housebuilder gets the whole lot, it’s the end of competition. Really there should be ten developers each developing 100 each, in competition with each other and driving up quality. We’re just going for the easiest option and we end up with poor quality. We’ve been doing it for years. 

JN: What’s your reaction Gavin? GS: I don’t disagree. We share Wayne’s aspiration for well designed homes and places. 

WH: Too many housing associations have relied on big housebuilders in the private sector. We need a situation where housing associations and not for profit organisations are building great places and not just leaving it to the private sector. 

GS: Wanye is right. In every downturn there are opportunities. Housing associations and not for profit organisations can take the lead in developing sites, not receive whatever private developers produce. It is an opportunity to seize and build.