Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Reviewing the Bacon Review

The review of custom and self-building (CSB) carried out for the PM by Richard Bacon MP has just been published.   After 100 pages it recommends Homes England be given a greater role, more publicity including CSB show parks,  support for community-led housing, realizing potential of MMC, getting  support from the new planning framework and Act and ironing out creases with the tax regime.  Not much to object to but why does it take 5 years to expose the abject failure to implement the 2016 Housing and Planning Act? 


Unfortunately Richard Bacon blames a conspiracy between the volume builders and the planners instead of the real culprit being the Government and the Secretary of State who cannot face the fact that the planning system could and still can get this show on the road.  The slagging off of the existing planning system and the support for Planning for the Future (by a Tory MP) fails to identify the main reason why the planners are such an easy target; the contradictory and/or inadequate advice provided by governments (eg Secs of State) who fail to or are ideologically opposed to understanding the potential of regulations.

If LPAs had been properly equipped with strong and consistent advice on CSB since 2016 the last 5 years and counting would not have been wasted, nor would this report or speculative recommendations be needed.  Even now, a clearly worded Written Ministerial Statement from Mr Jenrick could have immediate benefits. 


A minority of the public say that they would choose a new home but, I am afraid to say that about 80% of those that do, claim that they are happy with their choice.

The economic consultants to the report  concede that the energy efficiency standards of new building will improve so that the differential between the volume builder and the self/custom builder will narrow. In fact the gap must close to a net zero standard of construction and operational carbon if carbon reduction budgets are to be met. It seems unlikely that
the recommendations will result in CSB becoming  any less  focused on detached houses and enabled to promote terraced houses and apartments that will required for new housing to meet carbon reduction budgets.   There is no mention of the imperative to "retrofit first".

The need for residential sub-divisions, so that the insulation and heating of about 50% of our residential space and fabric is not wasted is not mentioned. It would have been really interesting to see an economic analysis (inc social welfare) of custom splitting.


It is hard not to see Richard Bacon as part of the failure to deliver on the 2016 Act and his criticism of the planning system suggest a significant lack of understanding of how it could and should be enabled to deal with this and other aspects of meeting housing needs.  My advice is to take some of the data from the report to persuade your LPA that it should be supporting CSB, but in the form of residential sub-divisions and custom-splitting. Given the climate emergency I am not inclined to be supporting hundreds of thousands of new builds however delivered.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Planning can address the climate emergency

Big claim for what might seem to be a small gain but this extract from a planning appeal file:///Users/danielscharf/Downloads/Appeal%20decision%203269526.pdf "Para 72.The S106 would ensure the implementation of a travel plan that would seek to encourage sustainable transport modes via initiatives such as residential information packs (including vouchers towards cycling and bus/rail travel) and car sharing. The S106 would also make provision for an electric car club to operate from within the site. 73.Based on the above measures, the development would satisfactorily promote a range of sustainable transport modes. This would help to address concerns regarding air pollution and the climate emergency. Therefore, it would accord with LP Policies CN9 and EM1... ". This is very significant.

In granting the permission the offer of an 'electric car club' is said by the inspector to carry limited weight as it comprised one parking space for the 110 dwellings. However,  the inclusion of the obligation to provide the EV car club would probably have been deleted as unnecessary were the inspector to have given it no weight.   Local planners should get a grip of the electrification of the road transport system.  Developers should be required to provide more cars and spaces to attract greater weight in decision-taking.

The real significance of the decision is the reference to the 'climate emergency'  - the first time I have seen this referenced in an appeal decision. As a material consideration this is an invitation for the public to provide evidence to decision-takers, both; LPAs and inspectors/Secretary of State, that accords with the emergency situation eg net zero long before 2050 and Cornwall are looking at 2030 This should not be limited to electric car clubs but to the carbon emitted in the building and operation of the houses.

If the climate (and ecological) emergency  is a material consideration, then it is unlawful not to take it into account for all developments implying carbon emissions (and biodiversity loss).  It might also be unlawful to make inadequate provisions for addressing the emergency.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Abject failure to deliver on self-building


The Right to Build Taskforce is trying to draw attention to hopeless state of self and custom building in the UK.   The New Self-Build Data Release І4 August 2021 issued by the MHCLG reveals the failure of Government to achieve anything close to what it has said it would like this sector to contribute to new housing supply and shows that a large proportion of councils are in breach of their legal obligations in terms of permissions for serviced plots available for self/custom builders on the statutory registers, and a fraction of the opportunities that NaCSBA say is the real demand.


