1. John Gummer, quoted in Rory Olcayto, 'Eco-homes fail final build test - Exemplar projects are "all fluff and no substance," says Gummer', Building Design, 9 November 2007, p 1, posted on www.bdonline.co.uk
2. Communities and Local Government, Code for Sustainable Homes; A Step Change in Sustainable home Building Practice, CLG, London, December 2006
3. Communities and Local Government, Code for Sustainable Homes; Technical Guide, CLG, London, April 2007
4. Communities and Local Government, Code for Sustainable Homes; Technical Guide, CLG, London, October 2007
5. Harry Harrison, Stephen Mullin, Barry Reeves, and Alan Stevens, Non-traditional Houses; Identifying non-traditional houses in the UK 1918-75, Building Research Establishment, Garston, Watford, 2004.
6. Communities and Local Government Housing Statistics, Live Tables, Table 241 Housebuilding: permanent dwellings completed, by tenure, United Kingdom, historical calendar year series, accessed 11.11.07
7. Communities and Local Government Housing Statistics, Live Tables, Table 247 Housebuilding: permanent dwellings completed, by tenure, Northern Ireland, historical calendar year series, accessed 11.11.07
8. John Gummer, foreword, Department of the Environment, Household Growth: Where shall we live?, DOE, London, November 1996, Cm 3471, p ii, available at www.tsoshop.co.uk
9. Urban Task Force, Towards an Urban Renaissance - Final Report of the Urban Task Force, London, Spon Press, 1999, Lord Rogers of Riverside, chairman
Gummer might gloat, but he made the Building Research Establishment what it is today
John Gummer gloats that Yvette Cooper, the Minister for Housing and Planning, has failed to ensure that the two homes accredited in June 2007 as "sustainable" are capable of being certified as buildable construction. They are merely full sized design models until they are awarded a BRE construction certificate. 'We can't even accredit the two homes, which is all Yvette Cooper has so far managed.' (1)
The BRE may have been economical with the truth about "sustainable homes", but it was Gummer who forced the BRE to run their business that way. Cooper has simply bank-rolled the less than rigorous but media savvy BRE that Gummer turned into a business, by giving them monopoly over the administration of the Code for Sustainable Homes. (2)
"The Code", or the CSH, was given sufficient technical content by the BRE in April, (3) and clarified further in October of this year. (4) The content could have been developed by any number of authorities, and should have been developed by the CLG itself. It is expected to be given the authority of the Building Regulations next year.
That regulatory shift will happen, despite, as now appears, the "Sigma House" designed to Code level 5 and the "Lighthouse" designed to Code level 6, and certified at design stage, being less than unproblematic.
The images are of the Kingspan "Lighthouse".
We are not unfamiliar with administrative and regulatory change in British construction, or the failure to generalise housing innovation into mass programmes. Indeed, the BRE have published a great account of their part in that history of stumbling innovation. (5) Nor is it a surprise that Code Assessors at the BRE may be strangers to the subtleties in design that must lead to practicalities in construction. It is possible for academics to "innovate" while removed from reality. But the BRE has had a far more successful past than these Code difficulties might suggest.
The Building Research Establishment started life in 1921 as the Building Research Station, a department in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research until 1965. After decades of construction industry innovation the BRS was transferred to the Ministry of Technology for two years, then to the Ministry of Public Building and Works for a further three years, and finally handed to the Department of the Environment when it was formed in 1970. The BRS was renamed the Building Research Establishment by the DOE in 1972.
The period 1965 to 1972 saw the peak of British house building activity in 1968, with over 413,000 built in that year, (6) excluding Northern Ireland. (7) After that, with the BRS in retreat, and losing support from dwindling public house building activities, the BRE researched a house building sector in serious decline.
The BRE can only remember the good old days of BRS innovation in house building. They are a very different organisation now, and John Gummer is responsible. He became the Secretary of State for the Environment in 1993, when annual house building in Britain, (6) excluding Northern Ireland, (7) had declined to less than half the peak level of 1968. Rather than worry about falling house building activity Gummer's priority was to look at the growth in households, largely due to more people living in smaller households, to ask "Where shall we live?" This was the title of the pivotal report published in November 1996 that has shaped planning policy ever since.
