McDonalds write health policies; house builders set design standards

When the government announced that it was inviting businesses to play a greater role in Britain’s health policy, it made the front page, because of the obvious clash of interests. Pepsi and McDonalds want to sell more of the products which cause obesity and poor health.

Last week the government did something similar in housing. It abolished the higher space and sustainability standards which were set to apply to new publicly funded homes. Instead, the Housing Minister is putting house builders ‘in charge of developing a new framework for local building standards.’

Now there is a fundamental clash of interest between house builders and people who want spacious, well designed and environmentally sustainable homes. These homes are more expensive for developers to build, no getting away from it. There is also a conflict within government; government (should) want good quality homes and all recent governments have wanted more homes. Higher standards hit your housing numbers.

The approach of the last government was to try to increase standards gradually, with public housing leading the way. That meant government shared in the increased cost of better homes and helped industry build capacity and expertise to build better homes elsewhere as cheaply as possible.

And to state the obvious, public cash is often on the line to mop-up the problems of poorly designed and built homes. Part of the problem of some of the ‘sink estates’ the Tories love to quote is that they were built poorly in the rush for numbers in the post-war period. Billions have gone into estate regeneration schemes in recent years, to demolish and rebuild the substandard and poorly built homes of the past,

So when the Housing Minister says: ‘There’s no good reason why homes built on public land should be built any differently to those of high quality on private land.’ The good reason is that private homes are often not very well built as the Royal Institute of British Architects  and the soon to be abolished CABE point out.

This move is simply a leveling down, which will help the Housing Minister meet his numbers in the short term, but will build in longer term problems, for which the tax payer is likely to have to pick up the bill. The public sector has abdicated its role in trying to provide better and bigger homes for its citizens.

It’s worth saying that I’m not unsympathetic to the Housing Minister’s bind. There is a housing crisis and a desperate need for new homes. All those homeless families, overcrowded families, those on waiting lists, in temporary accommodation or sleeping on the sofas of friends and family, don’t they just need any serviceable home and quickly? And following the advice of architects has not always led to untrammelled success: tower blocks were once the cutting edge of design.

Rather than peddle nonsense about red tape however, the Housing Minister could say that after weighing up the balance he’d decided to go for homes now and lifting housing standards would have to wait for less straightened times. That would be an honest response.

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