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Monday, 19 August, 2002, 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK
Wayne Hemingway
The housing boom in Britain seems to be as strong as ever, but are we really happy with the homes on offer?

When it comes to buying a new house, the fashion designer Wayne Hemingway thinks the choice is pretty terrible. In fact, he's been so annoyed by what he calls 'identikit' new house building that he's applied his design ideas to a development of affordable homes in the North East.

He revealed his plans to Newsnight, and gave us his personal view of how to improve the housing industry in this country.

Affordable housing in Britain is a big problem. Demand is already pushing prices out of reach of the average income household. By the time our children will be thinking of getting on the property ladder, the problem will be even bigger. There will be nearly four million new households by 2021, a rise of nearly 20%.

I think this is one of the biggest challenges we face in our society. What could be more important than providing decent, affordable housing for everyone? The Government claim they are ready to tackle this issue, but is the current approach to building homes for the future the right one?

I am stood on the banks of the Tyne in Gateshead. All this area in a couple of weeks will be a hive of activity. For the past year, myself and my wife have been working amongst the team that's been designing Britain's largest affordable, community-based, modern housing estate. It's going to be absolutely fantastic, but the main thing about it is I have learnt some important lessons about affordable house building in this country.

It all started a couple of years ago. As a designer, although I started in fashion, I have always been interested in architecture. I wrote some articles about the Wimpeyfication of Britain, the bland rabbit hutches and Identikit housing developments that constituent most newly-built homes. We are slowly but surely making Britain's mass housing estates look ugly compared to the rest of the developed Western world. Victorian working-class housing has got preservation orders slapped on it. Can you imagine these 70s and 80s houses in 100 years having preservation orders? They are going to have demolition orders put on them. After sounding off about this in the papers, I was approached by Wimpey themselves. My first thought was I was going to be sued, but they wanted me and my design partner to come up with some designs for houses. Initially we fended off their approaches. Instead, we talked to them about designing a new development of affordable housing. It was an exciting challenge, a chance to make a real difference.

The first phase of development is 150 houses. This is an overview of them, the houses are arranged in a courtyard with a communal garden in the middle and private gardens. Our scheme got the first home zone grant in Britain. It means that, outside the front of your house, instead of seeing a black tarmac and cars whizzing past, you have an area where kids can play, adults can meet and cars get relegated massively to tertiary status after cyclists and pedestrians. It might take a little bit longer to get to work, it might mean that you can't park your car outside your front door, when it is peeing it down and you've got Tesco bags in your hand. They are the kind of choices we're going to have to make if we can going to live in a better environment.

What I'd like people to recognise is their own front door and when they have visitors or family coming round, they can say mine's the one with the blue front door, with the wood clad, the extra large window on the front. Just something to say you're an individual and you've got something about you and everything around you becomes part of you. I have tut-tutted my wife for watching too much Dermot-Gavin and Lawrence of Suburbia on telly, but all of it has paid of now because on these river-front flats, she has put a decked area behind as a communal area, and the cars drive underneath and you are left with a play area or a meeting area above the cars.

The houses are not built yet and this is the best we can do, computer women, computer houses, the sun always shines in Gateshead and there is always a nice white fluffy cloud. This will be utopia.

Having the space to live and socialise in, is really important. The conventional wisdom of government agencies is that high density housing is a solution. We are told that a high proportion of us have to live in flats like our near European neighbours. When I grew up, space was crucial. I have more memories of the local rec than the home I grew up in.

Gardening is also important to most people. You only have to looking at TV viewing figures or magazine sales, people either want to be Alan Titchmarsh or sleep with him. Green space is important to everyone. You've got some green space, but they can't use it, it is fenced off, it is green space next to tarmac. With a bit of thought that space could be used as a play area, it could be shielded so that somebody can sit in there. This bank here, why is it here? They have put waste clay and banked it up, but surely they could have made it flat so it could be used for something. There could be seats in it. Something could have been done better than this. People just churn it out.

I think we need to bring much more passion to all of this. It is a very serious issue. Housing that we build today will last certainly for 60 years, maybe 100 years, it will have to adapt to different lifestyles. Try something new, something imaginative, something contemporary. We are very conservative with all we do. I wonder whether we get what we deserve.

In a recent survey, 28% of people said they would choose to live in a typical modern housing development. Even with low public acceptance of their products, builders know for every new house they put up, there will be at least two potential buyers, such is the lack of housing stock. In a situation like that, they do not need to change.

The Government has set a target to build 60% of new homes on brownfield sites. It is claimed there is plenty of space on such inner city derelict land, around 60,000 hectares. Perhaps we need to get our priorities right and not be overly protective of the green belt. We need space to build, but also for recreation areas. We are subsidising land for cows, land that we could be giving to our kids to play on close to our homes. It doesn't take a child psychologist to tell us, parents that kids love to be outside.

I am stood on a hill overlooking Gateshead and Newcastle, the A1, railway tracks, industry and to my left a little village. This is stuck in the middle of the green belt. It is a mining community and the mine shut down about 30 years ago. It is a perfect place to take land and build low density housing, the kind of housing the public have shown they like, to give the people what they want, which will not ruin the green and pleasant land.

Town planners have an unfair reputation for wearing brown Crimplene suits and wanting to knock off at 4.30. Town playing course are poorly subscribed. We should be encouraging our kids to be town planners, not designers or architects.

Planners are always painted as one of the devils in society, in the system, stopping people from doing things totally lacking in imagination. It is very difficult, because planners always have one arm twisted up their back and the system to some extent conspires against our being able to do that. If we don't like the front porch, we can't stop something happening. There has to be something fundamentally wrong with the design or layout of a scheme to say, let's do something else. Planners have to have imagination, as well.

In London, there is hope. This is the development right by the cultural nirvana that is the Southbank. It is great to look at, innovative and designed with the people who live there in mind. This is social housing built to provide homes for key workers who live locally. There are lessons to be learned for outline types of buildings. It is not just a well thought out concept, it is full of design energy. It does not have all the normal red-brick, boring, new PVC windows stuff. They have gone for wood cladding that is allowed to weather, great designs in metal, concrete, mixed the materials. If you give people a bit of visual excitement, they usually respect it. Apart from being well designed and tastefully fitted out, there is emphasis on private and communal green space, which the people respond to.

This is your private garden?

That is right.

What do your kids like about living here?

They like the space, playing in the playground.

Space, so you don't have to go to the park.

There is plenty of space for the children to run in and out, and your own private space where if you don't want to mix with people, you can stay on your own. We have made so many new friends here, I thought I had better get some garden furniture in.

I think we could teach the residents of big brother an awful lot. We were all piled in together, with the children and given certain rules and regulations. There have been no evictions and we are all getting on fine.

Architect, builders and planners should look for new ideas here and in other countries to offer people more choice. At the moment, it's easy for all parties to sit on their backsides and watch everything that gets built snapped up. In a modern market economy, no product should sell on lack of choice, especially one that is so important to this generation and the next.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Wayne Hemingway
A fashion designer shows us where we'd all really like to live





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