Friday, January 30, 2015

Policies to privilege self-building and co-housing

I would not pretend to be an expert in the drafting of development plan policies but I have spent a career in applying policies and interpreting them as an expert planning witness  in the context of public inquiries.  The following was written in response to a request from a Neighbourhood Forum wanting to promote self-building and co-housing.  The former is receiving Government support and has many synergies with the latter and, incidentally,  with Community Land Trusts.

"Self/group-building and cohousing

The NDP recognises the important advantages that can arise from self/group-building and cohousing, particularly in terms of their sustainability; affordability, environmental  and social benefits. The 'golden thread' of sustainable development should run through the NDP, and co--housing and self/group building exemplify important elements of sustainability such that, in contrast to other forms of housing, either or a combination of the two would benefit from the ‘presumption’ in the Framework in favour of sustainable development. Experience shows that self/group building and cohousing are unlikely to occur within the Neighbourhood Plan Area without positive support and privileging.

1.         The Neighbourhood Forum will keep registers of those interested in self/group building and co-housing. Details in the register will include the nature of the household, the interest in renting or buying, the timescale of any prospective move, and the skills and time resources available to be applied to the project.

2.         On all sites suitable for 5 or more dwellings, 20% of the land shall be  reserved and made available to those wanting to self/group build.

3.         On all sites suitable for 20 or more dwellings, a suitable area of the site for  at least that number of units shall be reserved and made available to those wanting to  co-house.

4.         The area being used for co-housing and/or self/group building shall, subject to the resources being invested (see para xx below) be counted as part of the affordable housing quota required by the NDP/Local Plan.

For the application of the above policies reference to “suitable" shall mean that the site could, at 30 dwellings per hectare, accommodate the number of units indicated. Reference to “reserved and made available" shall mean that those wanting to self/group-build and/or co-house (whether or not on the Registers being kept by the Neighbourhood Forum), shall be given the opportunity to express and confirm their interest. The value of the relevant land and the nature of the interest shall, in cases of dispute, be subject to expert arbitration (e.g. RICS appointee). The period of the “reservation" will depend on the size of the site but, in no case will it be less than a period of 6 months  from the grant of outline or full permission, during which general purpose housing on that part of the site will not be allowed to commence.  In the case of a full permission there might well be a need for a further application (to be made at the expense of those wishing to self/group build and/or co-house).

In cases of self/group building the value of the work being provided by the builder/occupier or group will be assessed. If this amounts to more than (say) 50% these units shall qualify for part of the affordable housing quota required in accordance with the NDP/Local Plan."

I see that the original note made no mention of the unsustainable level of under-occupation (the subject of the previous post) that could be addressed through co-housing.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Under-occupation again

I don't think that the problem with the various forms of under-occupation can be over-stated.  While the talk is about the need to build 250,000 new dwellings per year (while carbon from housing has to be reduced by between 6% and 10% per year?!) there is very little said about the scale of under-occupation.  I would qualify that with the publicity being given to the empty/second home issue in London where a significant number of dwellings are owned by people who live in London for the weather! warmer for Russians in Winter and cooler for those from the Middle East in summer and for its culture and relative safety.  But is it true that shops and schools are closing for lack of custom due to the lack of permanent residents  - as is the case in other parts of the UK where second/holiday homes are vacant for large parts of the year.

"Notwithstanding estimates of over 700,000 empty homes ie about 3 years supply of new housing, the greatest potential is to balance the size of households and housing in the existing stock of about 26 million dwellings.  Provoked by a planning application for 70 houses on my doorstep where less than a third would be 2 bedroomed (and all for social rent or equity shared) the following letter was sent to the paper. There was no reaction in the following week's paper.

Should we be concerned that five of the applications for residential development reported in the Abingdon Herald (7 January) and Oxford Times (8 January) propose a preponderance of larger houses? Consultants for the Vale of White Horse District Council advised that 97% of new dwellings would need to be one or two bedroomed to rebalance the size of households and housing.  The average household size is around 2.3 people, and decreasing.  Over75% of dwellings in Oxfordshire have one, and more often two or more spare bedrooms.  And nationally, the spare capacity in the existing housing stock of about 26m dwellings is the equivalent of building 250,000 new 2 bedroomed homes for the next 80 years.

