Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Britain's Bad Housing

Andrew Gilligan does not like builders. It’s fine to have prejudices, but does that warrant being given an hour of prime time Channel 4 Dispatches to conduct a personal hatchet job on them? On the one hand, it’s good to have well-known faces like Gilligan getting to grips with the serpent that is the UK housing scene: on the other, it would be refreshing to have a guide without such an obvious axe to grind, one who is prepared to give a little airtime over to the housebuilders to defend themselves. Whilst it seems relatively easy for career journalists to get the opportunity to make programmes for the likes of Dispatches, I have yet to see anything on terrestrial TV that shows how life is on the other side of the trenches.

Gilligan certainly didn’t pull any punches. He started with a stiff jab to the mid-riff: he took Stephen Nancarrow, of Inspector Home, with him around a Bryant estate and literally pulled it to bits. It made for good knock-about TV, but Nancarrow admitted it was possibly the worst example of finishing that he had come across. As it is his job to uncover sloppy finishing, it did rather rather smack of being a fit-up. Presumably 99.9% of new homes are better than these, but that of course didn’t get mentioned. Instead the NHBC got lampooned for passing these admittedly shoddy homes.

Then it was the turn of Greenwich Millennium Village and the problems some of the residents have had with noise issues between flats. Whilst it was conceived as an exemplar development, it is often forgotten that it was built to the pre-2003 Part E noise standards. As was pointed out by the NHBC in the builders defence, the development met the regs in force at the time, it was just that the regs were inadequate. Who is culpable for that? The builders? The NHBC? Or the government? For Gilligan, there was no question. It had to be those big, greedy developers and their tame lackeys in the NHBC. Me? I’m not so sure.

Not that the government got off scot free. There was the obligatory laugh at John Prescott who was shown showing off his £60,000 house. Gilligan nipped up to Allerton Bywater in Yorkshire to find that they were for there, for sale, for a minimum price of £225,000. QED: Prescott’s an idiot. Strange for me to be riding to his defence, but not even John Prescott ever thought that a house that cost £60k to build would sell for £60k.

The restless Gilligan then rode on to dig up some underhand dealings by St George in Fulham. To help get their Imperial Wharf development up and running, a PR firm was hired to fake letters of support to local councillors. Even worse was afoot in Manchester, where a lobby group, Media Strategy, was hired to help lower the affordable housing targets set by the North West plan. And some accusations of bribery were re-aired against developers gifting money to the Labour Party: apparently you can get away with this as long as the gifts are not to individuals. What struck me was how small the amounts involved were. £5,000 to get to develop a casino site? You’d lose that much on a good night at the tables. Gilligan’s implication was that the whole development scene was corrupt from top to bottom and that the feeble planners were in the pay of the developers.

Gilligan’s tactic was to dig up dirt wherever he could find it. His point seemed to be that Britain’s housebuilders are useless, greedy and corrupt, whilst their political masters are stupid and naïve. As essays go, it hung together well, and made for compelling viewing. It is just that his basic premise was a little lazy. It’s all very well reducing the debate down to a reworking of the old 70s Marxist them’n’us routines, it’s just that reality has an annoying habit of being a whole lot more complex to understand. There is a very different story waiting to be heard from the housebuilders, but you won’t ever come across it on Dispatches.

The best contribution to the show came from Paul Finch, once editor of the Architects Journal, now a CABE commisioner, who pointed out that the big problem here is that the government has abdicated responsibility for affordable housing to the private housebuilders. It is something this blog has touched on recently too: we are in unknown territory here.

Gilligan didn’t concern himself with these niceties; nor did he stop to question whether an affordable housing programme was the correct solution to our current problems, which is strange because he wrote a thoughtful piece about this in the Evening Standard recently, questioning the assumption that we can build our way out of our housing problems. His sole interest in this programme seemed to be to bash the housebuilders. At the end of the show, the landbank issue was raised: you could spend a whole hour on this topic alone and still not get to the bottom of it. Kelvin Macdonald of the RTPI was interviewed and tried to give a reasoned assessment of the issues involved, but Gilligan simply didn’t want to hear it and concluded the interview with the statement that builders are deliberately holding back land in order to keep prices high. As they say, never let the truth get in the way of a good argument.

I guess I am nitpicking. As a sometime builder, my hackles do still rise just a little every time the London media gets housebuilders in their sights. Because the result is always the same: a bloody televisual massacre. I suppose I shouldn’t be so sensitive; hunting housebuilders is good sport and, let’s face it, they are so thick-skinned that the odd bit of bad publicity never did any of them any harm. I don’t suppose Tony Pidgley even bothered to watch it, so I don’t see why I should get the hump. It’s just that halfway through Gilligan’s piece, I had the strong sensation that I had seen this same programme before several times over, and it was not the one I wanted to watch anymore.


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