OPINION: Fyson on ... the doubts about one size fits all house building

The latest contribution to the housing debate comes from the East of England Business Group, whose press release last week highlighted a speech by consultant Roger Humber. Humber's thesis is likely to enrage further those whose minds are closed on the density question and who dislike their certainties being challenged by uncomfortable facts. It suggests that even the government is beginning to change tack on the issue.

According to Humber, for the past three years deputy prime minister John Prescott and "the massed ranks of ministers and officials, backed by influential quangos" have argued that house builders are creating the "wrong sort of houses" and should instead be concentrating on high-density small homes for single people. But in what Humber identifies as "an extraordinary volte face", Prescott argued in his 21 October statement on affordable housing that key workers need family houses rather than starter homes.

Humber pounces on the inconsistency: "Key workers such as policemen, firemen, teachers and nurses are no different in terms of household size or needs from the population as a whole," he observes, adding that it is clearly the deputy prime minister who has been promoting inappropriate housing. "Prescott's retreat seems to be the result of work done this summer by the new regional housing boards. They have identified different housing needs to the ODPM and many local authorities are highly sceptical about the one-size-fits-all higher densities that Prescott seeks," he suggests.

He supports his argument by citing the emerging analysis of the 2001 census, which reveals that primary demand for new single-person homes may be far lower than the growing number of single people suggests. This is simply because as many as half of these one-person households are aged 65 or over, are retired and therefore in no sense key workers, and - though growing rapidly in number - are already housed. However inappropriate their accommodation may seem by reason of its size or their infirmity, this older group is hardly clamouring for new, gardenless, single-person homes. Although the countryside lobby may regret it, neither does this group accept that it is necessary to make significant sacrifices in its housing standards for the sake of the landscape.

Housing aspirations are a legitimate part of the sustainability equation, just like economic prosperity. To treat them otherwise means, in Humber's words, that house builders and registered social landlords will be asked to "build the slums of the future in pursuit of social engineering and political dogma". To house people as near as possible in the way that they wish is an honourable pursuit for governments, house builders and planners alike.


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