Build to last
IT is universally acknowledged that Britain needs more houses—the government has pledged to build a million by 2020. Solving this problem properly constitutes one of the greatest political challenges of the moment. In this new-build issue, we suggest six practical changes that would help deliver the development we need: ● Change the existing VAT system. As it stands, VAT financially penalises the repair or adaptation of existing buildings. By any assessment, this is a scandal. New-builds alone can’t supply our housing needs. Moreover, it should be a particular incentive that redeveloping the million empty properties over shops could both ease the housing shortage and help transform our failing high streets. ● We need to strengthen our planning system so that it can develop and implement integrated development schemes over decades, backed up by the necessary infrastructure. At present, too much power rests with commercial developers that, left to their own devices, want short-term and uncomplicated commitments that benefit shareholders. That usually means greenfield sites that relate poorly to existing patterns of development and exert unsustainable additional pressure on roads, schools and hospitals. ● We should aspire to plan not just 5–10 years in advance—as at present—but 50 years hence (or even a century). Those with a long-term interest, notably landowners, already do this and we should learn from their example rather than bow to short-term commercial interests. ● Building for the future also means that we need to build well. Too many volume developers see in cheap materials a way of cutting costs and boosting profits. This not only makes a mockery of housing as a public good, but threatens to transform new developments over short periods of time into ghettos of economic and social failure. ● We should encourage mixed development rather than pure housing schemes. Successful towns integrate houses, shops, offices and recreation space. Such mixed use creates places in which people can walk to buy a pint of milk (or even to work) rather than driving and establishes an attractive ambience of life. Such arrangements need not be the preserve of historic town centres. For example, houses could be integrated within shopping and business parks. ● We urgently need our architectural talent to address the problem of creating attractive houses that relate to existing building stock and make use of local materials. Too many architectural practices focus their energies on prestige—and predominantly urban—buildings. Until we create out-oftown developments of real architectural quality, the public can legitimately remain sceptical about the regenerative power of new housing.
‘Too many volume developers see in cheap materials a way of cutting costs and boosting profits ’
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