The Task Force has assessed a large number of “general support” policies in local plans and find that they are of limited use in decision-making.  “Allocations, exceptions, percent policies and criteria based support for community-led and collective infill and exceptions are the most robust policies for providing an responsive land supply for self-build.” Any qualified planner working in development control/management would have known that this would be the case.


Richard Bacon MP should take credit for the current state of the law (ie the duty to permit serviced plots commensurate to the demand on registers), but has now become complicit in the failure to deliver in accordance with the legal duties.  Neither he nor NaCSBA (or the Right to Build Task Force) have ever been prepared to support custom-splitting as a way of increasing supply of opportunities for people to create their own homes, equivalent to a serviced plot but generally within existing built-up areas with existing facilities. New dwellings would be created with minimal levels of 'construction carbon'.  This would be a means of enabling the space and fabric of existing houses being heated and insulated to meet housing needs.  It will be interesting to see whether the Bacon Review to be published in the next few weeks has anything new to say on what is a sorry state of affairs.


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Special housing needs override planning constraints

Although planning decisions do not operate as ‘precedents’ in a legal sense, the views of an inspector or Secretary of State in deciding one appeal can influence how a decision is taken on another application or appeal. The law does expect a level of consistency and requires adequate and intelligible reasons to be given for a departure from a decision on the same site for a comparable development (ie material change in circumstances).


In a recent appeal an inspector allowed an extra care development in an AONB, on grounds that there was “hardly any market extra care housing in the district” and “the stark fact is that choice is not available”. In applying the test at NPPF paragraph 172, which requires “exceptional circumstances” to justify major development in AONBs, the inspector commented that he was “in no doubt that the development... is needed”, and that this need could not be met elsewhere or in any other way. Readers of this blog would be very aware that custom-splitting represents an alternative way to meet some of the housing needs of the elderly but this has not established ‘proof of concept’ or become recognized in the planning arena.


Expert evidence given to the inquiry and relied on by the inspector was that, “…the need to provide housing for older people is critical. People are living longer and the proportion of older people in the population is increasing. In mid-2016 there were 1.6 million people aged 85 and over; by mid-2041 this is projected to double to 3.2 million. Offering older people a better choice of accommodation to suit their changing needs can help them live independently for longer, feel more connected to their communities and help reduce costs to the social care and health systems. Therefore, an understanding of how the ageing population affects housing needs is something to be considered from the early stages of plan-making through to decision-taking.”


That is ammunition for those promoting housing for the elderly (inc custom-splitting), but another lesson to be drawn from this appeal is that self and custom-building, another special case, has been identified by the Government as a form of housing that requires support from planning authorities; keeping statutory registers and then approving serviced plots targeted at that level of demand.  The failure to do so could justify developments  for self/custom – builders in areas where ‘exceptional circumstances’ need to be shown ie AONBs or where there is some landscape impact. I hesitate to say that Green Belt sites would be approved locally or at appeal due to political sensitivities.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Has Policy Exchange damaged the Government?

 This is a letter on the online version of the Guardian 21 June. 

"Having worked as a town planner for over 40 years it is thrilling to
see my profession in the middle of a debate about the future of the
country (Is this by-election a watershed moment?19 June). The
background to the Planning Bill is a White Paper written by a recruit
to No10 from Policy Exchange. And Policy Exchange fielded another of
their analysts in the aftermath of the Chesham by-election to blame
the voters' for misunderstanding the forthcoming changes to the
planning system.

It would be truer to say that as the think tank, Mr Jenrick, the Prime
Minister and the White Paper have all avoided the real problems with
providing decent, energy efficient and affordable homes their
'remedies' were never going to work in either the north or south of
the country. The LibDems should follow their election win by
explaining how they would deal with inflated prices of building land,
construction carbon, cold and leaky houses/flats and unsustainable
levels of under-occupation." 

I have to say that I am a little bit pleased to see how Policy Exchange has seen their plans backfire so spectacularly.  Whether or not the Chesham voters had read and understood the White Paper, the label of "developers' charter" is likely to stick. Bleating that the purpose would be to "build beautiful" (Policy Exchange), and to "increase supply" (the PM) does not alter the impression that this ideological and badly framed change to the planning system is primarily designed to help the Tory supporting development fraternity. The (too) cozy relationship between Policy Exchange and Government might also be punctured.

There are some good intentions in the White Paper but these are largely irrelevant or harmful to the climate and ecological emergency. Any changes to the system should be vigorously resisted until they deal with, "...inflated prices of building land, construction carbon, cold and leaky houses/flats and unsustainable levels of under-occupation."

