First person - The HBF is doing nothing for housebuilders' tarnished reputations. It needs to let go of the past and start getting radical.
After yet another week of roastings on primetime television, you can't blame housebuilders for thinking that the media has it in for them.

But not all journalists think that housebuilders are an unscrupulous lot flogging jerry-built boxes to an unsuspecting public. Some of us have a different, if equally misguided, perception. It's one that we share with the public and New Labour politicians. Housebuilders may not be rogues with an eye for the main chance, but boy do they whinge.

Through the House Builders Federation, we've come to see them as a breed with rather large chips on their shoulders; business folk who think the government owes them a living; a defensive crowd who are always fighting against the tide. In short, an industry whose only word is no.

The HBF resisted the move from greenfield to brownfield. It dug in its heels over the setting-up of the new consumer star rating. It railed against the changes to the disabled regulations and it opposed proposed revisions to the energy regs. Heaven knows what it will make of the £75m bill to implement new anti-noise rules (pages 26-27).

Of course there's merit in asking if it's really worth every new home being equipped with a disabled toilet or why the DETR continues to focus on saving energy in new homes while letting existing ones guzzle as many megajoules as they want.

But fighting these battles does nothing to endear them to the public. No wonder that the government was able to accuse housebuilders of building on floodplains even when their hands were clean.

There's little to suggest that the HBF is doing anything but taking the line that most of its members want it to. But to project the image of a blue-rinsed battleaxe from the heyday of Margaret Thatcher and Nicholas Ridley is to do it a disservice. That was brought home to me on a visit to see Clive Wilding, managing director of Gleeson Homes.

Housebuilders project the image of a blue-rinsed battleaxe from the heyday of Margaret Thatcher and Nicholas Ridley

There I was, handkerchief at the ready, but instead of sob stories, Wilding regaled me with innovations in water recycling and homes that come complete with their own maintenance packages. Oh, and someone to do the ironing and gardening as well.

And really when you think of it, the industry is peppered with firms like Gleeson, moving with the political tide. Many have long bade farewell to out-of-town culs-de-sac and now build instead on former gas works and factories. And they may not be hitting Ken Livingstone's 50% social housing target yet, but it's not unusual for London housebuilders to come close.

Other firms are tackling the problems of customer dissatisfaction by souping up their aftercare, and taking a leaf out of the car industry's book by letting buyers customise their purchases. And while the partial move to prefabrication won't obliterate shoddy workmanship overnight, at least it's an indication that the industry is heading in the right direction.

There's good news on the design front, too. The "tawdry little boxes" that Nick Raynsford referred to recently are still appearing. But there appears to be a sea change in housebuilders' attitude to design. Amendments to PPG3 and the building regulations are forcing them back to the drawing board, for one thing. But the public's new love affair with house design, courtesy of Misses Vorderman and Smillie, has also prompted housebuilders to jettison the gold taps and plastic neo-Georgian columns.

Okay, it's tough – if consumers or the government are not making demands, then the City certainly is. But look at it this way – it's an exciting and radical time to be in housebuilding. Which brings me back to the HBF. Shouldn't it be more exciting and radical, too? It's already lined up an architect – Wilcon's John Weir – for president next year. But why stop there? Perhaps it should split from the Construction Confederation, or copy the RICS and go in for a spot of rebranding. Or, as it continues its search for a new chief executive, learn a few lessons from another beleaguered organisation, the FA.

Given how long Stuart Hill stayed in the position, one can imagine the job of running the HBF is as attractive to housebuilding executives as managing the English football team was to English coaches. But in Sven-Goran Eriksson – and I know absolutely nothing about football, and yes, I know he's won nothing yet – at least the FA seems to have hit the target.