When Wimpey threw down the gauntlet to outspoken fashion designer Wayne Hemingway and his wife Gerardine, competitors brushed it off as a PR stunt.
A few years later and Wimpey seems to be having the last laugh. The brave move to hand over the design reins to such outspoken critics now looks like a bit of a coup. The first 159 homes of a 778-unit scheme have been snapped up by happy customers, and although Wimpey admits that its margins have suffered, it is confident that what it has learned will enable it to reduce overheads next time around. The Hemingways’ design is clever, particular in the way it encourages people to interact by mixing private and semi-private space, but it’s hardly advanced theoretical thinking. What it does show is that housebuilders can benefit by consulting minds uncontaminated by industry groupthink.
Although few housebuilders have yet to adopt Wimpey’s approach, the downturn in the market and the government’s desire to increase housing supply have begun to change the paradigm – particularly as far as affordability is concerned. In recent years, housebuilders had all but forgotten first-time buyers as they competed for the so-called executive end of the market. English Partnerships’ £60,000 house competition may have been knocked by architects on aesthetic grounds, but it has certainly reminded housebuilders that not all their potential customers earn £50,000 a year and aspire to live in a double-garaged, four-bedroom box: the average national salary is less than £22,500.
Another significant development is the opening up of the social housing grant to the private sector. Rather than take the money, build the homes and then sell them on to a housing association at the earliest opportunity, Tony Pidgley’s Berkeley is looking to set up its own social housing arm. Meanwhile his son, Tony Pidgley Jr, is among a number of developers thinking laterally about land supply; he’s buying derelict sites zoned for employment use, on the chance that the council will allow him to build affordable homes instead (see news section). Add modern methods of construction, high rise and shared equity and it’s clear to see the received wisdom is changing. In the past, stick to what you know was the housebuilder’s mantra. Now it could be who dares wins.
The barbarians at our gates
Among the acres of newsprint devoted to the government’s crackdown on antisocial behaviour, we have heard little of thugs burning down sites or smashing up plant. It may be a hidden aspect of Britain’s yob culture, but it’s becoming an ever-increasing problem to the building industry. A report by the Royal & Sun Alliance estimates that yobs cost construction and transport £120m a year. Then there are costs of security and the difficulty of getting staff to work in some inner-city areas. Clearly this is not a problem that the industry can solve itself, but that shouldn’t stop firms from mitigating the problem with CCTV, closer liaison with the police and community outreach schemes. It may not be what people go into the industry for, but it’s necessary. It would be tragic if those areas that need the skills of the industry most become no-go areas.
Denise Chevin, editor