30 June 2023

Window messing: scrapping one bad regulation is welcome, but the problem goes much deeper


At last. A crumb – just a crumb, but we’re starving here – of possible, positive action from the Government on housing. Michael Gove has ordered officials to review the absurd new building regulations which, as Samuel Hughes highlighted a few days ago, look set to inflict ugly windows on a generation of new homes.

That does not, of course, mean that anything will actually happen. Rarely can either the words or the title of a poem have been so apposite to Westminster at the minute than those of TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men: ‘Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act; Falls the Shadow.’

Perhaps inevitably, but nonetheless unhappily, the Government source quoted in the Daily Telegraph says that: ‘While we will not compromise on safety, these regulations – however well intentioned – risk creating perverse outcomes.’

That is the obvious point upon which any review may founder. Because there is surely no doubt that a higher sill, or bars and lockable shutters imposed upon lower ones, is safer than a lower one. The question is whether or not the trade-offs entailed by that are worth it. After all, safer still is a window that doesn’t open at all. Nobody is (yet) proposing that we seal the nation’s windows. Yet that is itself a ‘compromise on safety’. 

There has never been an epidemic of people falling out of windows. Not in the UK, nor in more southerly nations which have combined big sash windows and hot temperatures for hundreds of years. The concern upon which the new regulations are based is absurd.

The costs, meanwhile, are very real. The problem is that they’re qualitative, and thus very difficult to get government to weigh properly in its processes.

Consider again that house that Hughes photographed and imagine if that became the standard for new housing in this country, such as actually gets built. Yes, it’s ugly in a photograph. But it isn’t just about the view from the street. Through that window, we can glimpse a future where hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people are condemned to live in dingy, ugly homes, for no better reason than the authors of the building regulations insist on treating them like children.

It’s a recipe for second-class homeownership. As I noted in my own article on the evils of Document O (wherein can be found the new window rules), one artefact of the poor quality of new-build housing is that period properties command a substantial premium on the market:

“For anyone not steeped in the internal logic of the British housing market, this situation must seem ridiculous. The word ‘decline’ is thrown about perhaps too easily online, but it’s hard to think of a more apt summary of a situation in which century-old stock commands a premium over modern products. Can you imagine paying extra to fly in an old aeroplane, from back in the days when we built them properly? Or for a first-generation phone?”

Housing wonks sometimes like to complain that we have much older housing stock than peer nations, as if this were a problem. And if we’re seeing like a state, it is: such properties are not only riddled with dangerous windows and inaccessible stoops, but are also often badly insulated and in need of frequent maintenance.

Yet when we see like a person – as I did, during the needlessly arduous (and still ongoing) process of buying my own flat – the priorities are quite different. I wanted a beautiful home with big windows, lots of light, high ceilings, and proper floorboards. We simply don’t build them anymore, so “period conversion” was my red line.

I was very fortunate to be able to find one, even if the insane design of the Lifetime ISA means I was only just able to buy it. Even once the current mortgage crisis abates, however, millions of future buyers will not be so lucky. As competition mounts for a fixed stock of period housing, the competition – and the price premium – will only go up.

This problem is compounded by the fact that many government policies serve to channel first-time buyers towards new-build properties. Help to Buy only helped on new homes, and Labour is proposing to give first-time buyers first dibs on new builds.

Such schemes are well-intentioned, and one can again see the seeing-like-a-state logic in trying to use guaranteed demand from first-time buyers to incentivise housebuilding. But lack of demand is not and has never been the root of a housing shortage caused by giving planning power to local authorities which have every incentive to be selfish and parochial, and almost none to consider national or generational need.

(The huge risks and costs involved in negotiating our discretionary planning system, where a project can be called in and rejected on a case-by-case basis at almost any stage and thus offers constructors no certainty, has also produced a narrow, uncompetitive market of big builders who can get away with selling low-quality homes into a supply crisis.)

By refusing to treat that underlying problem, we risk creating nothing less than a whole new form of second-class homeownership, with generations of new buyers only able to get on the ladder at all with government support, and confined when they do so to ugly and often poorly built housing.

Importantly, it is housing which the people who draw up and enforce the regulations almost certainly don’t live in themselves. Without the bolt-hole of our existing stock of historic properties, it is hard to imagine regulators being half so blasé in their everything-bagel approach to the rules.

Yes, accessibility for people with mobility challenges is important. But it is absurd to stipulate that every single new-build home be wheelchair accessible when less than 2% of the population uses a wheelchair. Yet we do (Document M), and in the process ban features such as stoops, often both practical and beautiful, and suited to the needs and tastes of the great majority of the population.

Scrapping the regulations in Document M would be to ‘compromise on accessibility’, just as scrapping those in Document O would be to ‘compromise on safety’. And that’s fine. We already strike such compromises anyway, by permitting windows to open or houses to have second floors at all.

That Gove has ordered this reviewed strongly suggests, as I have been previously led to believe, that ministers and advisers were caught off-guard by the measure. What’s needed therefore is not just the repealing of this or that individual regulation. It’s a review of the process by which these regulations came about. Which officials drew them up? Which lobbyists and ‘stakeholders’ did they consult? What were their criteria and terms of reference?

It is too much to hope that we could redesign such systems so that they automatically gave proper weight to individual, qualitative, human considerations over quantitative metrics and the convenience of officials. But the Secretary of State could at least try to push them in that direction – and ensure that in future all their proposals are properly scrutinised and, if they look anything like Document O, thrown out of the nearest sash window.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.