For many reasons, we are not all going to immediately “right-size” into a house to fit our family circumstances. However, these current planning applications show the intention of housebuilders to provide a majority (ie about 60%) of three and more often four bedroomed houses (and 3 parking spaces/dwelling!).  That the smaller dwellings are mostly for rent suggests that larger houses are being provided for reasons other than meeting ‘objectively assessed housing need’, as is intended by Government.   If, however, a large number of attractive smaller dwellings (some with generous gardens) were provided, a significant number of large dwellings vacated by downsizers would become available.

The recent Parliamentary Select Committee enquiry into the working of the National Planning Policy Framework  found that interpretations of ‘sustainable development’ had been inconsistent and  unsatisfactory.   Making efficient use of the housing stock will become more urgent as other sectors; power generation, industry, transport and agriculture, fail to meet statutory carbon reduction targets.  Planners must insist that new housing contributes to the achievement of sustainable development (inc 6% carbon reductions/annum) while residential development and employment in the County is planned to grow at 2.5%."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Symposium on Sustainability

SoS was an idea which grew out of Green Drinks where people wanted more focused discussions and aiming for some kind of output.  We (slightly changing groups of about ten people) have met 4 times to discuss the format, flooding, Zero Carbon Britain, and a response to the Oxford City Council draft Housing Strategy.  One member prepares a paper which is then discussed for about 2 hours and the paper is amended to reflect that discussion (possibly involving conversations with others) before being submitted in the case of a consultation or filed as part of the SoS archive.  The discussions are non-attributable to enable those with academic reputations, affiliations or employment concerns to protect are free to voice their opinions. At the risk of making this Blog too long, I attach the paper sent to the Council that includes some ideas of what sustainable housing might look like.

Draft Housing Strategy 2015 – 2018

Response from Symposium on Sustainability – Oxford

SoS –Oxford is a group of people with a deep interest and no little understanding of the principles and practice of sustainability.  It produces briefing papers and responses to consultations that are intended to assist those involved in formulating policy and taking decision in areas impacting on the economy, society and the environment. The purpose of SoS is to analyse a subject in order to provide ideas and recommendations based on good evidence. Not all the proposals would be agreed by all participants of the symposium and papers might not be fully consistent or comprehensive. 

1          Comments on the Draft Strategy

There is no evidence in this document that the Council has any or sufficient recognition that the normal ways of delivering houses will do anything but perpetuate the existing problems of scarcity,  unaffordability and unsocial housing.

Oxford will not meet its claim or aspiration to be a ‘World class city’ for ‘everyone’, if it does not follow the many international (and few domestic)  examples of forms of housing that can be seen to be more sustainable in terms of affordability (in provision and operation), sociability and environmental impact.

In the ‘Foreword‘  to the Strategy there is nothing new to address the existing imbalance of the size of households and houses which is a major cause of  unsustainable levels of under-occupancy.  The ‘housing offer’ described in the Strategy aims to attract households as part of the ‘delivery of innovation-led growth’, but includes no equivalent innovation in terms of housing delivery.

There is no substance behind the priority to ‘support sustainable communities’.

Extra Care Homes are regarded as the necessary response to the perceived need to increase housing for the elderly.   The Council should be looking to build housing ‘suitable’ for the elderly but not specifically for them.  Care has to be carried out in the community – a cliché, but one with a substantial truth[1] that housing has to be designed to facilitate care, as the formal systems will be generally unaffordable.  This is reflected in the current problems being experienced in hospitals being unable to discharge (mostly) elderly patients into a caring home environment.

Discussion with health providers should have identified the important role that co-housing could play in wellbeing  - one form of housing suitable for but not exclusive to the elderly.

‘Increase housing choice for households on average incomes’, should have identified the areas which are under-provided eg self-building and co-housing that could be relatively affordable.  Many councils are keeping registers of potential self-builders that could sensibly include potential co-housers.

2          What are the factors that influence the sustainability of housing?


Shortage - not enough units or space to meet demand

Under-occupation - 75% of dwellings have one and more often two or more spare bedrooms.

Energy efficiency – housing accounts for about 20% of existing GHG emissions and will have to get to zero or below by 2050.

Affordability – measures should address the price of land for housing and both prices to sale (currently about twelve times average salaries) and rent levels (that are unaffordable at 60% or 80% of current open market levels) should also be brought down.  Affordability includes running costs as well as purchase price and/rent.

