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Built environment committee criticises government housing policy

Words: Laura Edgar
New houses / iStock

The current government policy is “unlikely” to meet the demand for both the quality and quantity of housing required in England, the National Policy for the Built Environment Committee has said.

The committee has also asserted the importance of delivering a better built environment.

Expressing support for the government’s objective to build more houses, Baroness O’Cathain, chairman of the committee, said if those houses are built in the “wrong place” to a “poor standard”, without consent from the local community, “we are only storing up future misery for the people in those houses and others nearby”.

The report states that restrictions on financial freedoms and flexibilities “pose a threat” to the ability of local authorities to build houses of their own”.

Therefore, O’Cathain said the committee recommends local authorities are empowered to build their own homes, and to ensure all developments are of a “suitably high quality”.

Building better places (pdf) also states that so far, government initiatives have “failed” to address the gap between the granting of planning permission and new homes built.

Furthermore, the committee believes it is important that the government sets “high standards” for the built environment and provides “visions, aspiration and leadership” to encourage other to deliver against these standards.

O’Cathain and the committee are calling for the government to “appoint a chief built environment ddvisor 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”.

She also said ensuring a better built environment in the future is one of the “key challenges” facing the government and it “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," O’Cathain concluded.

The report also lays out a number of other recommendations for the government, including:

  • Reconsidering the proposal to include starter homes within the definition of affordable homes because they “cease to include any element of affordability after five years”.

  • Reconsidering additional elements of the Housing and Planning Bill which would “undermine the maintenance of mixed communities”.

  • Reversing the decisions to remove the zero carbon homes requirement and Code for Sustainable Homes.

  • Installing a new strategy for managing the historic built environment that recognises it as “a 'unique national and local asset, central to place-making' and a 'cultural and economic asset rather than an obstacle to successful future developments'”.

  • Making design reviews mandatory for all major planning applications to offset “long-term burdens and costs of poor quality design.

  • Creating more bursaries for planning students and placing greater emphasis on ‘proactive planning’ from local authorities.

Building better places can be found here (pdf).

Response from industry professionals:


“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 place-making. 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.”

Melanie Leech, chief executive, British Property Federation

“The government’s U-turn on the zero carbon standards for new homes threw away a decade of planning and investment by progressive developers, designers and manufacturers and made our carbon targets even harder to hit. The houses we build today need to stand the test of time, and it is perfectly reasonable to expect quality as well as quantity.”

John Alker, campaign and policy director, UK Green Building Council

“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. 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.”

Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders

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