The government has made some welcome decisions over housing but has created a mood of uncertainty over space standards

Joey Gardiner

The last few weeks in the construction world have been all about houses: on the one hand, the number being built; on the other, the standards to which we build them.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that much of the unaccustomed optimism felt around the construction sector in recent months has been based on the rebound in the housing market. But look closely at the figures and they reveal just how heavily this hope is resting on housing alone: when excluding housing growth - work that is mostly of little benefit to main contractors - the prediction by Experian is of continued falls in output both this year and next. A little fact that might give contractor bosses hoping for some respite after five years of recession a moment’s pause for thought.

It is into this fragile economic environment that this week the government launched proposals for a new set of national housing standards. To succeed in helping this precious uptick in the sector grow into a real recovery, the proposals must strike a difficult balance. Building has made the point in the past that regulatory uncertainty may damage any nascent recovery, but there is also a danger that an avalanche of new regulations will pile extra cost on the industry and weigh the recovery down as well.

The coming debate will be intense, with accusations of ‘rabbit hutch homes’ on one side and of pricing homes out of consumers’ reach on the other

This week’s consultation seems largely to sidestep the second of these issues, if not quite the first. It is a wide-ranging document, seeking to cut down 100 existing standards over a raft of issues into just 10 “nationally described” standards, which will ultimately be wound in to Building Regulations. The aim is to stop individual councils requiring new homes in their areas to meet a huge variety of conflicting and onerous standards, increasing cost for builders.

The decision to wind down the Code for Sustainable Homes is welcome. Building is in favour of regulations to drive investment in low-carbon construction, but the code, by failing to adapt and align with the government’s revised vision for zero-carbon homes, risked sending housebuilders down a costly dead end. In addition, the reliance of the government upon the intellectual property of the BRE, a commercial organisation, to support the code has not been a healthy situation. Under these plans the BRE will be able to continue to market and sell sustainability standards for housing, but it is right that the councils will no longer be able to require housebuilders to meet them.

On a number of other areas the consultation looks to provide a fairly sensible middle way.

However, of concern to all will be the fudge over space standards - the government has raised the prospect of introducing minimum space rules for new homes without actually saying that it intends to roll them out. The coming debate will be intense as feelings on the issue run high, with accusations of “rabbit hutch homes” on one side and of pricing homes out of consumers’ reach on the other.

The rumours suggest that this lack of clarity is a result of coalition tensions, with the Lib Dems insistent upon space standards, but the Tories worried it will damage their one-in-two-out regulation pledge. With this consultation running for 10 weeks, and a long period of review likely while the government irons out its disagreements, the industry is unlikely to get clarity any time soon.

Joey Gardiner, assistant editor