Lords call for councils to be given more house-building powers
Government’s target to build 240,000 new houses a year is unachievable unless the public sector is given a bigger role, according to a parliamentary committee.
A report from the House of Lords committee on national policy for the built environment today* criticises current government policy as unlikely to meet demand for either the quantity or quality of houses that the UK needs.
The committee was told that around 240,000 new houses are needed each year to meet existing demand; they conclude that it is not possible to meet this target through reliance on private sector developers alone. The committee concludes that the government will not succeed in building the houses the country needs unless local authorities and housing associations are allowed to play a bigger role in building. In order to facilitate this, it recommends that the government reviews the borrowing restrictions on local authorities and reviews its own decision to reduce social rents, a key source of funding for local housing provision.
The committee is also expressed concern about the quality of new developments that house-builders are putting up, with too little consideration for the impact on the surrounding built environment. The committee said that local authorities should be allowed to set quality standards for developers.
The report also says that the easing of restrictions on converting offices to homes, combined with an emphasis on the financial viability of new developments, weakens the ability of local authorities to scrutinise planning proposals adequately. The committee calls on the government to revise the National Planning Policy Framework to reduce the unreasonable use of viability assessments by developers to avoid funding affordable housing and infrastructure.
The report states that the relaxation of planning restrictions and the removal of national building standards, including the zero carbon homes requirement, risks storing-up long term problems if poor quality developments are approved without proper scrutiny. The committee says that "speed need not come at the expense of quality, and a short-sighted approach runs the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past."
On the increased risk of flooding the committee specifically recommends that the government should take steps to improve flood resilience for new and existing homes built in areas of flood risk, including introducing a requirement for all new homes in those areas to have flood resilience measures built in. The government should also promote a co-ordinated programme of retrofit for existing properties in flood risk areas.
Other recommendations in the report include:
- The government should reconsider the proposal to include 'starter homes' within the definition of affordable housing as starter homes cease to include any element of affordability after five years.
- The government should reconsider additional elements of the Housing and Planning Bill which would undermine the maintenance of mixed communities.
- The government should appoint a chief built environment advisor to champion higher standards in the built environment across government departments. [Ed: It has only just scrapped the chief construction adviser post…]
- The government should reverse its decision to do away with the zero carbon homes requirement and code for sustainable homes.
- We need a new strategy for managing our historic built environment that recognises that our historic built environment is a 'unique national and local asset, central to place-making' and a 'cultural and economic asset rather than an obstacle to successful future developments'.
- The government should make design review mandatory for all major planning applications, in order to offset the long-term burdens and costs of poor quality design.
- Local authority planning departments need to be better resourced and the planning profession needs to rediscover the prestige it once had. The committee calls for more bursaries for planning students, and a greater emphasis on ‘proactive planning’ from local authorities.
Committee chairman Baroness O’Cathain, a Conservative peer, said: "It is increasingly clear that we need to build more houses in England and we wholeheartedly support that objective. However if we build those houses in the wrong place, to a poor standard, without the consent of local communities we are only storing up future misery for the people in those houses and others nearby.
"That is why we are recommending local authorities are once again empowered both to build new homes of their own, and to ensure all developments are of a suitably high quality. Spending a little bit extra on good quality design at the outset can avert massive costs to people, society and government in the long-run.
"The government should review the National Planning Policy Framework to make sure developers aren’t using financial viability to play fast and loose with design quality and sustainability. If developers submit substandard plans local authorities should be able to ask them to think again without builders falling back on questionable viability assessments to get their way.
"We are also calling on the government to appoint a chief built environment advisor to work across government departments to integrate planning policy and act as a champion for higher standards and good practice. It’s important that the government sets a good example and leads from the front on design quality.
"Ensuring we have a better built environment in the coming decades is one of the key challenges facing the Government. It impacts on every area of our lives. The government must now take that challenge seriously. We hope in responding to our report they will recognise that the drive for more homes must not come at the expense of quality. Everyone deserves a home but they also deserve a good quality home, in a good quality place, that meets their needs as individuals and families. We don’t think the government’s policy as it stands will deliver that."
*The full report, Building Better Places, is at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201516/ldselect/ldbuilt/100/100.pdf
The British Property Federation (BPF) welcomed the report’s recognition of the fact that there needs to be a diverse supply base in order to deliver a sufficient amount of new homes, but was disappointed to see that it has not better recognised the contribution of build to rent. In its evidence to the committee, the BPF highlighted the role that build to rent can play in creating high quality places that people want to work and live, offering density, affordability and high quality homes, that come with long-term investment.
BPF chief executive Melanie Leech said: “Today’s report is right to highlight the need to future-proof the creation of new homes and communities, and to warn against taking a short-term approach to delivery. Although there is a pressing need to deliver new homes, this must not be done at the expense of quality and great placemaking. Policies such as the removal of the zero carbon target by the government have been concerning, and it is of vital importance that we consider future generations when creating new places.
“It was perhaps an oversight that the report did not put more emphasis on build to rent, and the role it can play in supporting changing demographics and contributing to communities, but there was a lot to cover and the current inquiry by the House of Lords economic affairs committee is focusing far more on the private rented sector.”
Federation of Master Builders chief executive Brian Berry said: “The committee is right to focus on the quality of housing – any dropping of standards in order to boost completions will serve to store up problems for the future. However, to suggest that achieving numbers might come at the cost of quality is creating a false dichotomy. In particular, the Committee has misunderstood the impetus behind calls for planning reform. Small house builders have been pressing for a speedier planning system, not because it will allow them to build to a lower spec, but because the current system is ill-suited for building high quality homes on the required scale to address the housing shortage. Local developers deliver houses that have a very high satisfaction rate among home owners. What builders need is a planning system that is far quicker and easier to navigate and is an enabler of housing delivery, not a drag on it.
“Looking at some of the other recommendations, we’re pleased that the Lords committee recognises the importance of SME house builders and we agree that the government must reconsider its position on retrofitting our existing homes. In particular, we back their call for the introduction of a chief built environment advisor. The role of chief construction adviser existed until the end of last year but was scrapped by the government as part of its efficiency savings. As construction, housing and infrastructure cut across so many different government departments, it’s useful to have a dynamic individual in place who can ensure there is greater co-ordination in Whitehall and who can act as a genuine champion for creating a quality built environment. The government needs to work with the Lords and with industry to develop these recommendations in a way that allows us to tackle one of the greatest political challenges of our time.”
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This article was published on 19 Feb 2016 (last updated on 22 Feb 2016).