Instead of telling housebuilders what to build, we should focus on providing better information to buyers

The mayor’s draft London Housing Design Guide asks whether the stringent targets for space standards in social housing should be applied to the private sector.

The case for a minimum standard in social rented housing is well understood. While social housing is funded by the public purse, high standards must be demanded by politicians. But I believe the application of space standards to private sector speculative housing would very significantly reduce supply, and mixed tenure regeneration schemes would be all but annihilated.

The trade-off between standards and supply is currently the subject of a study being carried out by the London Development Agency and I fervently hope that the link is acknowledged by the mayor’s office when the research is published.

I believe there would be some serious, unintended consequences if this draft guidance, designed for the few thousands of publicly funded homes in London, were to be applied to the many thousands needed to address London’s serious housing shortage.

I sympathise with the mayor’s desire to be remembered as the man who improved housing in London, offering better diversity, choice of product, value and quality. But imposing detailed design standards on housebuilders seems tantamount to state sponsorship of approved designs for private consumers.

Surely it would be better to educate people about the homes they are buying and force housebuilders and vendors to be honest about what is on offer? The mayor’s energies would better served by standardising the presentation of information to consumers and improving choice in the marketplace.

The application of space standards to private housing would very significantly reduce supply and mixed tenure regeneration schemes would be all but annihilated

For example, a web-based portal could be created that gives buyers access to the critical parameters of the housing product, so they can easily compare units.

Estate agents would be compelled to sign up to this housing quality “kitemark” to prove they were consistently presenting consumers with standard, easily interpreted metrics.

This would end the poor information about homes advertised misleadingly on the basis of the number of shoebox-sized bedrooms.

Compulsory data could include information about:

  • Space, including external space and internal/external storage
  • Energy consumption
  • Quality, based on the now widely understood housing quality indicators
  • Tenure and subsidy, eliminating the confusion of myriad intermediate tenures
  • Home information pack data
  • Insurances and guarantees.

This approach could deliver the same outcomes as space standards through the market: permitting diversity, supporting innovation, improving awareness of housing quality and increasing value.

Rather than risking further collapse of the already constrained supply of housing in the capital, the kitemark would be a light-touch way of helping consumers choose the house that suits their requirements.