Anti-social Housing - housing has been designed to pander to privacy and has made neighbourly contact unnecessarily difficult.

Accessibility - housing should be well connected to work and facilities/services without depending on the car

3          Recommendations

Although this is a consultation on ‘Housing’, as has happened in Westminster, the planning and housing briefs have been combined because there is no sensible separation of responsibilities when looking for ways of making the new and existing housing stock more sustainable.

Shortage  & under-occupation - make better use of existing housing stock by encouraging right-sizing within Lifetime Neighbourhoods, and explore potential for sub-division of over-large houses.  Lifetime Neighbourhoods are designed to provide a mix of dwelling sizes and types within an area so that choice is no longer a constraint on being able to move a short distance within an area to maintain economic ands social links.  This principle should be given precedence over Lifetime Homes that are designed to encourage aging in a dwelling that might be larger than required to meet housing need. 

Empty homes (300 to 400 in the City) and second homes (>1000) are another form of under-occupation that should be addressed.  If these levels can’t be reduced then tax measures should be considered so that local areas do not suffer from the reduction in available housing and the lack of demand for local services. The shortage of housing of the right type and size is so critical in the City that the potential of compulsory purchase powers should be evaluated and used or threatened where the public objective would be to provide more sustainable housing.

Down-sizing  To enable this specific part of right-sizing applicable to older smaller households in large dwellings, new housing should be predominantly small units, but with scope to share space and have some with generous gardens.  Some older households would be more willing to down-size if there was space to keep and possibly share books, tools, furniture, guest accommodation etc as in co-housing.  This process is so fundamental to achieving a better and more sustainable balance between the sizes of household and housing, that it could prove a good investment to appoint a facilitator or enabler looking at the physical conditions and availability of smaller and larger houses, their locations, investment issues (what to do with any equity released?), family circumstances, health issues, the particular issues surrounding flats, parking and gardens etc

New building - Self-building and/or finishing could increase supply with Government wanting this to exceed historic levels of about 10%.  This form of housing conflates supply and demand and provides opportunities for building skills and communities.  It can also result in relatively affordable housing  which could be acknowledged in planning policy and quotas of affordable housing.   Involvement in self-building could include some of those least able to house themselves in the conventional ways. There might be partners in the City able to assemble groups of people with, or prepared to learn, the necessary energy and/or skills.

The Council is concerned about the number of 2 bedroomed flats being built and the small number of 3 and even 4 bedroomed houses.  However, this might not be a problem if moves to the 2 bedroomed flats are releasing larger dwellings? This would be more likely if the Council addressed all the issues implied by downsizing and the small dwellings were designed accordingly.

The Council should continue to press the neighboring districts to cooperate in the supply of housing land (inc possibility of Green Belt land and potential urban extensions).   At the same time the Council could take note of the initiatives being taken by Cherwell DC in respect of self-building and community land trusts.

The Council should, and encourage others, to be transparent in terms of land ownership and opportunities to build, so that access is increased to people and organisations currently being excluded from the systems of housing and land supply. This transparency should be extended, through open-book accounting to all building projects to ensure that all new schemes are providing the necessary affordable housing and sustainable infrastructure.

The Council should actively consider building more houses, but only along sustainable lines (see these SoS recommendations).

Anti-social housing – for too long traditional housing models have pandered to privacy (and resulting loneliness).  New housing should be predominantly terraced to facilitate informal neighbourly inter-action. While other forms of housing (eg flats) might be similarly thermally efficient, terraced houses might have the greatest potential to engender neighbourliness.  Purpose-built co-housing would be intentionally neighbourly and designed to be companionable.  The Council might see that, in Oxford, there are models of congenial collegiate housing/living around courts or quadrangles that could be extended into housing outside the academic community. 

There does not seem to be any place for detached (or even semi-detached) housing in the supply of new social and sustainable housing.

Energy efficiency - all new residential development must be zero carbon or preferably carbon negative. This implies predominantly but not exclusively south facing terraced housing (to reduce the proportion of external walls) with the main emphasis on the fabric/airtightness that will not be amenable to upgrading at a later date, and with the potential to be equipped with the most efficient PV and solar thermal panels. If Oxford wants to be an exemplar, it should be noted that there are already Passivhaus regions (standards 3x higher than the proposed UK zero carbon standard for 2016) with an estimate of minimal extra cost over traditional build.  Energy efficiency has been embraced by many co-housing groups as a shared ethic and could be more energy efficient in construction and use.

