Sunday, September 3, 2017

Climate Breakdown Plan

The Government had 'promised' an emissions reduction plan (ERP) pursuant to the agreement by the Cameron Government to comply with the agreements in Paris to limit  global warming to 2 degrees (whilst seeking to achieve a 1.5degreee limit).   The post on 4/12/17 or 4 April 2017 provided a link to Planning to Reduce Carbon Emissions (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2VqOwDufNpbeVE3alBCRnJ4NjA/view?usp=sharing) that explains how the land use planning system could be used to reduce emissions by about 50%.  Before the 2017 election the Government announced that the ERP would be issued in the autumn and would take the form of a Clean Growth Plan (CGP).  Would it be too cynical to believe that this suggests a watering down of the commitments that  were seen  as necessary to this country's contribution to the achievement of the Paris COP?
Hopefully there are NGOs ready to challenge the CGP if it can be seen to be an inadequate just as Client Earth managed to force the Government to improve the air quality improvement strategy (which will still prove to be inadequate and result in legal challenges).  For those who remember that the 'bedroom tax' was a tag given to the 'spare room subsidy', it would seem to be sensible to label the Clean Growth Plan as a Climate Breakdown Plan that would be closer to its real effects.  The actual wording should be attributed to George Monbiot (column in The Guardian 30 August) who was asking for the use of some honest language in the debate about 'climate change' and regarded both that term and 'global warming' as inadequate and misleading.
Putting a shot across the bows can be a sign of weakness, signalling impatience or a concern that the Government might actually come up to the mark.  However, in a case where the Government is wedded to GDP as a measure of its performance, and no convincing plan for 'clean growth' has been produced that would achieve the carbon reductions required by the Paris COP, it seems to be reasonable to get the retaliation in first and prepare to unpack and challenge the Climate Breakdown Plan when it eventually emerges.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Migrating to a problematic future


As the idea of custom splitting is discussed, the benefits and challenges both become clearer.  This is the latest description - with apologies to those readers who would like to hear something completely different.

All parties with an interest in how the planning system works (from the Chancellor of the Exchequer down to the rough sleeper in the shop doorway) should be looking for ways of sharing out the existing stock of housing before simply adding to the supply.  Until ways to re-distribute this scarce resource have been fully explored the need for new housing cannot be objectively assessed or known.   



The case for custom splitting



Over the years houses have been subdivided in a number of ways to form self-contained accommodation[1].  A divorced couple introduced a horizontal division to a four storey terrace.  A bungalow was extended upwards and divided into a pair of semis for a couple to live in close proximity.  Rear extensions have been added to a detached house providing extended accommodation to enable its division for a daughter to live next to her father.  Converting and renting out a semi basement has allowed a couple to stay in the family home. Etc etc.



The idea of 'custom splitting' (cusping) has been out there for long enough to know that it can meet individual circumstances and add to the overall housing stock with minimal building works involved.   However, there are a growing number of reasons to believe that local planning authorities should be encouraging cusping in order to move it into mainstream in the provision of ‘new’ housing. 


The fact that one local planning authority has been able to offer just 6 serviced plots to the 253 people on its Register in just the first year of it seeking to discharge its duty under the Housing and Planning Act 2016[2]  is probably quite typical, and suggests that a  radical change will be required if the legislation is to retain its credibility.  The problem is likely to be most acute in larger urban areas.  Will LPAs increase the difficulty in joining the registers to avoid being faced with applications and appeals on land being proposed by prospective self/custom builders arguing that the LPA has failed in its duty – a corollary of the argument successfully used by developers on appeal that a 5 years housing land supply is not being maintained? LPAs are expected only to cover their reasonable costs, and eligibility criteria can lead to two tier registers but not completely exclude interested households.



Planners should be addressing the challenge of finding ways to house people in existing urban areas and closer to existing facilities and services than on peripheral estates.[3] Matthew Carmona (Thinking small to think big TCPA August 2017) was arguing for an increase in urban densities by building on small sites and adding storeys in order to meet the need for new housing in London, describing a process of ‘proactive densification’ as a ‘generational challenge’, and one with the co-benefit of helping smaller builders.  These are important matters but barely touch on the full range of benefits that could be derived from a concerted attempt to systematize custom splitting.  



