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Government housing policy is short sighted and will not meet objectives - Lords Committee

The House of Lords Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment has today asserted the importance of delivering a better built environment and criticised current government policy as unlikely to meet demand for either the quantity or quality of houses we need.

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 the Committee recommend that the Government review the borrowing restrictions on local authorities and review its own decision to reduce social rents, a key source of funding for local housing provision.

The Committee is also extremely concerned about the quality of new developments, and the risk of housing delivery being prioritised at the expense of other elements of the built environment. The Committee calls for local communities and local authorities to be empowered to demand high standards from developers. The Committee expresses concern that the focus on the speed and quantity of housing developments poses a threat to sustainable planning for the long-term, quality, design standards and place-making. The report states that the easing of restrictions on converting office property to residential use, combined with very strong emphasis on the financial viability of new developments, weakens the ability of local authorities to properly scrutinise planning proposals. 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 states 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 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.

Commenting, Baroness O'Cathain, Chairman of the Committee, 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.”

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 Committee says the current proposals “risks undermining mixed communities and preventing the delivery of genuinely affordable housing for the long-term.”
  • 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.
  • 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.

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