1. Environmental
August 20, 2019

The case for a new Healthy Homes Act

By Fiona Howie

The head of the Town & Country Planning Association on how to fix the housing crisis.

Last week a survey by Ipsos MORI for the Chartered Institute of Housing found that almost three-quarters of people across Great Britain believe there’s a housing crisis – and more than half think it’s not spoken about enough. I appreciate I might at times operate in a bit of a policy bubble, but I feel that there is a lot of discussion about the housing crisis. What is more of a concern to me is the lack of action to tackle it!

We know we need more homes. The government is currently aiming to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. But that is easier said than done. It is going to take policy change and a range of solutions.

One of those solutions will need to be new, high quality, large-scale developments. There are important lessons to learn from the Garden Cities and the New Towns programme, but the TCPA is not, as some might suggest, working to prevent all other kinds of development.

Regeneration and renewal of existing places must be an essential part of any attempt to tackling the housing crisis – and also, as highlighted by the UK 2070 Commission, attempts to address the current, totally unacceptable levels of regional inequality. In some locations that may mean densification. We absolutely must use land efficiently and we need a flexible approach to density as part of high-quality urban design and place-making.

It cannot, however, be seen as a one-size-fits-all solution. If we want to deliver better outcomes for communities, regenerating places needs to be considered alongside wider issues including the provision of play space, recreation facilities and green infrastructure.

In the race to deliver more homes, we can surely all agree that the new homes that are built must be of a decent standard? Sadly, we know that some of the homes being built today are not of a high enough quality. The planning inspector’s decision back in July that will allow 15 bedsits to be built in Watford, seven of which will have no windows, is one such example.

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To try and make sure that all new homes support people’s health, safety, wellbeing and life chances, we are calling for a new Healthy Homes Act. The Act would set out ten high-level principles that, when taken together, set out what constitutes a decent home. These principles would then be implemented through a policy statement, and subsequent changes to building regulations and national planning policy.

We believe the benefit of having the principles in legislation would be that they carry more weight in the process. The relevant Secretary of State would be required to report to Parliament. And, most importantly, they would provide consistency and certainty for all local authorities and developers.

But, if we really are going to tackle the housing crisis, getting more truly affordable houses built must be a top priority. Over the last six years 165,000 of England’s social homes have disappeared, either changing over to private ownership, repurposed as “affordable rent” or demolished. Long waiting lists for affordable housing, which are seen across the country, demonstrate the need to urgently replace these lost homes.

At the moment, most new affordable housing in England is created through the planning system, a result of negotiations between developers and councils. This poses various challenges and if places are to secure the homes necessary to meet local needs, strong policies in local plans are essential. But developer contributions are not going to deliver the scale of new affordable homes we need.

To achieve that, we need to give more support to local authorities to deliver homes that are urgently needed. Top of that list must be significantly more government funding available for social rental homes as well as other genuinely affordable tenures. This needs to be coupled with a revised definition of affordable housing that links housing affordability to income, and the suspension of the Right to Buy in England, as has already happened in Scotland and Wales.

There is consensus on the need for more homes – but we must not oversimplify the root causes of the problem, or the solutions, if we are to tackle the issue in a sustainable way. The Raynsford Review, for example, proposed a large number of reforms necessary to unlock high-quality housing and place-making, which included a stronger, well-resourced planning system, changes in land taxation and the creation of a national sustainable development plan.

Getting political support for such reforms will take time. But, in the meantime, from a small number of new affordable homes in a village through to large-scale new communities, all have a role to play in tackling the crisis.

Fiona Howie is chief executive of the Town & Country Planning Association.

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