The Government and opposition parties appear to be equally concerned about the failure to increase the rate of delivery of new housing.   In support of the legislation adding the duty to provide serviced plots to the requirement to keep registers  of individuals and associations of individuals[4] the Government is making substantial grants available.  However, to get from the current 7.7% of the approximately 150,000 new self/custom  built homes being completed each year (11,550) to closer to 20% of 200,000 plus (40,000) which are said to be required, is unlikely to happen without a significant level of cusping.



The level of under-occupation of both bedrooms and living areas in the existing housing stock (even in Inner and Outer London) is far greater ie over 50% than the levels of overcrowding ie less than 10%.   The potential of cusping was looked at in 2016 by the Intergenerational Foundation[5] estimating that there could be 4.4million dwellings readily available for sub-division. In 2016 the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Care and Housing of the Elderly received evidence that there could be as many as 8 million households looking to downsize were attractive smaller dwellings made available. This emphasizes the need to increase the supply of housing suitable for the elderly that is unlikely to be met even if all the 200,000 new dwellings that the industry might be capable of providing each year were dedicated to that sector.[6]





The benefits



The benefits of cusping, some of which have already been touched on, would  include:

-  Reducing unsustainable levels of under-occupation in urban, suburban and rural areas.

- By making energy upgrades a condition of granting planning permissions or Local Development Orders[7], the existing housing stock which 80% is currently at the equivalent of EPC D could be upgraded to EPC B and above.[8] This would reduce the possibility of either household falling into fuel poverty.

- Cusping would enable older households to downsize-in-place in what could evolve into a Lifetime Neighbourhood. This could also involve adaptations of all or part of the property to Lifetime Home standards avoiding the perverse incentive to continue to live in an unnecessarily large home.

-  In the choosing of partners and the designing the accommodation, the process of cusping could include the respective households seeking to meet their current and foreseeable needs in terms of caring for children, the sick, disabled or elderly (obviously on the understanding that personal circumstances are subject to change).

- The choice or partners would involve matching financial needs, but also the other resources and skills that could be shared and contribute to the efficient and cost effective implementation of the sub-division.

- However proficient the parties, many projects are likely to create some work for smaller tradesmen and builders.

- The parties could negotiate and choose how the garden could be subdivided in the short and longer term (without building on it) allowing ageing households to maintain a larger garden that is normally available with smaller properties and those designed for the elderly. This form of ‘downsizing –in-place’, overcomes the under-estimated problem/excuse of clearing the loft of stuff that can be concentrated at one end.

- Both parties would be able to negotiate and choose between renting and buying all or part of the respective parts, some being intentionally shared (eg accesses, garden areas, garages or sheds).

- The original owners could release equity without re-mortgaging or taking out high interest loans – renting out the separated dwelling could provide an income, possibly through rent-to-buy.  This might make custom building (through splitting) accessible to the younger generations which are currently being excluded due to the high upfront costs.

- The density of people (potential custom for local services and facilities) would be increased without building on open land (some brownfield land has become very bio-diverse), including gardens.

- The issues surrounding the non-implementation of planning permissions being experienced in the new-build sector would be avoided as custom building of all types effectively conflates supply and demand.

- The works involved in sub-dividing properties represent a very efficient use of materials and labour that are both increasingly scarce and expensive, even inside the EU.  It would be more expensive to buy part of an existing plot but should be much cheaper to complete a conversion to self-contained dwellings than to start on a bare site,

- By matching those with spare space that they are willing (and keen) to share with those on the Registers, LPAs would have a reasonable chance of meeting their legal duty to provide serviced plots,

- Cusping at scale would provide a 'realistic alternative' to supply housing that should be fully explored before permitting new building in Green Belts.

- Residential sub-divisions would also reduce the pressure to develop peripheral estates in the open countryside.

- Sub-divisions providing self-contained accommodation would be consistent with the proposal to change the General Permitted Development Order to allow upward extensions without express permission so long as a separate/additional dwelling would be created.