Saturday, May 29, 2021

A downsizing story; one of 5million?

There are differing estimates of the number of households looking to downsize - up to as many as 8million (HAPPI 2016).  This is treated as a private matter that can be observed but no intrusion from policymakers is appropriate. An alternative view, and one that is shared by Lord Best, is that interference is justified as meeting the housing needs of the elderly could be the most efficient way of meeting the needs of younger households. Downsizing or rightsizing is a way of reducing under-occupation, reducing the need/demand for new building and meeting housing needs within carbon budgets.


Living in an ‘empty nest’ of 4 bedrooms and 2200sq ft village property for the last 10 years I have recently been one of the 50% of households registered with estate agents looking for a suitable smaller property in the nearby town.  The thinking was to live closer to more daily amenities. Having found a buyer after two years of marketing through Brexit and Covid we had to choose between the suitable houses then available.  The choice was a three bedroomed semi -detached house of about 1600 sq ft with a decent garden.


I grew up in a 4 bedroomed semi of about 1200 sq ft and the 30% increase seems to be the same process that has seen the Austin Mini ‘bloated’ into the BMW version. The 1960s versions do the same job as the 2000 version but the materials, weight  and space have increased.  We have given up a guest room with en-suite, a 4th bedroom, an en-suite and a large conservatory. But we still have two studies with potential for guests, a lounge with sunroom, and a kitchen diner large enough for the selling agents to call a ‘lifestyle room’ and for us to call a MUGA having had the grandchildren to stay.  We have traded a £400 profit on gas and electricity (based on 2kW of PV and 1 sq m of solar thermal) for a bill of £6000 for installing less PV and no feed-in-tariff.  In the very similar house next door there are two adults, 4 children, a dog, cat and chickens (the latter in the garden).  Both adults have hobbies and businesses.  The question hangs over our move, of why we still occupy twice what could comfortably meet our needs.


1.     There is only so much stuff that can be disposed off in one go (even though the next move could be many years away).

2.     Children and grandchildren might want to stay (ie <10 days out of 365).

3.     Where would be put the balance of funds. Our move only produced £30,000 surplus but a smaller purchase could have produced 5 times that.


Whilst our credibility has been improved in the downsizing debate with the very many families who have not moved since children have flown, there are many unanswered questions that should be addressed by policy-makers in the transition to creating a carbon negative housing sector.  Having outlined just one example of downsizing (the extreme stress and unavoidable costs of buying and selling have been omitted) the only suggestion I have to make in this blog post is to train up professionals to advise on all aspects of this process.  Almost by definition these moves are undertaken by people in their later years and the extent of handholding that could smooth the process cannot be over–estimated.  For the fees being charged by estate agents they could, if adequately trained,  offer a much more ‘inclusive’ service to address the myriad issues incidental to the actual property transfer.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Lowering the speed limit is only a matter of time

I have just received a reply from the Department of Transport to my FOI request about the work that is being done on the impact of the national speed limits and possible changes there to. By coincidence, the Guardian also today published my letter on smart motorways and speed limits.


It is true that most if not all the necessary research has been carried out to show that a 50 or 60mph limit would substantially reduce carbon emissions from road transport (currently  dominated by ICEs) as well as trigger a modal shift to bus/train and now, crucially, to EVs. One piece of research that might be useful is how a 50mph limit could allow the narrowing of M-way lanes to allow the hard shoulder to be retained, and change the nature of smart motorways.


The DfT point to pilots where the speed limit has been reduced to 60mph to reduce NOX.  In fact Highways England has sent me research to show that NOX increases at lower speeds!? The DfT also refers to the suggestion, now dropped,  that the limit should be increased to 80mph.


The encouragement to be gained from this DfT ‘blind spot’ is that this is not a case where the ministry has been looking at the role of speed and has decided to carry on with the 70mph (unenforced) limit.  This is a case where the need to reduce the speed limit will become overwhelming as a means of managing the distribution and use of renewable (ie low carbon) electricity.  It seems unlikely that Government will prioritise personal transport over the heating of homes with heat pumps and the manufacturing of heat pumps, EVs/batteries and houses through Modern Methods of Construction. 


Making a virtue out of the necessary lowering of the speed limit the Government could take credit for reducing  the burden on the NHS as accidents become fewer and less severe, families suffer less trauma, public transport becomes relatively more attractive (coaches could safely continue at 60mph plus), lessening the  noise from engines and tyres, showing that no new road space would be needed as congestion would be reduced, and commuting journeys would be shortened to match the perceived increase in drive time (ie the constant time budget).