Why the United Kingdom builds ugly and expensive homes

Sacha Meyers
14 min readJun 5, 2022

A case for more homes built by people

The Shire

My image of the United Kingdom is a market town ensconced in green hills. Its square church tower stands out from an otherwise modest skyline. The high street is lined by a Tudor pub, a former Georgian bank branch turned into a tearoom and a Victorian pharmacy selling sandwiches. Terraced houses, cottages, and country homes line sinuous medieval streets radiating out from the town’s heart. This is the timeless Britain of postcards and television series about the aristocracy.

Warwick, UK. Photo by Christian Mackie on Unsplash

Unfortunately, home for many on these isles looks rather different. Venture a few streets beyond historical centers and you’ll witness something peculiar. Charm often gives way either to drab council estates or dreary private developments. The former is imbued with an oppressing brutalist quality while the latter bears the monotonous mark of mass production. It is as if Britons had forgotten how to build desirable places to live.

Sheffield, UK. Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

Beyond aesthetic concerns, British homes are also Europe’s smallest, oldest, least well insulated, and yet most expensive. There is a problem. Or rather there are two problems: cost and beauty. And as we’ll see, these problems are not the inevitable consequence of things like the UK’s limited land. Both Belgium and the Netherlands are more crowded and yet their homes are similar in size and price as those of large neighboring countries like Germany and France. The problem isn’t the natural consequence of geography. It is the result of astonishingly daft policies that both make it difficult to build homes and ensure that the few homes that get built are so often ugly.

Manchester, UK. Photo by Tak-Kei Wong on Unsplash

You can’t always get what you want

British homes are small and getting smaller. New homes built in the UK are 20% smaller than in the 70s. They’re the smallest they’ve been in 90 years. They are in fact the smallest in Europe. New Dutch homes are 50% larger despite the country having a population density 80% higher than the UK.

Almere, Netherlands. Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

UK homes are also 2.5x more expensive per square meter than those in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. Let that sink in. The average home in the UK costs £275,000 in 2022. That same property would only be worth £110,000 in Belgium. Homes in mainland European countries are worth 4 times the average salary. In the UK that number is a staggering 11. There is a home affordability crisis in the UK. And unfortunately it is self-afflicted.

And what you get for that price isn’t even good quality. According to studies, UK homes lose heat three times faster than German ones. The gap is smaller with Belgian and Dutch homes, but as Labour leader Keir Starmer said, Britain has the “least energy-efficient housing in Europe”. The reason for that is twofold. First, because the UK does not build much it has the oldest housing stock in Europe, which naturally isn’t as well insulated as new homes. Second, stringent planning laws make it difficult to retrofit old homes. Try replacing single with double glazing on a listed property. Whereas cities like Paris and Rome have fitted the majority of their historic housing with double glazing, the historic heart of cities like Edinburgh is awash with single glazing. I support architectural preservation, but I do not understand why it would be incompatible with upgrading windows.

Paris, France. Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

So is the problem a lack of land? No. The UK has built on only about 7% of its landmass compared to around 8% in Germany. Therein lies the root of the problem. Germany made slightly different choices, which turned out to have radically different outcomes. Germany’s population density is 15% lower than the UK’s but its share of built land is about 10% greater. These differences seem small but they explain why Germans live in significantly larger homes than the British. Although it may not seem like it, homes don’t take up much space.

Devon, UK. Photo by Craig Cameron on Unsplash

There are 67 million people in the UK. If we assume the average household has 2.4 people, in line with national statistics, we’d need 28 million homes. That’s pretty close to the recorded 25 million dwellings in England alone. Let’s now give each household a plush 200 square meter home — more than double the current average of around 80. If those homes had two floors, their footprint would be 100 square meters. That’s a square 10 meters long. We would need 28 million such homes, or about 2800 square kilometers. Since the UK is 242,495 square kilometers, those homes would cover 1.1% of the country. Granted, we would need more land for a garage, shed, access road, and public infrastructure like streets. But even if we conservatively increased the total to 3%, it’s not much.

Increasing the portion of land built from 7% to 10% would therefore be enough to rehome everyone in the UK. And that assumes we keep all the old homes. By rebuilding over existing homes, we would probably manage by building on 9% of the land. In short, building over two more percentage points of the UK’s landmass is all we need for a radical transformation. That would leave 91% of the country green instead of 93% today. Visit Belgium or the Netherlands to get a sense of what that might look like. Have they paved over their whole countryside? Of course not.

Aerial view of the Netherlands. Photo by Mika Korhonen on Unsplash

Because Belgium and the Netherlands built on fractionally more land, they have markedly larger and cheaper homes than the UK despite being more densely populated. They decided to keep 88% rather than 93% of their land green.