-  The works of sub-dividing a property into two or more self-contained dwellings is subject to a reduced rate of 5% VAT even if not and not the zero rate applicable to new build.



Some of these 17 potential benefits of cusping at scale; addressing the shortage and/or distribution of housing, increasing energy efficiency of buildings and addressing fuel poverty, potentially providing social care (even if just through good neighbourliness), are non-trivial and represent a form of 'sustainable development', and more so than probably all forms of residential new build.



Helping it happen



The central government grants available for custom-building should be made available for cusping.  LPAs persuaded of the benefits of cusping should be prepared to make grants available to cover the upfront costs associated with the design and/or conversion that could be recovered either on completion of the works or as a charge on the property that would be repaid on its later sale.  Policies in local plans should set out the circumstances when cusping would be supported (or opposed). This could be greatly simplified through the making of Local Development Orders (eg specifying energy standards and minimum room sizes).  Registers should be kept of property owners wanting to be introduced to those on the custom building registers who should also be asked to include their willingness to engage in the sub-division of an existing property rather than wait for up to three years if they are lucky enough to even receive an offer of a serviced plot at an acceptable location and price.



Challenges



Once the planning system has paved the way, the main challenges might be for designers to find efficient ways to meet the access and space requirements of the original and prospective households, to specify the energy efficiency and noise insulation measures, and to separate the services (ie plumbing, drainage and electrics).  Divisions might be horizontal (ie into flats) or vertical (ie into semis).  Small extensions might be required for additional hallways, stairs/lifts or bathrooms and kitchens.  There might also be challenges for lawyers and lenders to tailor the legal documents and financial arrangements to the needs of the parties.



Objections



There might be objections from those afraid of increased demand for on- street parking.  This concern should not be allowed to get in the way of a process that would meet so many interests of acknowledged importance, but it would be possible through the use of conditions (or the terms of an LDO) to address this potential impact and even use cusping to encourage the transition to a lower level of car ownership targeted at Ultra Low Emission Vehicles.

In the Go-Between (1953) LP Hartley suggested that, 'The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there'.  It is equally true that the future will be a foreign country where things will be done differently.  In that sense we are all migrants from an uncertain present to a  future that we hope will include answers to our various problems and crises.  I hope that both cynics and sceptics will show some patience and give cusping a chance.





[1] This article is not about HMOs which are probably the most common type of sharing but with less privacy and independence than provided by cusping.

[2] Now Self and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 (as amended)

[3] It will not help in practice to call a peripheral estate a “sustainable urban extension”

[4] A nod towards the co-housing movement which is also needing help from the planning system

[5] Unlocking England’s Hidden Homes (http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Unlocking-Englands-Hidden-Homes_Final.pdf)

[6] (https://www.housinglin.org.uk/Topics/type/Housing-our-Ageing-Population-Positive-Ideas-HAPPI-3-Making-retirement-living-a-positive-choice/).

[7] Local Planning Authorities can adopt Local Development Orders in order to make residential sub-divisions ‘permitted development’ subject to conditions or prior notification including energy standards and minimum space standards


[8] The ‘consequential improvements’ proposed and then withdrawn (when branded a conservatory tax) by the 2010 Coalition Government was the last attempt at maintaining if not upgrading the housing stock

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Who is planning the environment?

I have never been convinced that town and country planning has been an 'environmental profession' in the sense that the net outcome of the activities of the 24,000 members of the Royal Town Planning Institute is being positive for bio-diversity or the quality of soils, air or water.  It is not even clear to me that the outcomes for people in terms of physical or mental health are any better than they would be in a non-plan world.  I am more convinced that land use planning has benefited the economy as it is conventionally measured by GDP and the health of the larger companies and corporations.

Jumping to the inspiration for this post, the Fabian Society has recently published the result of research into the connection between environmental awareness/concern and participation in activities aimed at conserving or improving the environment.  From the study that surveyed the opinions of over 7000 people in three cities found that over 30%  claimed to be part of a green blob concerned about the state of the environment but (very) many fewer, were actively engaged.  Readers should go to  http://www.fabians.org.uk/publications/powerful-people-2/  to go through the findings and explanations given for this participation gap but, for the purposes of this Blog,  the fact that land use planning is almost invisible in this debate is very dispiriting.  The report signs off with a mention of neighbourhood planning but, if the engagement with the preparation of development plans or even dealing with planning applications at district and city levels (and combined authorities) gets a mention then I missed it.

