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19 August 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:23pm

The true housing crisis

The Chief Executive of Greenlite Energy Assessors explains how the conventional response to the housing crisis is creating inefficient, energy-intensive housing stock

By Richard Tibenham

Across all sections of the political divide, there is a growing consensus that the UK has fallen prey to a severe housing crisis, damaging social solidarity, intergenerational fairness and pricing millions out of home ownership. Between 1998 and 2008, average UK house prices rose by more than 300 per cent, way in excess of real wage growth. In 1999, average house prices were 4 times the average salary of prospective buyers in the capital, but by 2017 it was reported that prices had ballooned to 14.5 times London’s average salary.

But from voices on the left and right, the spike in rental and mortgage costs is almost universally put down to the failure of successive governments to build sufficient homes. In other words, the housing crisis is identified as an issue of demand outstripping supply, total population rising faster than the country’s total housing stock. It’s a narrative that’s attractive in its simplicity, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. What’s more, the narrative is having a damaging effect on the UK’s built environment, leading to inadequate early planning, and a sacrificing of quality, as well as ecological sustainability, in favour of sheer quantity of units. Newly built homes too often eschew zero-emission aims, carbon neutrality considerations, and thermal comfort standards and are built cheaply by developers without energy efficiency in mind.

Contrary to perception, as house prices have skyrocketed over the past two decades, the UK’s housing stock broadly rose in line with the population. The housing bubble that grew over this same period wasn’t inflated by lack of supply, but rather by financial speculation, the growth of Help to Buy, and the expansion of credit. The interests of landlords, speculators and housing developers were matched by the willingness of private banks to lend cheaply, causing prices to rise. After the 2008 crash, low interest rates along with quantitative easing only made matters worse, reflating the real estate bubble. Housing supply had roughly corresponded to the increase in people – the issue was rampant profiteering.

But the illusion that price rises are down to lack of supply has given rise to a build-at-all-costs mentality as arbitrary targets are set for new-build homes over parliamentary terms. Inefficient new housing stock is creating a legacy of buildings burdening future generations with high cost energy infrastructure at a time when governments are trying to eliminate their carbon footprints.

Issues such as overheating are becoming more common due to excessive glazing and glazing orientation, meaning energy is needlessly expended on cooling. These oversights are a product of a misdiagnosis of the housing crisis, and this has led to a slapdash approach to planning and building. Crucially, it is far cheaper to install the energy saving features necessary for low carbon operation at the construction stage than it is to retrospectively add them. The fact that this isn’t happening will increase the cost of carbon neutrality.

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Greenlite Energy Assessors advocates an integrated approach between architects, engineers and contractors that begins at the planning and design stages of the building process, before air conditioning has to be installed as a result of lack of foresight. Only early engagement and a focus on energy and thermal efficiency in the built environment will allow us to meet our commitments to the planet.