Onhaye, Belgium. Photo by Vincent Foret on Unsplash

Fixing the affordability and quality crises requires that we build on more land and retrofit old properties. While I suspect homeowners might welcome making it easier to insulate their homes, I also know that there is a strong and well-organised opposition to building more. People don’t want to see the value of their property come down, which would clearly happen as a result of more supply. But our policy shouldn’t be to maximise the value of existing homes by keeping a growing portion of the population out of reach of home ownership.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

Also, call me naive but I think that people oppose developments because they are so often ugly. I too wouldn’t want my town defaced. Call it a beauty crisis. Although less tangible than price or Energy Performance Certificates, it is equally and perhaps even more fundamentally important. If we rediscover how to build desirable places to live, perhaps fewer people will oppose building homes. And remember, all we really need is to go from 93% to 91% of land kept green. That is all that stands between us and homes 50% larger and 2.5 times cheaper per square meter.

Stafford, UK. Photo by William Hook on Unsplash

Let a thousand British flowers bloom

Stamford is a beautiful town. It is typically English. The medieval center is a mess of winding streets and jumbled architecture. One thing is certain: it was not born from the mind of a planner. It was not the deliberate work of any individual or even team. It is much too complex and rich in detail. Stamford’s beautiful heart is the result of thousands of people making small decisions over centuries. There was no master plan. Streets formed where fields met. Buildings followed trade, which traveled on the nearby river. Eventually a small town formed. As a result, plot sizes are not uniform, buildings have individual character, and streets twist, turn, widen and narrow chaotically. What a nightmare. And yet it is beautiful and therefore a highly desirable place to live.

Stamford, UK. Photo by Sandie Clarke on Unsplash

Stamford, like so many towns and cities across the UK and in fact the World, teaches us that successful urban form is rarely planned. Even beautiful towns built on planned grids like Barcelona succeed because individuals are free to build and experiment on that grid. It is a white canvas with rules. It is not as rich in detail as medieval towns but it is still a complex system with the emergent property of beauty. Successful urban form is organic. It leaves decisions in the hands of its inhabitants. Landowners, shopkeepers or renters have shaped British towns over the centuries, imbuing them with the wisdom of practical knowledge. Learn by doing, rather than by thinking.

Stamford, UK. Photo by Mark Timberlake on Unsplash

A shop was placed where it could best serve its community not because a computer model said so but because it has been tried empirically and shown to work. In a Britain built by people, decisions and risk are taken by those who reap the benefits or suffer the consequences. There is proper alignment between long-term ownership and short-term decisions. If a planned community doesn’t work, the planners don’t care. They live in traditional neighbourhoods, far from the undesirable reality of their monstrous creation.

Broadway, UK. Photo by Tomasz Tomal on Unsplash

The tragedy of the modern urban form is that it is no longer the work of people. Or, rather, it is no longer the work of the many people who live there. It is no longer the work of people who own the land and want to develop it for their own and the community’s benefit. In today’s Britain, the planner has replaced the owner. The developer has replaced the builder. And as a result, we no longer build homes but units. We no longer build towns but developments. Words matter. They reveal the deep truth behind the way the British build. The whole affair has become centralised in the hands of a few large building companies that get their hymn sheet from Britain’s local planners.

Cumbernauld, UK. Photo by ‘Big Jim Fae Scotland’ on Wikipedia

You may see the result for yourself. Venture a few streets beyond Stamford’s historic center. You’ll notice that streets suddenly become excessively geometric. They might curve, but in a suspiciously unnatural way. You may be no local historian, but you can tell this place has little history. The homes lining the streets are either all exactly the same or drawn from a small catalog of models that repeat. Details, quirks, and chaos have given way to monotony, plainness, and order. That’s to be expected. The richness of organic developments cannot be copied by plans. Sadly, these planned streets are where most people in Stamford live. Council estates or planned developments make up a majority of the city’s area and homes. That’s not the fault of the locals. The UK planning system allows for little else. It is so complex and takes so long to get through that it is now almost entirely the preserve of big companies or the government. People have been pushed almost entirely out of the business of building.

Birkenhead, UK. Photo by Phil Kiel on Unsplash

The figure below speaks a thousand words. More than 6 in 10 new homes are self-built in France, Germany, and Italy. The UK is around 1 in 10. Recent figures in fact suggest it is an abysmal 7–10%. British people simply don’t build anymore. Most of the urban form is the work of planners and builders working together, hand in hand. The current system cannot solve the country’s beauty crisis, because even if we made more land available for development, we would only get more of the same dullness. Of course, readily available land would solve the affordability crisis. But I suspect many people find that deeply unappealing if it also means exacerbating the beauty crisis by covering acres of British countryside with ugliness. Beauty will not come back so long as most people have to live in units planned by developers.

Even towns like Poundbury, which are dedicated to heritage, fail to replicate the underlying mechanism that made beautiful places. While I greatly admire the designs of architects behind Poundbury, I don’t think that a successful town can be planned from scratch. It must grow organically over time, which requires that individual owners rather than large builders get to work. Architects should help families looking to build their dream home, not decide what the entire street ought to look like. This belief is not the product of some grand aesthetic theory, but a simple observation of what has worked. In 2002, the UK Parliament released a report on planned cities across the UK. Specifically, it looked at the “22 new towns [built] between 1946 and 1970.” Their conclusion stated that: “While many New Towns have been economically successful, most now are experiencing major problems. Their design is inappropriate for the 21st Century.”