I would suggest that the planners (officers, councillors and ministers) and the general public should be very concerned that the land use planning system seems to be operating with so much indifference to the health of the  environment and so little public involvement (other than objecting to developments affecting the value and enjoyment of private property).  The pre-occupation with housing supply, which is understandable given the crisis caused in part by the failure to understand the true nature of the scarcity and to then  focus on some some of the promising responses (ie building smaller homes and explore custom splitting), has prevented resources being applied to the real crises in respect of food, soils, air, water, climate change and bio-diversity.

The priorities seem to be to:-
- understand that the housing crisis is more one of distribution and the types of housing than total (lack of) supply,
- include policies in development plans which will ensure that carbon emissions are reduced to zero by 2050, that the air we breathe does not poison the lungs and brains of the young, that soils will be preserved and enhanced, that water becomes a friend and not a threat (through extreme weather and flooding) and that the sixth great extinction is avoided.
If we do not start to use the existing planning system for these purposes then the pretense that it is an 'environmental profession' should be abandoned and other and more effective measures must be put in place.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

On the Cusp - as in custom splitting

The idea of 'custom splitting' has been out there for long enough to know whether there are deep flaws or any great attractions.  For a 'magic bullet' it seems to lack penetration but the only adverse comment came in the local paper suggesting that it would be preferable to build on the Green Belt than subject future generations to the 'truly awful conditions' which would arise from dividing up larger houses. This does raise an interesting question as to whether LPAs should calculate the potential of custom splitting (cusping) before any claim that reasonable alternatives to Green Belt development have been exhausted?  That apparently wild claim can be made given the intention evident in legislation, advice and financial incentives that the Government has focused on self/custom building, and the apparent lack of serviced plots to meet the expectations of both the Government and the possible exponents.
To get from the current 7.7% of the approximately 150,000 new homes being built each year (11,550) to closer to 20% of 200,000 plus (40,000) which are said to be required is unlikely to happen without a significant level of cusping.
Before listing the benefits from a previous blog and more recent feedback I want to give a further mention to  Unlocking England’s Hidden Homes (http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Unlocking-Englands-Hidden-Homes_Final.pdf) which estimated that there could be 4.4million dwellings available for sub-division. Another mention should be also made of the need to increase the supply of housing suitable for the elderly that is unlikely to be met even if 200,000 new dwellings were dedicated to that sector each year (https://www.housinglin.org.uk/Topics/type/Housing-our-Ageing-Population-Positive-Ideas-HAPPI-3-Making-retirement-living-a-positive-choice/).
So, done properly, including deep energy upgrades, through conditional planning permissions or Local Development Orders (backed by development plan policy), the benefits of cusping seem to include:
-  reducing unsustainable levels of under-occupation,
- upgrading housing stock from EPC D and below to EPC B and above,
- downsizing in place in a Lifetime Neighbourhood, if not a Lifetime Home,
- choice of garden size without building on it,
- choice of renting or buying,
- equity release without re-mortgaging or high interest loans,
- increasing density of people (potential custom for local services and facilities) with no more buildings, 
- avoid the issues of non-implementation experienced in the new-build sector,
- efficient use of materials and labour that increasingly scarce and expensive even in the EU,
- enable LPAs to meet their legal duty to provide serviced plots to households on the Registers,
- 'realistic alternative' to building in Green Belt and open countryside in way which has Government support and limiting Nimbyism to lack of parking (that should be sorted with shared ULEVs),
-  meeting the needs of ageing households and new households (ability to choose neighbours and fit respective skills, vision and resources).
- consistent with the proposal to change the General Permitted Development Order to allow upward extensions without express permission so long as a separate/additional dwelling would be created.
I make that 13 good  and complementary reasons to promote custom-splitting without also claiming that it would represent a form of 'sustainable development', and more so than probably all forms of residential new build. 


