Housing tsar slams little box Britain

Builders must stop churning out bland, unimaginative suburbs, the Government's architecture adviser tells Catherine Pepinster
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The Independent Online

It comes with en suite bathrooms, integral garage, and Tudor-style timbering. To Mondeo man and his wife, it is heaven. But to the Government's architecture tsar, the newly built house is a bland, unimaginative monstrosity.

It comes with en suite bathrooms, integral garage, and Tudor-style timbering. To Mondeo man and his wife, it is heaven. But to the Government's architecture tsar, the newly built house is a bland, unimaginative monstrosity.

Stuart Lipton, who was appointed commissioner for architecture six months ago and is responsible for vetting buildings, has made the new home and its builders one of his first targets.

"Housebuilders are living in the dark ages," he said. "There is no sense of imaginative design. They need to think again. We have seen how stylish new homes can be. You just have to look at the homes built by housing associations. But housebuilders have no sense of adventure."

The millionaire property developer, who built the Broadgate office complex in the City of London, also wants the planning system changed. "If architects do try to do something decent you get aggravation. Many councils have very narrow views about quality. A lot of their views are politically driven."

Last year, more than 130,000 homes were built in England and Wales by nationwide firms such as Barratt, Wimpey and Laing. While many of them were embellished with little touches - hanging tiles, gables, particular styles of roof tiles - those adornments barely disguised the fact that they are turned out to the same basic pattern across the land. Brookside Close - the set of Channel 4's eponymous soap set in Merseyside suburbia - has been built all over Britain. And there will be plenty more like it: earlier this month John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, announced that 980,000 homes will have to be built in the South-east alone in the next 20 years.

Mr Prescott did stress that many of those homes would be needed to house an increasingly diverse population, which includes growing numbers of single people, caused by divorce, and should be better designed. "These single people would not want, or be able to afford, executive houses in the countryside," he said.

But for the housebuilders, there is nothing they like better than building that very type of home. The reason, they say, is simple. People like them. And in the South, they can pay up to £400,000 for a four-bedroomed detached new house.

Last week, crowds flocked to the Ideal Home Show to see the latest offerings from the big builders. Their show-homes highlighted what has happened to the way people live. We cohabit, we divorce, we are hooked up to the net. Telephones, cars, televisions and hi-fis have changed beyond recognition. But the exteriors of most houses look remarkably unaltered.

According to the people who build them, a combination of buyers' conservative tastes, planning restrictions and local people's oppostion to anything innovative puts paid to adventurous designs. "It's a question of what the customer wants and what the local community wants," said Chris Payne, joint managing director of Laing Homes.

"And the designs have to blend with the immediate environment. Whether you like it or not, the British consumer is very conservative about his home. In places like Windsor or Richmond, the planners don't want innovation, however futuristic a design you as a builder may want."

The Changing Rooms generation, obsessed with DIY and colour schemes, is far more concerned with the interior of their house than its exterior, said Guy Lambert of Countryside Properties. "We've responded to that by being more adventurous, using open plan and trying to make better use of space and light. People don't want formal dining rooms any more."

Lower Earley, in Berkshire, has one of the biggest concentrations of executive housing estates in the country. Its houses are crammed in to small plots, dotted alongside rat-run roads, and its residents commute to Reading and London.

Ian Rees, a 31-year-old drilling engineer, moved into his new four-bedroom, three-bathroom home on Wellington Green Estate 18 months ago. "It is just like a box, isn't it? - but to me that's not a problem. These places may look a bit alike from the outside but as far as I am concerned what's really important is how you stylise it inside."

Sue Guice, 35, and her husband Rob, a 33-year-old sales manager, bought their four-bedroom, three-bathroom house 18 months ago. She wanted a new house because it is easy to maintain. But Mrs Guice, who has two children, Daniel and Josh, admits that it has little to distinguish it from others. "The houses are obviously all quite similar here and you know that a few doors down there'll be a house that looks exactly the same as yours.

"In an ideal world, we'd love an old cottage in the countryside with nice-shaped windows that we could feel like it was our own. At least with a modern house we don't have to worry about draughts or wonky walls."

Yesterday the Civic Trust defended conservationists' opposition to adventurous design. Its director Michael Gwilliam said: "It is understandable that people are very cautious. We have seen terrible mistakes made in the Sixties and Seventies. But we have not given enough encouragement to creativity."