Thursday, February 27, 2014

Permission Impossible

Just a brief word about the programme on BBC2 about the planning system.  The law did not change with the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework. This was a compression or distillation of national planning guidance and was not intended to change very much if anything.  The exception was the introduction of a presumption in favour of sustainable development.

One would have thought, as this was the most important change (and a 'presumption' does raise some interesting legal questions in the balancing exercise through which decisions are made.  It could be argued that the presumption requires more weight to be given to the achievement of sustainable development (as a material consideration) than to the policies of the development plan. Not only is this consistent with the normal meaning of the word 'presumption' but all development plans should be contributing to the achievement of sustainable development and those which aren't should be considered out of date and/or non-compliant with Government policy.

I have not heard the expression sustainable development mentioned on the TV programme but maybe the excitement is being stored up? Another concept that the BBC does not seem to regard as worthy of investigation is the level of under-occupation being 'enjoyed' by the objectors to new housing estates.  Most if not all of the house types being shown seem to be family housing that is more affordable to those who no longer have families and should be more accurately described as 'pension-pot' housing.  It also seems that most if not all objectors are close to if not past retirement age when concern is increasing about the size of their pension pot.  I hope in future episodes that the BBC asks objectors about their own circumstances (about 75% of houses in rural and suburban areas have at least one and more often two or more spare bedrooms) other than the enjoyment and value of the view from their patio.  I would also like to hear the views of the under 35s.

Finally I would like to hear the professionals analysing the sustainability of the various developments and advising committee whether they should benefit from the presumption in the Framework.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Housing the elderly

I am sure that I have discussed this in different ways in previous posts but many of these points bear repeating.  The 'elderly' do not form one homogenous group and I might be accused of making unhelpful generalisations in what I am suggesting should be part of housing strategies around the country.  I noticed a headline that loneliness was responsible for more premature deaths than the winter cold. That is clearly a sign of social malaise that goes with the figures of elderly who are afraid to go out for fear of falling.

What I hear is that sheltered housing is losing popularity, and extra-care is affordable to very few. I also heard a spokesman for the elderly say that housing should be provided that is suitable for but not dedicated to the elderly. Many do not want to live just with the elderly and feel institutionalised. Downsizing should be made desirable and not when it is unavoidable. In fact small (ie two bed) dwellings would also be more affordable for new households.

Given that there is an unsustainable level of under-occupation in the suburban and rural areas where about 80% of us live most if not all new housing should be aimed at re-balancing the size of houses and households. Whilst new households might be moving from  accommodation with parents of housemates and have relatively few personal possessions, the elderly downsizing from large houses face the problem of what to keep and what to part with. A bigger problem is what to do with the spare cash.

DanthePlan's response to all these issues is co-housing.  The incidental companionship intrinsic to co-housing would reduce the incidence of loneliness (for young and old).  The common house and other shared spaces would allow those downsizing to contribute furniture, games, musical instruments, garden equipment, books recorded music etc.   If, for instance, the downsizing individual or couple were selling a 4 bedroomed house for £500k and investing £250k in their new co-housing unit, the balance could also be invested in a similar unit that could then be rented out and the tenants could pay rent and staircase to provide an income to the holders of the equity in that unit or the scheme as a whole.  If a greater amount of sharing is an inevitable consequence of increasingly scarce and more expensive resources (ie sharing might soon be the only way that many young people will be able to afford to drive or have a garden or have access to a piano ) then would it not be sensible for planners to facilitate this trend.  Small terraced housing (with a southern aspect) should become the standard housing model with a common house and shared garden areas.  Housing associations might need to take the lead for this to be delivered at scale.  There might be some limited scope for some new towns (garden cities?) but the emphasis should be to concentrate the scarce resource of new housing on socialising existing settlements. Planners should also be supportive of developments (subdivision of properties and building of or conversions to commonhouses) in existing built up areas.

I would end by saying that the development and then mimicry of co-housing schemes cannot happen fast enough for a commissioner of health services for the elderly.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Town and Country Planning Association

 After an absence of many years I have just renewed my  membership  of the TCPA  hoping that this august organisation will prove more conducive to my thoughts about the current state of the planning system. However, the TCPA  is grounded in the garden cities movement and, not surprisingly, feels that the political climate (reflecting concerns on the quantitative shortage of housing) is looking at the prospect of building new settlements.  this position is not very far removed from that of the Royal Town Planning Institute that has  recently produced  its document on Large Scale Housing.  Readers of my blog will know that my strong preference is to use new housing as a driver of change in existing settlements; primarily balancing the size of housing with the size of households.    I also believe that in terms of scale, building onto existing settlements and meeting the housing needs would be a quicker way of meeting the quantitative shortage of suitable housing.  I am very unconvinced by the argument that NIMBYs are responsible for preventing this form of growth. The problem is that developers are not responding to the real housing needs of the individual settlements and bolting on discredited forms of suburban sprawl.

On 29 January I braved the elements and went to the TCPA conference on “The economic impact of housing".    I thought I would share a couple of comments made by the consultant responsible for the building of a new settlement (in Scotland). My impression from the presentation was that emphasis was being given to the  appearance of the buildings and spaces  (a matter on which  the planner said that our profession should be generally  ashamed in contrast to the last RTPI President  call to be  “proud of planning").  This was somewhat ironic, given that I believe his consultancy was associated  elsewhere with the development described by the current planning Minister as one of the worst he has ever seen! Whilst it would be stupid of me to be critical of designs of buildings and spaces that looked very attractive and appealed to my sense of aesthetic, I was keen to drill down into the  other ways in which this new housing differed from what  has been built across the country in the last 60 years. The response to my question about self-build/finish and co-housing was that no provision had yet been made for these “slightly alternative" forms of housing. Given the extraordinary level of control over this  new settlement (predominantly in the ownership of  one enlightened landlord) it seems to me that this is precisely the kind of opportunity for moving alternative forms of development into the mainstream -  if not there, then where?

The previous week I had the pleasure of meeting a senior NHS manager with responsibility for  commissioning care for the elderly and the county council officer with similar responsibilities. It was deeply depressing to find such significant support for cohousing from people in senior positions who are having such difficulty in finding any form of purchase or acceptance within the planning system. I have produced a Viewpoint for Housing LIN  (an organisation dedicated to the issue of housing for the elderly) where the necessary reforms to the planning system are described.

So coming back to the TCPA,  I look forward to the next 12 months to see whether  it can  objectively  re-examine the housing needs and consider  how these could be met without necessarily being married to the concept of garden cities that is such a significant part of the organisation's heritage.