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

What do the younger generation really really want?


The election result raises a number of questions about the future of planning, not least the appointment of Alok Sharma, an accountant by trade and with no obvious experience of either planning or housing, as the new Minister under the CLG Secretary Sajid Javid.

I see the most important message from the events of 8 June as the potential start of the process of politicizing  more 18 to 30 year olds.  With apologies for the generalisations, in the past the election process has been dominated by those in the 50 plus age group and their media of choice (from the ITV/BBC/Guardian to the Mail, Telegraph, Times, Express and Sun) favouring forms of conservatism which have striven and appeared to protect their relatively short term interests (5 to 10 years). 

In stark contrast, when an 18year old considers where their interest lies, it could and should relate to a much longer time span – extending to 50 years. In this time frame issues like climate change become more relevant and matters like migration over the longer term, international relations, behavioural change, the nature of housing and living and even the development of towns and cities appear as legitimate concerns.

I have been sensitive to the fact that the Blog would make no sense if it did not express (strong) opinions about the use of land and buildings but, at the same time, DanthePlan is not in his first flush of youth and should not pretend that he can represent the views of the younger generation who should be seriously engaged in planning their own future.   For me, the analysis of the election result which suggests an increased appetite for younger people to but a cross next to their favoured candidate raises the important question of whether individually or collectively they actually know what they want to achieve through developing their political engagement?

All those already involved in the land use planning system should be aiming to challenge younger people to think very hard about the future they want, and to provide the means for them to develop these ideas and put them into practice.  As part of the new politics, this process cannot rely on the traditional media, and planning professionals must engage with younger generations on their terms. I would not be surprised if the vision(s) of the future developed by an empowered  younger generation turn out to be significantly different to those envisaged by those currently pulling the strings.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Custom splitting - a magic bullet?


The 3hrs and 40 mins sitting on the X5 bus between Oxford and Cambridge is an ideal opportunity to let the imagination roam free.  I wonder how many ideas dreamed up on this bus along the ‘knowledge spine’ have gone on to be developed through the academic powerhouses at either end? An argument against reducing the journey time?

My reason for the trip was a seminar on self and custom building being run by Three Dragons, a planning and economic consultancy.  There seemed to be general support and optimism that self and custom building would grow from the measly 7.7% of the approximately 150k new homes being built each year but that it would be stretch to get to the levels being experienced in most other countries.

Leading on from the previous Blog (Dan’s Housing Plan), it seemed logical to add  ‘custom splitting’ to custom building and finishing.  The 4.4mllion houses that the Intergenerational Foundation estimate could easily be subdivided (Unlocking England’s Hidden Homes) http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Unlocking-Englands-Hidden-Homes_Final.pdf represent a massive potential for people to create and fashion their own homes.  A ‘custom split’ could involve either or both the existing or prospective households in doing all or some of the work.  The cost to the newcomer would be significantly more than a bare or serviced plot but the cost of conversion would obviously be very much less than new build.  This would create the ideal opportunity for the whole building to have an energy refit (80% of existing dwellings will have to move from EPC D and below to A or B in the next 30 years) and there would be the potential for ‘downsizing in place’ in a form of equity release or even as renting the new dwelling(s).  Although a new small dwelling would be suitable for young households (largely missing from the self-build record),  all parts of the divided dwelling would be part of the HAPPI family of homes suitable for the elderly which the volume builders seem to be reluctant to provide.  Instead of dividing plots by building in gardens, custom splitting creates new  (smaller) dwellings while preserving the open space. Of course all larger dwellings should be built with a possible/likely future sub-division in mind.

