Fixing our housing problems will be a hard slog - but some progress is being made, says Andrew Stunell
For professionals in the building sector, used to juggling finances, supply chains, rotten weather, unreasonable clients and 10 other things before breakfast, it must seem quite simple.
There’s an identified set of serious problems, a clear set of solutions, and plenty of visible, large-scale cost benefits. So all it needs is an implementation plan, decent site supervision and quality control, and the job’s done.
Yet year after year, decade after decade, successive governments never have quite fixed the built environment. Regen or rebuild? Quality or quantity? Public or private? Consequently there are still over 30,000 banal-sounding “excess winter deaths” each year and the NHS still has a very costly spike in A&E admissions every cold spell.
New households are forming at twice the speed that new homes are being built, and around 70,000 unemployed construction workers and their families live off benefits
Meanwhile the UK gets ever more dependent on imported fossil fuel, taking our balance of payments deficit from bad to worse. A quarter of that fossil fuel is used to heat and light all our badly insulated homes. In those homes everyone complains bitterly about rocketing fuel bills, including over five million families officially sunk in fuel poverty - forced to choose between food and fuel (see A&E admissions above).
There are more than one-and-a-half million families on social housing waiting lists while 200,000 long-term empty homes stand idle, and planning permissions for 450,000 new homes exist on sites where no start on site has been made. New households are forming at twice the speed that new homes are being built, and around 70,000 unemployed construction workers and their families live off benefits.
It looks child’s play to fix all that: expand the building industry, take on the unemployed construction workers, insulate our existing housing stock, bring empty homes back into use, accelerate new housebuilding to the highest standards, and so cut those deaths and hospital admissions, save on the fuel imports and benefit payments, provide decent homes for all and end fuel poverty. That should give us all reasonable profit margins and the Exchequer much more tax income, too.
And climate sceptics should note that none of the above is about climate change. Saving the planet comes as a powerful additional benefit for those of us who accept the science of climate change, but even if you don’t, the case for urgent action easily stands up on its own.
As a minister, you soon learn that there are unintended consequences at every turn, barriers and special interests blocking every move
The problem certainly isn’t that nobody in government has thought of fixing things, or of how a fix might work. They have. Repeatedly. Actually there’s nothing like serving as a government minister to make you aware that (almost) everything has been thought of before. And very often dismissed. As a minister, you soon learn that there are unintended consequences at every turn, barriers and special interests blocking every move, that most of the levers are out of reach, and a lot of the rest don’t do anything when you wiggle them. Joined-up government is at least as hard as joined-up contract management. Worse, actually, because it’s not just one job, but a whole jigsaw of complex projects, all needing management, co-ordination, and money.
For instance getting Zero Carbon Homes standards in place by October 2016 is just one of those complex projects which, when completed, will hugely improve the quality of new housing. On site we’ve got the frame up, the floors are in, the roof is going on. But it’s not weathertight yet, and there’s plenty of fitting-out work to do. The building tenants are getting jittery about possession dates, and the timeline is already looking very tight. We need Head Office to lock down the design immediately, and it looks like overtime all round.
After two years as ministerial “project manager” of the Zero Carbon Homes initiative, I can say that it was every bit as challenging as a real building project: the client changes the spec, the QS messes with the costings, the suppliers have higher priorities, and the sample panels in the compound keep leaking. Apart from that, everything’s fine.
But at last some key decisions were delivered in the Budget. We now know that this October’s uplift in Part L is going ahead, with the detail published in May, and that a decision on Allowable Solutions - a vital component of Zero Carbon Homes design parameters - will be announced in July. So the key materials have reached the depot, but they’re not on site yet.
So will Zero Carbon Homes open on time? Yes. Will industry sweat and swear? Yes. Could it have been done better and faster? Yes. Will we learn the lessons? Err … no. That’s because in the bureaucratic system, process is always more important than outcomes.
Andrew Stunell is Liberal Democrat MP for Hazel Grove and a former minister with responsibility for Building Regulations