One of the reasons my blog has been quieter than usual of late is that I am buried in revision for yet another edition of the Housebuilder’s Bible. With seven editions under my belt, you’d think this task would be becoming easier, but it takes a surprisingly long time to check everything and to keep it all accurate and concise.
But just occasionally, I come across a paragraph that sticks in the craw and calls for a radical rewrite, and I came across something this morning that caused me to spit out my cornflakes. Here’s what I wrote in the opening paragraph of Chapter 12 in the last edition (p 304).
In most other countries, the rate of new housebuilding per head of population is way higher than it is in the UK. The average in the Western World is somewhere around 6,000 new homes per annum per million population. In the UK, the figure is less than half this. Our paltry 160,000 new homes each year work out at just 2,700 per million. Interestingly, the Republic of Ireland is quite the reverse: their rate is 12,500 new homes per million, just about the highest rate anywhere in the West. The UK doesn’t build enough new homes: we know that.
Now it’s only two years since I wrote this and I realise that since then I have undergone a 180° rethink on the UK housing scene. It’s that last line that gets me, the one about the UK not building enough new homes and especially the throw away line we know that. Because actually we don’t know that, and I had just taken it on a lazy assumption that, because we built so few new homes as compared to everyone else, we must be doing something wrong.
Keen readers of this blog (there are some) will have witnessed my turnaround during these past two years. I go from parroting the growth lobby agenda back in August 2005, to questioning the notion of sustainable development in April 2007. Then the floodgates opened. Ian Abley invited me to present at his pro-development beanfeast, All Planned Out, expecting me to call for “freedom for selfbuilders” or some such nostrum, and instead I found myself going on about the Irish Conundrum. Further articles followed laying into the government’s affordability arguments and questioning how housing demand is assessed. I had apparently come out in NIMBY spots.
But paradoxically, I was at the same time involved in a curious debate in an online village forum about a proposed windfarm. It seemed I was about the only person even vaguely in favour of the windfarm, and I kept the flame going for three months and 21 posts before retiring before the lynch mob got hold of me. And I never did get to spend the night with Wiggyjane.
So you can see that I am not quite ready for a life of tweeds, deerstalkers and a subscription to the CPRE. It’s just that I no longer believe we need to build 3 million new homes by 2020, or whatever the latest government target is. Or put another way, I am now more worried about climate change and peak oil than I am about new housing provision. I think it’s time we concentrated our housebuilding industry on upgrading (or rebuilding) the 25 million homes we already have, rather than spending all that time, effort and money on creating an extra 3 million new homes, however near to zero carbon they manage to get.
Am I ahead of the game? Or have I taken leave of my senses? Probably the latter. Thus far no political party is calling for a slowing down in the rate of new homebuilding, let alone suggesting a halt. Even those countryside protectors, the CPRE, are merely asking for development to take place on brownfield sites in cities. Christ, even George Monbiot buys into the new homes are vital argument.
What’s even more confusing is that my professional reputation, such as it is, rests upon promoting housebuilding as a good thing. Here I am rewriting the Housebuilder’s Bible, and I appear to have lost faith in its central message. I can’t not write it because it’s my main source of income — it’s riding high at No 315 in the Amazon charts this morning. But does that now make me a fraud? Or a hypocrite? Or can I argue my way out of it by saying that it’s OK for selfbuilders to indulge in little bits of infill housebuilding here and there, but not for Barratts to knock up vast estates?
I don’t know the answer and I am left pondering my predicament.
In the meantime, I will get back to Chapter 12 and knuckle down to some more revision. Afterall, the initial rationale behind the Housebuilder’s Bible remains the same as ever: if you are going to build a house, you might as well do it properly. Whatever the rights and wrongs about housebuilding in the current climate, that’s a sentiment that will never change.