Manifesto for sustainable housing
The overriding objectives of the planning and housing portfolio should be to make the use of the existing and new national housing stock making it more – affordable, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable (taking into account measures of bio-diversity and carbon emissions arising from both construction and use).
Previous governments have taken the view that the remedies for the perceived failures of the planning system, including the provision of adequate housing, are to be found in changing the law or regulations. Most if not all of the necessary measures can be achieved through changes to policy. Such changes can be implemented very quickly and at little or no public expense. All the suggestions would ‘contribute to the achievement of sustainable development’ (a legal requirement of planning policy and control) and would benefit from the presumption in favour of sustainable development described in the NPPPF as the ‘golden thread’ running through both plan-making and decision-taking.
Using new development to re-balance the size of households and houses should be given priority over new settlements which are likely to increase rather than address this need (as they would incorporate a level of under-occupancy that would then need to be addressed). New settlements also imply a high cost of infrastructure provision (ie a 50% premium over urban expansion) and would are unlikely to make better use of existing physical and social infrastructure.
In whichever way under-occupancy is measured (averaging over 1 spare reception room, 1 and more often 2 or more spare bedrooms – amounting to about 15million spare bedrooms or the equivalent of nearly 30 years supply of new dwellings at 250,00 per year), increasing the efficiency and sustainability of the housing stock would appear to be the most pressing issue to be addressed by the new Government. The ‘bedroom tax’ was introduced to address this issue in the social rented sector but under-occupation is more prevalent in privately owned and occupied housing and particularly by elderly households. The levels of privately owned empty properties and second homes are also unsustainable.
– to extend the council tax bands to cover the mostly larger dwellings that have become disproportionately more valuable since the tax bands were established in 1991 as an incentive to downsize. Remove the 25% discount for single person households and double council tax for both empty and second homes (an appeal process for special cases will require new regulations).
- the ‘bedroom tax’ regulations should be repealed. The problem of under-occupancy in the social rental sector should be addressed in the same way as in the private sector, through the provision of more smaller dwellings; affordable (including running costs) and conveniently located through either new build or conversions/sub-divisions.
- a commission should be established to look at the potential of a land value tax to possibly supersede the council tax (and business rates).
- through a revision the NPPF should require special justification for new dwellings of more than two bedrooms – suitable for both downsizers (that should include some with relatively large gardens) and new households.
- the NPF should be revised o require any dwellings of more than two bedrooms to be designed so as to be easily and cheaply re-configured to form two smaller dwellings (a condition on the original permission could permit this sub-division without further application - a provision that might require an amendment to the General Permitted Development Order - GPDO). Grants could be made available to pay for sub-divisions.
- the NPPF should be revised to support conditions being applied on planning permissions for new dwellings requiring planning permission to be obtained for extensions that would reduce the supply of smaller (more affordable and more energy efficient) dwellings.
- the GPDO should be changed to reduce the scale of extensions that could be built without express permission that would make housing larger, less affordable and less energy efficient. Express permission and special justification should be required for significant extensions and all at two storey extensions – with support for extensions that would enable sub-division to smaller dwellings.
- the Right to Buy should be repealed together with substantial improvements in the law/regulations applicable to the social and private rental sectors in terms of security, and control over rent increases. A ‘right to stay’ should apply to those defaulting on payments who have exercised the ‘right to buy’ – possibly through an equity release to a registered provider.
- both Help to Buy and Funding for Lending should be repealed
- the criminalisation of squatting should be repealed
2. Energy efficiency and reduction of greenhouse gases
Under-occupancy is a substantial driver of carbon emissions; inefficient use of building materials, wasted space heating and, by lower population density reduces the level of use and viability of local services, including public transport. The difficulty that transport, energy production, manufacturing, agriculture and leisure sectors will experience in reducing their GHG emissions quickly and in accordance with the Climate Change Act/Carbon budgets and 2011 Carbon Plan, places an additional burden on buildings (including housing) where the technologies are available to reduce emissions to below zero (becoming net producers of low/zero carbon energy).
- the confusion about the status of the Code for Sustainable Homes – currently being addressed by the Building Research Establishment - places the onus on local planning authorities to find ways through the development plan system to prevent/refuse permission for development that does not benefit from the NPPF ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. The Government should continue to rely on the planning system to make good the deficiencies in the Building Regulations in this respect; water conservation/consumption, low carbon generation/allowable solutions, bio-diversity protection, creation and off-setting, post-occupancy evaluation and remediation.
- it should be made a condition of all ‘permitted development’ that the dwelling house as altered/extended should meet CSH Level 4 or an equivalent standard (previously described as ‘consequential improvements’ when proposed by the Coalition Government).
- it should be a pre-condition of sale or lease that a dwelling comes up to a minimum standard (eg CSH Level 5) – with an appeal procedure that can substitute ‘allowable solutions’.
- the NPPF should explain why special justification should be required for new housing that is not terraced and with a southern aspect.
3. Housing supply
The significant control and influence that a few large building firms have exerted over the supply of new housing suggests that a major reform to the supply of land for housing is required. There are indications that this country (compared to examples in Europe) is short of opportunities for self/custom building by individuals or groups. There is an even greater shortage of opportunities for co-housing – the most affordable, efficient, socially inclusive and, therefore, sustainable form of housing.
Housing in the countryside is an important component of producing, processing and distributing ‘local food’. The supply of dwellings for which the occupancy was restricted to those employed in agriculture has been depleted with the reduction of those employed on the land.
- both co-housing and categories of self/custom-building need to be defined in the NPPF and then privileged by housing policies at national (eg NPPF and Planning Policy Wales) and local levels. This should be done by requiring a proportion of all housing allocations and permissions to be reserved for co-housing and self/custom-building.
- the NPPF should be amended to include co-housing and self-building (probably not custom building) in the category of ‘affordable housing’ within the quotas being required by development plan policies (like affordable housing, self-building is already exempt council tax).
- To reverse the loss of agricultural dwellings the NPPF should support local policies requiring one or two dwellings on developments on the urban/village fringe to subject an ‘ag-tag’ and be part of the affordable housing requirement (see previous blogs on planning and local food).