While some of these benefits were already part of Dan’s Housing Plan,  self or custom splitting could be key.  This is because of the registers of potential self/custom builders being kept by local planning authorities given the responsibility to provide serviced plots to meet demand. The difficulty presented to LPAs in discharging this duty will lead to registers being hidden away, fees imposed and local qualifications being required; anything to dampen the interest and the chances of the registers fulfilling their purpose of raising the level of self/custom building to 20% of a larger number.  It should be relatively simple to ask those joining the register whether they would be interested in assisting with a custom split.  A register could also be kept of owners of larger properties who would be interested in having these divided (to include a green refurb) – whether or not they intend to stay.  LPAs should put policies in local plans encouraging sub-divisions that will make it easier to resist objections from neighbours afraid of losing on-street parking – a very small price to pay for a way of unlocking hidden homes.  This efficient use of the housing stock should also be incentivised with grants that could be paid back on completion of the works. A Local Development Order could make green custom splitting permitted development.
Custom splitting is a response to those who see planning and housing as an incoherent mess that frustrates progress.  This form of development is just one of a number of potential triggers of a potential virtuous circle that could create a large number of small (ie the right size) energy efficient homes with the minimum use of the scarce resources of land, materials and labour.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Dan's housing plan


At the risk of repeating and repeating myself I cannot resist pointing followers again to what I regard as the most important evidence/references for those involved in the debate or discussions about the supply of new houses in the UK.  I can see no reason to question the research lying behind these publications and would suggest that those intent on repeating and repeating the claim that there is a need for over 200,000 new dwellings a year temper this message unless and until they can identify evidence based flaws in the following.

According to ONS figures the number of homes in the UK which are measured as over-crowded is about 3%, while the percentage of those  with one and more often two or more spare bedrooms is over 75%.  Not all  bedrooms are ‘spare’ but at only one per dwelling that would amount to a surplus of over 20 million rooms, or the equivalent of 10 million 2 bedroomed dwellings which is 50 times the suggested annual need for 200,000 new dwellings. 

The Intergenerational Foundation’s 2016 report Unlocking England’s Hidden Homes reckons on 4.4 million dwellings being ripe for sub-division which enables ‘down-sizing in place’ and would provide the equivalent of 20 years supply of new homes in existing settlements, using existing infrastructure, providing more customers for existing pubs and bus services and without building on agricultural land. 

Incidentally many of these ‘new’ dwellings would sit within the HAPPI3 family of housing suitable for the elderly.  If all the new built dwellings that our resources )land, capital, materials and labour) would allow (say 300,000), this would not meet the need for attractive downsizing options for the over 65s, which will soon comprise half the population.  If the Government wants to expel the mostly young and productive migrants back to EU countries in ‘exchange’ for the 3 million elderly Britons currently living and using health services in Europe, then this date will come even faster.

Finally, the report by Oxford Economics (OE) commissioned as evidence for the Redfern Review into the decline in home ownership (and other work by Ian Mulheirn its author) explains why supply will never be sustainable (my word) until the “Objectively Assessed Need” for housing takes into account the separate markets for homes; the one to provide shelter (and creature comforts) and the other as a property investment.

Dan’s housing plan brings these 4 reports together with the objective of providing the third kind of housing not described by OE, the opportunity, indeed privilege that comes with a house or flat, of living in and becoming part of a neighbourhood.   This rather ambitious plan starts with humble beginnings. Development plans (local plans and neighbourhood plans) set out the policies which will require all new dwellings to be a maximum of 2.5 bedrooms (no more than 2 proper and one spare).  All will have a shower room on the ground floor (if more than two storeys).  Policies will encourage sub-divisions of existing stock subject to energy upgrades.  Details of the designs will ensure a variety of building types; but mostly terraced or arranged in apartment blocks (to maximise garden space and energy efficiency).  There will also be communal indoor and outdoor space managed by the housing association and/or management company of which the owners will be members.  This could include guest accommodation unless some of the larger dwellings were designed so that the ‘extra’ space was self-contained and easily lettable.  Neighbourhood coaches (initially employed by housing associations where the benefits could be measured (ie low/no repairs, low turnover, vacancies, arrears) could assist in building networks amongst the new and existing houses/neighbours.  Finally (check recent blog posts on air quality), private car ownership would be replaced by membership of car clubs providing access to a variety of Ultra Low Emission Vehicles powered from the PV on the roofs of all the buildings in the area.

This is an “either I’m mad or they are” moment, given the advantages of setting this course for housing policy and the likely failure of alternatives.