31 Mar 2008

On my changing views

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.


  1. Re: "Curious debate".

    Is that a flemish bond pattern you have embedded in your forehead there Mark? :-)

    (I used to live in Balsham, and would have been all for it if I were still living in the area. So thanks for trying...)


  2. Out of interest, what is the rate at which our existing stock is 'expiring'? By that, I mean either becoming uninhabitable, or requiring extensive modernisation to provide modern standards of accomodation.

    That must surely factor into the required rate of house building, as a certain proportion of houses must be built each year to refresh the existing housing stock. A certain number of new houses will also be direct replacements for existing stock that are borderline practical/economical to upgrade.

  3. There are something like 15,000 to 20,000 demolitions taking place every year. On that basis, people say our 25 million homes are on a 1,000 year replacement cycle which is more than faintly ridiculous. And on that basis, I would have no qualms about REPLACING 3 million old homes by 2020 and refurbishing another 3 million, which would mean that builders wouldn't suddenly run out of work.

    It's just the addition of 3 million new homes that gets my goat. The case for this is no stronger than it is for a third runway at Heathrow. And no greener.

  4. Excellent comments Mark - and something i agree with. Maybe you have gotten the matches out to light the blue touch paper - when comments like "The case for this (3million homes) is no stronger than it is for a third runway at Heathrow. And no greener" gets into the press then the fireworks should be entertaining.

    Have you seen the latest WWF paper - How Low ?

    Keep it up

    Martin (isite)

  5. And now this:


    Your crystal ball is looking good, Mark!

  6. Trouble is, it's only lip service. Govt has been saying for years that it must address "the existing stock", but to really address it (as opposed to offering the odd grant here and there for loft insulation) would require drastic and unpopular measures, so it's a political no-go area. How much easier to carry on as we always have done, and to just set implausible green targets for future homes. As if this really makes any difference!

  7. I'm afraid I don't think it's an either/or argument: we need both new homes and to renovate old ones. We need new homes because we do have an expanding population and household breakdown, and the trend to live alone, and people's apparent wish for more space per person, keep increasing. I do however think 3 million new units is a crazy figure and unachievable without a revolution in planning and land availability, and a good proportion of these could come by sub-dividing the existing housing stock.

    We need to renovate existing houses simply because it makes good economic sense. Householders already do a great deal of maintenance in their own self-interest, and this could be encouraged if the VAT rules on renovations were changed. Energy efficiency also needs to be improved on simple economic grounds, and on green ones if you must, which is why I can't understand why the Government is obsessed with "zero-carbon" new homes, which will require a massive investment, when new houses are a tiny part of the housing stock. Money due to be spent on new power stations or fuel grants would be far better be spent on improving the existing stock, if necessary making loft insulation and draught-proofing virtually free for everyone if householders continue to refuse to pay themselves. Has anyone ever worked out if it would be cheaper to insulate a million homes and save energy rather than build a new power station to supply energy that will just be wasted in leaky houses?

  8. AnonymousMay 11, 2008

    Various thoughts:

    I entirely agree that renovating/upgrading the existing housing stock ought to be a No 1 priority.

    Perhaps it is time for a new book that focuses on renovation, external insulation, water recycling, solar panels etc etc!

    And as others have said, why is VAT allowed to be a disincentive to repair and renovation versus new build?

    Finding a building to demolish is a common aim of self builders - the VAT exemption for new build, and the opportunity to remedy poor foundations, ground floor insulation, wall insulation etc etc is appealing compared with the struggle and VATable costs of effective renovation.

    Even harder to know what to do about upgrading the valuable stock of listed buildings with sensitive interiors and exteriors.

    But many assume the costs are not worth the benefits. People are misled on economics and are told to look for a quick payback - but is that right?

    Longer paybacks can still make sense, especially for older people.

    No of years to repay the capital cost is perhaps not the best criteria. If you can invest capital to save expenses paid out of taxed income, pension annuity rates become relevant.

    Here is a crude example - An £10,000 personal pension pot will buy a 65 yr old single man an index linked annuity of about £600 p.a. (taxable income). Instead of investing in the pension could the capital have bought a lifelong £600 p.a. reduction in utility bills (which will probably increase at more than the rpi)? That would be 13 year capital payback that made good sense (and would increase the capital value of the building as well).


    I was recently encouraged to support the clause about Renewable Energy Tariffs in Parliament

    This is an adaptation of the Friends of the Earth 'standard' letter:

    "As you may have seen from recent advertising by Friends of the Earth, they report that the UK's record on renewable energy is a national disgrace. Germany has more than 200 times more solar power and ten times more wind power installed than the UK. Germany has a quarter of a million people employed in their renewables industry. We have only 7,000 in the UK.

    One of the reasons Germany is so far ahead is their adoption of a feed in tariff policy which pays consumers and businesses a long term, guaranteed, premium price for the renewable energy they generate. It is a renewable energy reward (sometimes also known as a feed-in tariff).

    I would like to install photovoltaic cells or other forms of electricity generation in any future house (and I am actively looking for a suitable plot). If I generated electricity there should be a surplus in the summer which I'd like to sell, to help pay for buying back extra electricity or other energy when I need it in the winter.

    If a premium price were paid for power sold back this would be a very effective way of incentivising/subsidising consumer investment in efficient alternative fuel generation and would have negligible administrative costs when compared to administering a capital grant or incentive scheme where the emphasis would be on cost rather than surplus alternative power generated. It would also give extra incentives to those with very energy efficient homes.

    So please support New Clause 4 to the Energy Bill, to be debated in Parliament on 30th April. This would introduce a renewable energy reward into the UK. Failure to do so could delay the adoption of this transformative energy policy by three years. We are near the bottom of the EU renewable energy league table. No further delays are acceptable in adopting the policies which will deliver a dynamic low carbon economy."

    A change like this (and I'm sure more could be devised) could be a simple measure with far reaching impact.

    Instead I gather the grants for wind turbines etc were handled appallingly and provided incentives of quite the wrong sort - when a simple scheme such as the above might have been far more effective.

    see http://eeru.open.ac.uk/natta/renewonline/rol69/6.htm for more details

    Richard B