Livingston, UK. Photo by Kim Traynor on Wikipedia

I am unsure how they define economic success. Perhaps people moving there was enough. But that isn’t much of a hurdle when housing is in so short supply. The more salient point is that these places are not successful urban experiments. Because they were planned, they were brittle. They do not reflect the wisdom of generations but rather the biases of a generation. That is why the entire city center of Cumbernauld in Scotland is due to be destroyed a little over half a century after it was built. The ugly brutalist city center was built with cars in mind. The zeitgeist has now changed and so the whole rotten thing must go. It will be replaced by another grand plan that I suspect won’t do much better. What is it they say about insanity?

Cumbernauld, UK. Photo by Chris Upson on Wikipedia

Britons intuitively agree. Surveys consistently show they prefer old homes to new builds. People recognise beauty when they see it. They might not have looked into the causes for why new developments are so unattractive compared to traditional homes, but they can see the difference straight away. Edwardian suburbian streets are amongst the most desirable in the UK because they marry both the convenience of generous plots with car access and individuality inspired by tradition. They were the last glorious expansion of Britain’s urban form before planning reforms after World War 2. Stamford’s Edwardian streets are lined with unique beauty built by people. Why couldn’t farmers build a few streets on their land and let people line them with beautiful homes? That is how much of Europe does it.

Bernard, Belgium. Photo by Dim Hou on Unsplash

We shall build in the fields and in the streets

The UK government has all but nationalised homebuilding. As trusty Wikipedia puts it, the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act meant that “ownership alone no longer conferred the right to develop the land.” Planning authorities are now in charge. They have a plan, you see. And that way, things will be orderly. And ugly. Oops. It doesn’t matter what owners of land wish to do. All decisions must be cleared centrally. Government and big business must control over 90% of the market. Imagine if the only new restaurants allowed to open since 1947 had been either government canteens or large chains. Any family restaurant would have to predate our hypothetical Food Planning Act. Would that be good?

Coventry, UK. Photo by Tomasz Tomal on Unsplash

The Planning Act was the work of its time. Scientific management and central planning were riding high after the war. Modern urban planning ideas from people like Le Corbusier were all the rage. Enlightened planners with doctoral degrees know best what you need. It doesn’t matter if you think that traditional architecture is beautiful. It’s irrelevant that you think an extension to your home or a new house on farmland you own would be a good idea. What you need is more order imposed from on high. Here comes Milton Keynes with its sea of roundabouts. Trust us. It’s better than Stamford. What do you mean you don’t think so? We are experts!

Photo by Charlie Deets on Unsplash

The planning system destroyed property rights. People are no longer able to develop land they own. Of course, it makes sense to put some limits on what people can do. Just as we don’t want people walking down the street naked, we wouldn’t want a 15-storey tower in a quaint Cotswold town or a sewage treatment plant next to a primary school. But within simple limits, we ought to let people dress and build however they want. What I am suggesting is not some unattainable Utopia. It is how Britons built for the vast majority of their history. It is also how a majority of Europe does it today. Have a list of criteria like height, setback, etc. Make it simple and robust. And let people experiment within that framework. Regions could even require that buildings use local architectural vernacular. I don’t pretend to have all the answers.

Rye, UK. Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Fixing this problem will not be easy. The current trend is towards more “democracy”, which is a euphemism for more politicisation, fewer property rights, and more large developments. The UK government recently announced plans to take even more power away from property owners. Neighbors will soon be able to vote on home extensions built on their street. The trend is away from a simple rulebook and freedom. We are heading towards more centralisation, communal decisions, and planning. That is exactly the opposite of what has worked historically. At best it can preserve beautiful towns by slowing incremental construction to a crawl.

London, UK. Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

The government’s earlier project was to reform planning and make some land available for automatic approval. Such a reform would have indeed moved the UK closer to European rules. If crafted well, its long-term impact would have likely been to reduce the barriers to building, thereby inviting more people to self-build. But fierce opposition by voters in beautiful leafy towns was enough to quash any hope of reform. It is ironic that voters opposed the very mechanism that created the beauty they so dearly cherish . As a result, the main way of building in the UK remains large developers buying entire fields and packing them full of lookalike homes. Nothing is organic. Nothing is human. Everything is a master plan.

Aerial view of Ireland. Photo by Isaac Burke on Unsplash

I do not know how to break that political deadlock. Opposition called the reform a “developer’s charter” tailor-made for big business. That is a clear danger we must guard against. Although I support building on more land, I oppose large developers doing a majority of the building. Reforms must make it simpler for a family to build their dream home on land they bought from a farmer than for a developer to cover a field with a master plan of units. Our goal should be to grow the share of homes built by people. Perhaps that vision can appeal to a majority of us. I certainly hope so.

Eardisland, UK. Photo by David Tip on Unsplash

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