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Carrot or stick for housing quality? Carrot.

PUBLISHED: 10:09 21 March 2011 | UPDATED: 10:10 21 March 2011

If, as I have previously argued, we are building some of the lowest quality homes in Europe, how can we reverse this? The answer is a mixture of encouragement and regulation, stick and carrot. Let's start with the carrot!

Firstly the planning system needs to incentivise developers to improve quality. Planning authorities, in a sense, “gift” planning permission in return for contributions to affordable housing, transport, schools and other infrastructure. These contributions are calculated independently of the quality of a development which has only to achieve a minimum design threshold. This is very unfair since a well-designed scheme that properly takes account of people’s needs will, in the long term financially and socially benefit the community and local authority immeasurably. The benefits, amongst others, will be reduced crime, creating a sense of belonging and more humane environments. So why not take into account quality when calculating contributions so that good design is incentivised? Poor design will be penalised and good design rewarded.

Secondly, we need more competition and a buyer’s market in houses giving consumers a proper choice. This will only come about by planning authorities releasing significantly more building land and developers building more houses. Quality and choice, whether it be more appropriate types of houses, better layouts and energy efficiency or decent after sales care, would be driven upwards and houses would begin to meet the discerning house-owner’s needs, aspirations and pockets. With choice, poorly designed houses will naturally be weeded out. It is instructive to compare the house, a consumer product like any other that serves needs, to the car whose design, driven by competition, consumer demand and technology, has come on in leaps and bounds.

It leaves the house looking very much like a dinosaur.

We also need to look at alternative ways of releasing land and encouraging responsible building practice such as joint ventures between landowners, house builders and future house purchasers so that their interests are tied together for their mutual long-term benefit. Allied to this we need to seriously question the fiscal incentives that treat houses as an investment rather than a product, a policy that every government has pursued for the last fifty years. A house is primarily a home not an investment.

The rental sector can also help push up quality if financial incentives are re-structured to encourage long term investment and in parallel we learn the lessons from our continental neighbours such as Holland, Germany and Sweden.

This will encourage responsible landlords to build and commission low maintenance, good quality homes. Housing associations and local authorities have been the recent providers but there is no reason we can’t have more charitable, private and community organisations becoming involved as they have done in the past such as Peabody, who were leaders in this field.

These are big issues, but unless some inroads are made to incentivise builders we will continue to leave a legacy of poorly designed housing for the future. In parallel, we also need regulation – the stick – but this can fall away in the long term once the incentives are working.

Anthony Hudson is director at Hudson Architects, Norwich and London.

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