The existing housing stock will be the greatest challenge in terms of energy efficiency and the Council should explore methods of deep green retrofits for its own housing and have effective policies in its development plans to ensure upgrading of existing properties when applications are received for alterations and extensions (eg see Merton Rule or potential of  upgrading existing buildings as an ‘allowable solution’ for zero carbon houses).

Water – covered by the Code for Sustainable Homes (being wound down), but not adequately by the Building Regulations, is very important in a city where flooding is becoming an increasingly heavy cost to residents and businesses.   All new developments should be maximizing the on-site drainage to minimse the scale and speed of any run-off.

Affordability – The Strategy should challenge current market forces.  Land for housing should be purchased at existing use values with a small uplift  (see Lyons Review).  Genuine affordability requires this to be provided as ‘affordable’ based on local wage levels without public subsidies that are not material planning matters being outside planning control (eg housing benefit -  currently £23.8billion/annum, grant to RPs, Help to Buy, 20% Starter Home exception etc).  Self- building and/or finishing would contribute to affordability.  By making efficient use of buildings and land (and by keeping exclusive use to a minimum)  co-housing would be more economic to build and, more importantly, in occupation.

To concentrate on ‘affordable living’ as opposed to ‘affordable housing’ would underline the importance of running costs (eg water and energy) as fundamental  to affordability.

Right to Buy – wherever possible OCC should seek to remove or limit this right from its housing stock or when involved with other RPs.  This is a fundamental aspect of community land trusts that could be partnered for this, and other purposes,

Rental sector  - Affordable rents would be related and tied (ie 35%) to average earnings and not fixed as a percentage (ie 60%) of private rents.  The Shelter (or even Labour Party manifesto) proposals for affordable rents should be considered.  Is there a role for the Council in addressing the growth of buy-to-let?

Innovation The starting point for change must be an acknowledgement that the current system is not working and that systemic and innovative changes are necessary.  The Council should be assisting in the setting up of housing coops and community land trusts (where Right to Buy is excluded) and, possibly, an Oxford Community Housing Fund?  The Council might have to look abroad and/or to the social innovators within the area for ideas that could make the difference rather than perpetuate failed models.

Accessibility – the location and type of housing has a significant influence over car ownership and use.  Both could be substantially reduced by insisting on developer funded to a car clubs for all new development and made accessible to neighbouring areas.  Oxford already has a low carbon car club(s) and this should be a requirement of all new examples.  This would be a good fit with co-housing where car dependency and use are reduced through the mix of uses on the site.

4          Conclusions

The essential components of sustainable housing listed and discussed above indicate that there is an urgent need for systemic change in the provision of housing. There cannot be a 2.5% annual growth of housing (ie the SHMA projection) at the same time as a 6% (Committee on Climate Change estimate) or 10% (Tyndall Institute estimate) annual reductions in carbon emissions unless the housing sector (new and existing stock) becomes much more energy efficient

The Housing Strategy and related development plans/SPD should include policies that would support both self-building and co-housing.   Housing and planning strategies without the necessary enabling policies would be inadequate and unsound, as housing needs would be increased rather than be met, and the Strategy would not be contributing to the achievement of sustainable development.

Housing (especially for the elderly) has become a fundamental aspect of social and health care – and implicated in the severe problems being faced in discharging patients from hospitals. This should be one of the main drivers in prioritizing and providing housing which is more companionable.  There should be more attention paid on Lifetime Neighbourhoods than providing a greater proportion of Lifetime Homes.

The Building Regulations cannot be relied on to ensure that new and retrofitted housing will be sustainable. The Council should ensure that the form of housing (eg there is no place for detached housing that is intrinsically thermally inefficient and makes social interaction unnecessarily difficult) lends itself to sustainable construction and living.

Affordability is a major factor in the City (this should be considered as affordable living rather than simply the cost of purchase or rent).  This requires a concerted attempt to establish the real costs of provision and ensuring that the profit from the land does not erode the sustainability (inc community benefits and provision of affordable housing) without clear justification.