Gummer argued not for more housing production, but for urban densification on the basis that ' the wholesale destruction of the countryside is not an option.' (8) He seemed to care little that housing production was falling, and wanted to establish a "Green" agenda for the Conservatives. This turn by the Conservatives to reject leafy suburbia and advocate urban cramming as the measure of sustainability did not suggest to Gummer that research into "greener" urban construction methods needed to be undertaken by the state.
By October 1996 Gummer announced that Government was to sell the Building Research Establishment as a private sector consultancy by tender. The sale was completed by the spring of 1997, just before Gummer's discredited administration lost the General Election to New Labour. New Labour simply followed Gummer's policy to densify development, which the Urban Task Force, under the chairmanship of Lord Richard Rogers, represented in 1999 as Towards an Urban Renaissance. (9) A better title would have been Where they shall live.
The decision to privatize the BRE had provoked fierce criticism from the construction industry, which variously argued that the sale of construction industry research capability to a single company might reduce the value and quality of the work which it undertook. New Labour weren't interested in heeding those warnings any more than Gummer was. By 2001 housing production in Britain had collapsed to a mere 160,000 homes, (6 and 7) being fewer houses and more Gummer style flats.
With many more Gummeresque flats built since, annual housing production in Britain has climbed to just short of 200,000, (6 and 7) but government wants to see more like 300,000 "sustainable homes" built every year in Britain by 2016. Well... government says it does.
It appears now, just over a decade after a British government abandoned ministerial responsibility for making that housing "green", that warnings about the BRE privatization from the construction industry were well founded. The BRE is more interested about the press hype about achieving exemplar "sustainable homes" than about making 300,000 homes a reality. They struggle to prototype single homes, let alone offer the mass housing solutions that are needed today.
Instead of admitting his personal responsibility in all this; in arguing for urban cramming through the state run planning system that cares less about where more households will live; in fuelling housing market speculation as a consequence of the long run undersupply of developable land; and in creating a BRE that cares most about public relations and a lucrative fee stream; Gummer lectures from the front page of BD.
Gummer's ideology in 1996 was that privatisation would make it less possible for academics to "innovate" on the public payroll, removed from commercial reality. I suppose Gummer could complain that commercial reality has been removed by Cooper giving the BRE a fee earning monopoly over administration of the Code. The BRE have been licensed by New Labour in a "partnership", as was the growing fashion under Gummer's Tories, after 1990. Public and private sector partnerships have been taken to new lows of collusion and confusion under Gordon Brown.
However Gummer is not suggesting he would strip the BRE of their Code monopoly. Even if he did open up Code assessment more widely to the market that might not make things better. The idea of a "free market" in construction is laughable when government also controls the right to develop land through the planning system. Neither is returning to the old BRS days an option, and not least because they weren't that good.
In any event Gummer should not be allowed to rewrite history. The BRE are commercial manipulators of the Code for Sustainable Homes, but Gummer made them that way. The tragedy is that since Yvette Cooper offered a monopoly to earn repeat fees through administering the CSH in December 2006 there seems no pressure on the BRE to build even a few prototypes properly. Let alone do any non-proprietary research into how Britain might build to the Code on a mass scale.
The BRE will grow from £40 million to an £80 million consultancy, but there is no ministerial guarantee than any of that research will result in 300,000 Code level 5 and 6 homes being built annually in 10 years time.
The democratic way forward is for the Housing and Planning Minister to take direct political responsibility for meeting the Code on a mass scale across the house building sector, reducing the power of the BRE to make claims about "sustainable homes" mocked up by proprietary clients.
Otherwise, by 2016, a has been like Gummer may have politically been and gone again, along with Cooper. While the depersonalised "Where shall we live?" will remain as unanswered as it was in 1996.
Or maybe the BRE will tell BD that it was Yvette who insisted on Code 5 and 6 publicity in June 2007, against their professional judgement?
No... that would be too good.
Ian Abley 11.11.2007
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