New Times,
New Thinking.

Kevin McCloud says the quality of new homes in the UK is “unforgivable”

The country’s best-known critic of domestic architecture explains what he believes makes good housing. 

By Will Dunn

The lazy assumption about Kevin McCloud is that he’s a property snob. Of his long-running TV show, Grand Designs, Charlie Brooker once said that “thanks to shows like this, it feels like it’s not enough to own a reasonably OK house any more”. And indeed the stated mission of McCloud’s own housing developer, HAB (Happiness, Architecture, Beauty) is to challenge “identikit volume housing”. But is it snobbish to suggest that people could buy a better product than that which the big housebuilders offer?

Genuinely good homes are, he says, more affordable than bad ones over time. “A good idea”, says McCloud, “doesn’t cost any more money than a cheap idea.” 

Anyone looking for a housing snob would do well to ask the chief executive of any of the big housebuilders, McCloud suggests, if they would live on any of their own developments. McCloud would, happily. “It’s a question we pose to ourselves within HAB, on any scheme – would any of us live in the homes we built? Would we want to live there? And in every scheme we’ve built so far, the answer is yes.”

Despite McCloud’s laconic demeanour, he is “angry about the quality of many housebuilders’ homes”, because of “the absence of craftsmanship and the very poor quality of the workmanship, whether it’s painting or carpentry or construction”. He is not the only one: in May last year Ian Tyler, the chief executive of Bovis, apologised to the company’s annual meeting after hundreds of homebuyers alleged that their new houses were riddled with defects. A survey by Shelter found that 69 per cent of buyers of new homes in the UK reported more than six defects to the builder. 

“Just by visiting a building,” says McCloud, “you get a sense of its quality. You get a sense of its meanness, too, if it’s poorly done, from the height of the ceiling to the smallness of the windows. Buildings that introduce lots of light, and make contact with the outside world, and allow you to see the sky from deep with the building – those things are fundamental. There are some very basic human pleasures and responses that architecture tries to deliver and to build on.”  

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But the interior of a building – and indeed the building itself – are only a part of the story. “The moment you start to talk about the things that matter in a building, you cross the threshold and start to talk about outside storage, and bins, the street and the public realm. It flows and connects,” says McCloud. He is passionate about “high-quality public realm design” – design that accounts for “the spaces between buildings, the landscape, the ecology, parks, tree-planting schemes, edible hedgerows, fruity streets, orchards and woodlands”. These natural features, he says, “need to be woven into the design of our housing schemes, not set apart from them. The more you do in the public realm – that encourages people to stand outside and drink tea in the middle of the road, rather than feel threatened by the cars shooting past every 15 seconds.” 

For McCloud it is “bonkers” that most people, “in order to enjoy their lives – to go walking, to find pleasure in the outdoors and in connection and community, first of all have to get in their car and go somewhere.”

Community and quality of life cannot be created by buildings alone. But McCloud says it’s possible to “put the fertile ground in. You can’t create a community but you can create a place in which you hope a community will flourish.” And one of the most important factors in creating the sort of place in which a community will flourish is diversity – of people, of housing, and of economy. This is not a new idea; the better council estates of the 1950s and ‘60s incorporated different types of housing, from bungalows to houses to high-rise flats, so that people of all ages lived near one another. “In the ‘50s, it was for many people a question of choice as to whether you rented or bought. And if you rented, you might rent from your local council. So in council housing schemes of the 1950s, not only would you find people who simply for economic reasons couldn’t afford to buy somewhere, but people who actively chose to rent. Sometimes professionals, or key workers. So we had, in the middle of the 20th century, a market which was very diverse.” 

McCloud sees the free market as a homogenising force. Market principles, he says, have created the “stigmas attached to the idea of rental, and this notion that it’s a decent and honourable thing to own.”

“One of the great naïveties of government policy”, he points out, “is the belief that somehow, by introducing incentives for developers and builders, suddenly they’ll build 300,000 homes a year. They won’t, because market laws dictate that housebuilders want to release slowly in order to maintain value and return profits to their shareholders.” 

What would work now, says McCloud, is what worked last century: “to empower the wider market.” McCloud is – unsurprisingly for someone who runs a small, ecologically and socially guided developer – keen to find ways for councils to work with “the right kind of developer”. Because it’s not in the interests of the big housebuilders to provide the numbers needed, he says the solution is “to open up the market as much as possible, to encourage the smaller housebuilders, the SMEs and the housing associations and local authorities to play and to look to them for delivery.”

But the cost of land is a problem. “It won’t happen while local authorities insist on booking their land ownership at the highest possible commercial value. Which they do, now, because they’ve been underfunded for so long – they have to look at their assets in the rosiest possible light.” The more forward-thinking councils, however, “are saying we will discount the sale of our land, and we’ll do so in exchange for some social housing – in the scheme, not ghettoised somewhere else. More progressive local authorities – Basingstoke is one – are setting a lead in this.”

Good architecture and public realm design are not only for those that can afford it. HAB builds a relatively high proportion of affordable and social housing in its schemes – McCloud says 40 per cent of its recent scheme in Kingsworthy is social housing – and it also experiments with other funding models. “On one scheme we had a mixture of affordable rent and shared ownership, but we also experimented with a certain number of homes where the value of the home is covenanted in perpetuity, so the residents bought at a discount, on the understanding that their house would always be discounted against the market value by a fixed percentage.” While McCloud admits this approach “doesn’t address the fundamental problem”, it’s by trying new funding models that smaller developers can bring “a healthy diversity of offer in the market”. 

“Ideally on every scheme you would be trying to provide for as many different types of people as possible, so that people could stay and continue to live in that community at all ages and from all backgrounds. So also it’s important that the commercial offers on a scheme should be as diverse as possible, to include social rented, private sector rental, shared ownership, full market ownership – whatever.”

After 17 series of Grand Designs, McCloud still sees self-built or custom-built homes as among the most likely to become good homes in good communities. This is not necessarily expensive – McCloud has said that his favourite house from the show was a cottage that cost £28,000 to build – or impractical; in Austria, more than 80 per cent of new homes are built for or by their owners. But in the UK, with its strict planning laws and endemic land speculation, it’s not easy. It is also much harder to borrow the money to build a house than it is to borrow the money to buy one. “The banks aren’t offering self-build and custom-build mortgages, and until the big players open up and support the self and custom build market, I don’t think you’ll find that market increasing,” says McCloud. But these mortgages do exist, and the smaller providers “tend to take a much more personal and much more bespoke approach.”

McCloud’s next series will follow the biggest project of this type in the UK so far. At Craven Hill, in Oxfordshire, “the council are selling 1900 slabs [plots] in one place. An entire new town, effectively, built as a suburb of Bicester, which is going to be a self- and custom-build exercise over the next 15 years.” Modelled on a similar development in Holland, people who want to live in Craven Hill will “go along and buy a slab, and design and build their house.”

McCloud hopes that this will show other local authorities that there are other, better, and more cost-effective ways of creating housing volume. He also hopes it’ll show housebuyers that there is an alternative to what he calls – snobbishly or not – the “cheap tat” that the big housebuilders sell. “Because the thing about the cheap tat is that it ain’t cheap. It’s expensive tat. And that’s the unforgivable nature of housing in the UK.”

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