TV's George Clarke on UK 'housing crisis'

Friday, 17 February 2012 11:24 AM

The housing system is a mess.

That's the view of George Clarke, TV architect turned empty homes campaigner.

He claims that "many many things" have gone wrong with housing in the UK over the last 20-25 years, leaving us at the "depths of a housing crisis".

Unlike UK housing, the host of The Restoration Man and Ideal Home Show ambassador is on something of an up.

He was involved at the very forefront of Channel 4's Great British Property Scandal week in December, where he presented a fascinating exposé into empty homes which has galvanised public interest. The petition attached to the campaign has been signed by over 100,000 people so far and now Clarke is a man with the ear of government ministers, with a follow up show due later this year.

He describes the response from the public as "mind boggling" and says that a "touch paper has been lit".

However, he also feels that this is very much the beginning of the story and there is a long way to go.

In an exclusive interview with AboutProperty Clarke said: "Grant Shapps [housing minister] and Andrew Stunnell [junior minister] are both very good people who are making the right noises. I think we need to wait and see whether the words will turn into action and we really do bring empties back into use."

Britain's 350,000 empty homes are not the only focus for Clarke. He continued: "There are problems and faults in all parts of the housing system and that's why we're in the mess that we're in.”

First in Clarke's sights are affordable homes. He says that progressive governments have simply not built enough.

Next is the right-to-buy scheme. Whilst a good idea "in principle", he says that 1.5 million affordable homes have been taken out the system since the policy was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and that following generations have been let down.

Clarke estimates that nearly 300k new homes need to be built this year and every year for the foreseeable future, but instead the government plans to build just 90k in 2012.

Developers need to up their game he says, and should stop focussing on the "lowest common denominator" for maximum profit.

The standard of new builds should go up, with minimum space standards to better aesthetic choices which will also allow the buildings to weather better.

"You can't be more ecological than building a house that might stand there for 200 years and something that can be adapted over time," Clarke continued.

The planning system also drew Clarke's ire. He says it is "too complicated, too bureaucratic, takes too long and NIMBYism [not in my backyard] plays too much of a role.

"The building industry also needs to raise its game. We're too slow, we still build houses the same way we did 500 years ago," he added.

When it comes to fixing our existing homes – the restoration expert believes that too many boundaries are put in place.

"If you build a new house you don't pay VAT on the materials and the labour but if you refurbish an existing one you're paying full VAT of 20 per cent. That is ridiculous and should change. There should be a level playing field."

The growing trend towards renting in the UK doesn't particularly concern Clarke – he points out that people in Germany are more than happy to rent – but he does think that there is a problem with private landlords who do not do their job properly.

He continued: "Why can't we have a rental system in this country which is government owned and managed.

"If people sign a five, six, seven year lease then they can decorate because they know they're there for a long time and are not going to be kicked out in six months time."

Fixing the issues highlighted by Clarke may seem like a big ask, but he believes there is no reason it cannot be achieved – if housing policy works cohesively.

"You can't do it in isolation. A bit of tinkering around the edges here and there means we're going to be in a worse position in 10 years time because every year we're not building enough homes."

"All that it comes down to is supply and demand. We're a small island with a lot of people living here that want houses.

"We're in the position where the value of property is massively overinflated in Britain. You've got to build more homes to get the unit value down per property."

Clarke has come a long way from his upbringing in Sunderland and the TV presenter is a little embarrassed by the value of his London home. He goes so far as to say it is "wrong".

Whilst he concedes he is "no politician", he is certainly a public figure with a real passion for solving Britain's housing crisis.

His rise in profile is perhaps best represented by the first search for a council to put its empty homes forward for Channel 4's Great British Property Scandal week. Only one was prepared to get involved. Now Clarke says he can't squeeze enough interested councils into his diary.

"They're saying we'll do anything to give you our empties to help put them back into use. These were the same guys saying no way a year ago."

It's clear that there is a long road ahead of Clarke, but he is certainly starting to make progress.

George Clarke was speaking to AboutProperty ahead of his appearance at the Ideal Home Show 2012.

George Clarke is the ideal Home Improvements ambassador for the Ideal Home Show 2012. George will be onsite offering expert advice in the How to Theatre sponsored by B&Q, on all things home across the 17 days.

To Book tickets now log on to www.idealhomeshow.co.uk (but use our discount code – available here) or call the Ticket Hotline on 0844 858 6763. The show will open its doors from the 16th March – 1st April 2012, and will be open Daily 10am - 6pm. Thursday open until 9pm.

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