Extensions are no substitute for new homes

Yes! I can finally build that sunroom I have always dreamed of. Balls to what the neighbours think – this is my dream.

Such citizenly sentiment is oozing from British homeowners as the government prepares to relax the planning restrictions on home extensions. Under the proposals, we will be given a three-year window in which we can extend our property by a whopping eight metres – double the current limit – and, crucially, without obtaining planning permission. Mini-bus garage, stained-glass disco annexe, breezeblock spa. You name it. You build it. You have it.

The rule-slackening ruse is at the core of the government’s Get Britain Building initiative – an earthy riposte to the wishy-washy shambles of last year’s Localism Act, the Conservatives’ push to encourage local communities to take collective decisions on planning. The rhetoric of “we’re in this together” has been gazumped by a middle-fingered linguistic paradigm: “Times are hard. Be brave. F*** your neighbour over.”

As a notion, I like it. It will engender robust debate in dull communities and possibly all-out warfare in more edgy ones. Among my own north London neighbours, it will offer up something more tangible over which to schmooze than whose child is being most egregiously failed by a school system that doesn’t recognise their full potential. It might even, if it really gets going, sire a new period of truly democratic architectural significance: Modernist, Brutalist, Extensionalist.

But as a recession-placating dictum, the policy is hewn from the same euphoric metanonsense as its precursor.

It is an embarrassing misunderstanding to pin the blame for Britain not building on an over-restrictive planning regime. Britons are not building because they are poor. Not by global standards, of course, but relative to how we have felt during the past 20 years or so, certainly. There is less money and a lot less confidence over where it will come from next. Giving us the thumbs-up to whack up that over-sized box room we have always wanted is not going to set us reaching for our cheque books. It is a bit like introducing a walk-to-work scheme for the disabled and hoping they will snap out of it.

There is, however, another, and perhaps more concerning problem with trying to entice people into extending their homes: it encourages speculation. As a nation wedded to the idea of house prices only ever rising, we are hopelessly romantic about any policy that gives us licence to add value to our nest egg. This neediness is worse still during times of uncertainty, when faced with the intolerable shame of losing money on a property deal. Any freedom to extend the footprint of the building should, therefore, surely be seized upon with money-making gusto?

Well, apparently not.

A useful study by Remodelling Magazine looks at the merits of home extensions on a cost versus resale value basis. Big, it turns out, is not always best.

The homeowner building a garage, for instance, will recuperate on average just over half of the construction costs on selling the property. A sunroom is an even worse idea, delivering to its presumably well-tanned owner a net loss of 52 per cent. Perhaps surprisingly, the smart money is on a new front door. In our security-conscious world, swapping your wooden entry door for a steel one will bring in a resale gain of 3 per cent. Quids in, and you can do it in a lot less than eight metres.

But perhaps I am being unduly hard on the government.

There is, at the heart of the “extend and pretend” initiative, a very savvy policy. It creates a wonderful distraction to the real issue of a country that is building roughly half of the 250,000 or so houses the state says are needed to meet its own estimates for household formation. It also tees up the prospect that each of Britain’s 26m households takes up their full meterage and build enough garages to stretch 44 times round the world.

Entertaining as that would be, it would not fix the problem. An extension is, as the word suggests, an addition to the status quo. It can never be a lasting solution and a policy that seeks to embrace it as one is gobbledygook. Sending us off to play about with shovels might be an easier political sell than tearing up the greenbelt. But it is a pointless sideshow unless it is coupled to a meaningful push to build new homes.

The government must address the fact that it is a shortfall of houses, and not a paucity of conservatories, that is Britain’s problem. If it fails in this, it will ensure only the extension of the country’s economic decline.

Ed Hammond is the FT’s property correspondent

More columns at www.ft.com/perspective


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