The latest news that the Government is planning to scrap large amounts of British building regulations is a bit of a concern. The Telegraph states that rules setting out minimum window sizes, the dimensions of rooms, the strength of front doors, and arrangements for toilets, lighting, telephone lines and disabled access etc will be culled in the review.
But the main cause for worry is not the inevitable consequences of even poorer standards in housing design and further corner cutting by our pencil sharpening, developer-centred housing culture; the bigger worry has to be the primary reason cited for the changes, with the notion that by making such cuts the Government is doing what’s best for the house buying public. The Prime Minister announced today that the move will save developers £60m a year, equivalent to £500 for every new property built. It is hoped the move will result in far more homes being constructed, thus giving the economy a much needed shot in the arm.
If you combine today’s announcement with the continued relaxing of planning rules, where it is now possible to build a 6m extension on the back of a terraced house without even submitting a formal planning application, a clear picture of current attitudes towards the importance of good design and the effect on its environment starts to become very clear.
The worry is that this announcement is another indicator of the real crisis. The real issue is not that there aren't enough houses to go round or that the over-inflated housing market is forcing first time buyers to rob bank vaults to raise the required deposits. The real problem is that we have clearly forgotten what a house is.
This is not a housing crisis – it’s a ‘house-identity’ crisis.
We have somehow forgotten how important it is for a house to be a home, for a dwelling to serve its occupant’s not just in keeping out the wind and rain, but in becoming part of our lives, the canvas on which our memories are painted. The design for such spaces is crucial to the quality of life we will have in it. Simply relaxing the standards of quality so that they can be mass produced and sold in bulk like tins of corned beef cannot be the way forward.
The answer to our housing shortage and fragile economy cannot be to reduce the standard of basic living requirements to such a level that houses can be built for even less at double the speed with little consideration for the people who have to live in them and with no concern for the flash mob style neighbourhoods they cause to pop up. Today’s announcement shows no thought for the long-term effects of poorly designed, badly constructed housing. No lessons have been learnt from the naïve mistakes of previous generations, and unless the current trend is bucked we will be commentating in 20 years’ time on the failure of our built environment and the complete lack of vision for the very spaces that shape our lives – our homes.
This seems to be another short-sighted step, playing into the hands of a lazy, profit hungry developer centred culture, where design is considered a plaything of fanciful artisans for fools with cash to burn. There seems to be no argument that investing in well thought out, considered design could make savings and there appears to be no merit placed in the restraint and discipline of a well designed dwelling, that puts the need of the occupant first.
It isn’t the easy option and it is never going to be a quick-fix, but good design has to be at the centre of our vision for British housing. We need to realise first what a house is. It is not just a shelter with a fridge, radiator and a window. It is a place to eat, sleep, breathe. A space for solitude, entertaining, for family. A place of safety, refuge, comfort. A launch-pad in the mornings and a base in the evenings. A space to build memories and forge relationships, a backdrop to everyday. It is a place to live.