GEORGE TELLS US WHY HE FELT COMPELLED TO FOUND MOBIE
In 2017 I set up a new ‘educational charity’ called MOBIE. MOBIE stands for the Ministry of Building Innovation and Education. Why? Because I’m passionate about high standards of home-design, high quality home-building and creating truly affordable, sustainable and beautiful communities for everyone, irrespective of wealth or status, to be able to enjoy living in. These aren’t just words plucked out of the air. They mean something. But, the government and the mass house building industry aren’t doing this at all. The system has got itself into such a terrible mess it doesn’t quite know how to get itself out of it. Land prices are going through the roof, build quality seems to be getting worse and not better, we have an enormous lack of new talent coming into an industry that I’ve loved since I was a kid. We have a national skills shortage, the apprenticeships system isn’t working at the scale it should be, and the number of construction courses being dropped due to lack of student numbers is increasing year on year. The homes we build simply aren’t green enough and we have more people living in fuel poverty than ever before. We have a home affordability crisis like no other. The lack of innovation, in all aspects of UK mass house building industry has, for me, led to a housing system, which is no longer fit for purpose. Yes, that’s a big claim. Not fit for purpose. But, its true. The government itself has admitted in its own white paper the UK housing market is broken. So what are we going to do about it?
Well, the government don’t seem to have any answers. They really don’t because they have actually lost control of the system. For them house-building has become a numbers game. It’s all about how many units (which is a word I loathe more than any other...they aren’t UNITS they are homes!) are built each year. There are so many grand claims made about how many more homes were built this year compared to last year. But, should we really be celebrating if the vast majority of new build homes that are completed are crap? Let’s just set overly ambitious targets for the private house building industry and pray they hit those targets. But, surely building homes is so much more than just numbers. Surely, the discussion should be more intelligent. Surely, it should be more about what we build, how we build and where we build rather than ‘how many’ we build. I’m afraid the mass housebuilding industry doesn’t have the answers either. It simply carries on regardless, building the same, sub-standard housing that very few people are impressed by. They have “shareholders to worry about” (A very real and forthright comment expressed to me from a big house builder recently!) which we all know is the case. And it would take me many more blogs to voice my despair at the state of the UK planning system, which is slow, antiquated and lacks ambition. If we all carry on regardless, burying our head in the sand, then the problem is only going to get worse, not better. But, it is time to turn the tide.
I started MOBIE to create a generational shift, to inspire the next, young generation to create the much needed change the house building industry needs. Young people have so much energy, enthusiasm and passion for what lies ahead. There are incredible opportunities to create a new built environment, one that is truly green, affordable, promotes health and well-being and builds homes that are amazing spaces to live in. The young people of today and tomorrow don’t want to be burdened by enormous amounts of mortgage debt, living in uninspiring and soulless homes. They really don’t! I know this because I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life researching it in all the things I do in the industry from teaching in schools, colleges and universities and being close to an industry I’m seeing slowly die.
Everyone seems to blame each other. The developers blame the planners, the NIMBYS blame the developers, the planners blame their lack of resources, everyone blames the banks and the blames go on and on and on. To be honest I’m bored of hearing it. We are ALL to blame for allowing the entire system to fail. So, we all need to work together in the most positive way to create an entire cultural shift in the way we design, build, procure, finance, sell, rent and maintain homes and communities. The entire system needs to change and for me it is inspiring and exciting a younger generation that is going to make this happen. MOBIE has been set up with the sole purpose of creating an environment to inculcate this change.
Just before Christmas I was part of a one-day conference organised by Mitsubishi Electric at their head office in Hertfordshire and I’m pleased to say that there were a number of MOBIE students and potential MOBIE students in the audience (I’m hoping next year they’ll be adding to the debate on stage!), and I have to say it was the most exciting day. The focus of the event was how to create a more sustainable future in the way we heat and power our homes. Yes, there was some heated debated. As there should be. There were also some very radical ideas about what the industry should do. But, what the day made me realise more than anything, is that a lot of what we need to do is actually very, very simple. We need to insulate our homes to a much higher standard, change the regulation so all homes have triple glazing, we need to legislate so all homes have air-source heat pumps to heat radiators and hot water and we need to use PV panels to generate electricity. All very simple and straightforward stuff. I’m writing this while on holiday in New Zealand and nearly every home I drive past has a Mitsubishi Electric Air Source Heat Pump outside it and no gas boiler because its the obvious, common sense thing to do! In the long run it saves you money, while reducing the carbon footprint of your home. Air source heat pumps are commonplace in NZ partly due to the fact that most Kiwis’s buy a section and built their own home, whereas our self-build market is virtually non-existent, and self-builders see the value in building better quality, sustainable homes. They have a long term vested interest in how that home is built, maintained and cared for.
So why don’t we in the UK do the obvious, the simple, the sustainable? Because the mass house builders threaten the government with the myth that if they raise building standards via legislation that will in turn raise house prices for consumers. The government are petrified by this threat, but its absolute rubbish. Of course, better quality homes will cost more money to build, but why should that burden be passed onto the house purchaser who is already paying over the odds for a substandard product? If the entire industry raises its standards (as it should) the cost should be passed down onto the price of the initial land sale. The problem we have today is overinflated land prices forcing low quality, unsustainable developments. A developer works out their tender/bid price for a large section of land (often subject to planning!) based on build and sales costs. If their build costs go up across the entire house building industry, which they will need to improve quality of design, then land prices should fall to accommodate this. I would also argue that if we build homes in a more intelligent, and 21st century way, in dry, innovative factories rather than on cold, wet, outdoor building sites we would not only increase efficiency and productivity, but we would also substantially raise the quality of building standards, without necessarily increasing build costs. Look at the car industry. Cars are becoming more ecological, safer and they are much better quality products compared to 30 years ago, but the cost of a car hasn’t increased. If anything I’m amazed at the quality of car you can buy today for a relatively small amount of money. But, to build a car you don’t need to buy a site or go through a painfully slow planning process and this is where the problem with home-building lies. We need to innovate and think differently in all aspects of home building. We do some things right. But, we do many things wrong and rather than tinkering at the edges we need radical, common sense changes.
I hope that MOBIE inspires many young people to instigate the changes the home building industry desperately needs, for the benefit of all of us, including the environment.
This post first appeared on the Mitsubishi Electric website in January 2019.