The National Policy for the Built Environment Committee was appointed on 11 June 2015 to consider the development and implementation of national policy for the built environment.  The function of Lords Select Committees is not to shadow the work of government departments, their investigations look into specialist subjects, taking advantage of the Lords’ expertise and the greater amount of time (compared to MPs) available to them to examine issues. All the more interesting, therefore, that the cross bench National Policy for the Built Environment Committee’s report, published on 19 February 2016, pulls few punches in its criticism that current government housing policy is unlikely to meet demand for either the quantity or quality of houses urgently needed in England.

The Committee is concerned about the quality of new developments, and about the risk of housing delivery being prioritised at the expense of other elements of the built environment.  These points echo those voiced by many in the planning and development sectors (see Landmark’s blog on the Housing and Planning Bill of 12 January 2016).

Building in the right place, at the right standard, where houses are needed

The Committee Chairman, Conservative Peer Baroness O’Cathain, commented that whilst it wholeheartedly supports the objective of building more houses in England “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.”

The committee makes a number of recommendations to achieve high quality housing that meets the need of current and future generations. It recommends that power should be returned to local authorities 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”.

Housing mix

Key recommendations are made to avert the risk that current and emerging policy will encourage delivery of unsustainable, poor quality housing that will not meet need.  The committee report says that the Government should:

  • reconsider the proposal to include ‘starter homes’ within the definition of affordable housing, because starter homes cease to include any element of affordability after five years;
  • reconsider additional elements of the Housing and Planning Bill which would undermine the maintenance of mixed communities;
  • appoint a Chief Built Environment Advisor to champion higher standards in the built environment across government departments;
  • reverse its decision to do away with the zero carbon homes requirement and Code for Sustainable Homes.

High quality place making

The committee also comments on the need to toughen up measures to ensure high quality place making and design, with the recommendation that in housing policy the Government should:

  • set 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’.
  • make design review mandatory for all major planning applications, in order to offset the long-term burdens and costs of poor quality design.

Rediscovering the Planning Profession

On planning, the Committee refreshingly bucks the ‘Whitehall practice’ of laying the blame for lack of housing delivery in England at the door of the planning profession. It notes that local authority planning departments need to be better resourced, with the wry observation that high quality strategic and development planning can be better achieved by well-resourced Local Authority planning departments, with a greater emphasis on ‘proactive planning’, than those working on a shoe string.

The committee also points out that ‘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’.

Housing policy – What next?

All of the above advice is refreshingly straightforward and well informed. Their Lordships have clearly been diligent and careful in their studies. The wheels of government move ponderously, however, and the influence of the Upper House on Government policy has probably rarely been as shaky as it is in early 2016. Nonetheless, it’s to be hoped that Government will listen, look again at planning and housing policy, and have the courage to let go of short termism. Balanced, mixed communities need stronger foundations than dated ideas and short term policies.

“As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” Antoine de Saint Exupery