Building Beautiful Homes - Are Government reforms A Beautiful Dream?

The Government is rightly focused on creating a framework through which more people – particularly families and young people – can afford to buy their own homes.  The need to address this issue isn’t about abstract numbers or targets for how many houses should be built each year. It is about the real-life stories of ordinary people – people we all know – people who are unable to afford a deposit on a house, having to live with their parents or paying exorbitant rates for rented accommodation.

The average age of a first-time buyer has gone up by over 20% since 2007 and the number of young adults living with their parents has risen by over 40% in the last two decades.

Those statistics are surely not acceptable. Just as much as the older generation, these people deserve the opportunity to live in their own homes. They also need to be confident that the houses they buy are of high quality – built not only to last, but also to enhance the local scene, designed in a style that reflects local heritage.  Houses that their owners and, crucially, their neighbours can be proud of.

So, the Government’s recent announcement that a requirement to build beautiful homes will be at the centre of its planning reforms, sounds like a great step forward – if somewhat overdue – and one that Hopkins Homes welcomes.  As Managing Director, I am committed to building high quality homes that sit beautifully within the landscapes and the communities they are part of.

I made that commitment for two reasons.  Firstly, I have to be honest, beautiful homes are popular, don’t have to be expensive and they sell well.  But more importantly, the commitment to high quality design stems from our own place in the local community.  Hopkins Homes is a rare breed – we are a local builder.  We are based in Suffolk and many of our employees and suppliers live and work in Suffolk.  We are proud of the beauty of our county – both natural and built.  I want to be proud of the houses that my company has built as I drive past them every day.

That’s why at Framlingham, for example, our designs were heavily influenced by the history of the site and its Victorian railway buildings. The homes were predominantly built-in red brick and some of the detailing of the façade reflected the concept of the recessed brick panels of the old engine sheds.

The Government’s reforms mean that in the future every local council will have to develop a local design code, an illustrated guide that sets the standard for house building, reflecting local heritage and the views of local people.  These codes can apply at various levels, distinguishing between what is suitable for an inner-city environment and what will enhance a village community.  The changes also demand that housing developments include tree lined streets and more space for nature.

What’s not to like?  In principle, nothing – these are reforms that I welcome and believe could do much to enhance the quality of new developments and make our communities prettier and more sustainable places to live.

But in practice, there are significant practical issues with the approach the Government has outlined.

Principally, I am concerned that some national housebuilders will not allow these proposals to work. Many of them have a business model based on rolling out a standard set of pretty drab houses, without any thought for beauty, heritage or for how they will blend with the existing houses.  It is simply asking too much to believe that they will change that model and create individual designs that can work across multiple design codes.  They will make clear to Government and local authorities that if they want to achieve their housing delivery numbers, they will have to develop codes that reflect their business models, not the other way round.

As things stand chronically under-funded local authorities don’t have the capacity to create detailed codes, let alone monitor their implementation or take on the volume house builders.

There is a way forward.  I genuinely think that for the reasons outlined above, SME local or regional builders such as Hopkins Homes are much more likely to want to deliver beautiful homes and have the flexibility to deliver developments that reflect local design codes (although even here I have to warn that the idea of adapting designs does have limits, it will become very expensive indeed to create effectively bespoke designs for every development).  Sadly, as I mentioned above, Hopkins Homes and others like us are very much a rare breed. In 1988, small builders were responsible for 40 per cent of new-build homes. Today that figure is just 12 per cent.  If the Government could do one thing to help deliver its ideas, it would be to help provide the framework through which those numbers can be reversed.

In addition, if the proposals are to work, we need to find a way to avoid the commitment to beauty becoming a subjective judgement that makes it even harder to build homes at all.  Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. What if a small group of people feel the designs for a proposed housing development aren’t beautiful enough?

Sadly, this is the way the system works at present – often on subjective judgements not on objective facts.  We have housing targets, objective planning criteria and local plans that allocate sites for development.  But all too often these criteria are put aside in favour of sentiment.  Permission is delayed or even refused for sites that have already been allocated for housing, because, for example, of fears over traffic – even when the Highways Agency has objectively assessed the site and concluded there is no reason why the development shouldn’t go ahead.

If building beautiful houses is to become the norm, not the exception, we are going to need a new generation of small-to-medium sized housebuilders who are committed to their communities and ready to break the failed model of the past.  And they will need absolute clarity on what is expected and be able to operate in the certainty that if they meet the agreed standards, then their proposals will be accepted.