[1] Generation Strain IPPR 2014

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Oxford Real Farming Conference - affordable land

Timetabled as an alternative to the Oxford Farming Conference that caters to the industrial agricultural businesses, in its sixth year the ORFC attracted 650 delegates that makes it bigger (and better?) than its older brother.  DanthePlan was not scheduled to speak but had many chances to offer opinions on what the planning system could and should be doing to help in the renaissance of farming in the UK.
It seems that almost as much energy is being spent on trying to avoid any engaging with the planning system as fighting one of those exhausting and often futile battles with LPAs and Inspectors on the issue of "essential need" for a dwelling in the countryside.  Yurts, caravans, Charter 7, Wales (although somebody explained that welsh planners were not a soft touch) were a few of the ways to avoid having to face up to the problems of providing on farm accommodation.  My response is that it is the (urgent) job of those representing the 'real farming' movement to educate the planners.  The main reason for the lack of empathy and positive response to the needs of real farming is the lack of constructive engagement.  Endless appeals could be fought for isolated dwellings but the only way to normalise 'real farming' would be through development plan policies. That means responding to consultations on local plans and neighbourhood plans (or get onto parish councils/neighbourhood forums) and getting supportive policies into plans under local food and/or sustainable development.

All this has been rehearsed in earlier Blogs (ie one or two of the affordable housing quota being reserved for agricultural workers together with land left over from the housing development).  However, when a delegate claimed that land prices were going 'through the roof', I was reminded odf another important aspect to the role of town and country planning. 
Until 1992 there was no such thing as an 'affordable house'. After a high court judge had agreed that the affordability of a dwelling to a local person was a material planning consideration this has become a staple in development plans and government policy - notwithstanding that affordability has been corrupted by non-planning matters on the demand side (Help to Buy, Housing Benefit, Funding for Lending, grant to RPs, the bank of mum and dad).  I would love to see this challenged to allow the court to consider whether it is the house that should be delivered at a cost related to a multiple (eg 3.5) of average local wages.  In the meantime there will the opportunity for an LPA to argue that access to affordable land is as important to access to affordable housing and require landowner developers to provide land at affordable prices.  I hope that the real farming movement can provide the 'public interest' case to justify such an intervention by the planning system.  This will be one of the points for discussion at the RTPI SE Branch meeting in the Spring.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Personal Note

I always thought that my disappointment with the British planning system was rooted in my professional belief that it could have and must now do much better in ensuring new development is sustainable (ie "consume its own smoke') and act as a driver to make all existing development in town and country more sustainable. However, I can now add my own disappointment with the planning system.
We have lived in the same village for the last 35 years and were able to move once from a small terraced house built for agricultural workers, but then taken over by the rural district council and then sold off. This move was to a 4 bedroomed house that I designed and had built while we lived in a caravan in the garden.  This propelled us several steps up the housing ladder so that the house would fetch about £600k with or without the plot that is currently the subject of a planning application (for a small two-bedroomed house with a potentially self - contained ground floor).  I am told not to even think about building this out and moving in.
So what are our options.  There are virtually no two bedroomed or even small three bedroomed houses except those for social rent (in the [private sector most have been extended into 4 bedders).  This problem should be solved by the three developers looking to build 250 dwellings in the village over the next few years.  The first application is in (for 73 units) and there are a few 2 bedroomed properties (and all for rent of equity share).  There are  quite a number of three bedroomed properties but few are south facing (not just a personal preference) and the gardens are tiny. The District Council carried out research that showed that 97% of new dwellings would need to be 1 or 2 bedroomed to meet the needs of small and contracting household size. The inadequately explained compromise in the Local Plan was 50% one and two bedroomed dwellings.  The village local housing needs survey found 24 out of those expressing a need wanting 2 bedroomed properties. The neighbourhood plan cites the Office of National Statistics and that 80% of the dwellings have one or usually more spare bedrooms.

Why are the developers so resistant to building new dwellings attractive to potential downsizers?  Many will want smaller houses (self-contained on the ground floor) but many will also want decent gardens.

So this 73 house development is presented as 'sustainable development' in a highly car dependent village (parking provision above maximum standards), with few terraced houses, few south facing, no opportunities reserved for co-housing or self-building and nothing above Code for Sustainable Homes level 3.

I found it  relatively easy to find accommodation as a student, then as a young planner and as a singleton and then as part of a young family.  The real problems are being experienced wanting to take a step down the housing ladder and the planners seem to be unable or reluctant to help.  The application for the new housing estate will be determined in early summer (when the relevant NDP in which the site is allocated will have been made or set aside).  This Blog will then describe whether the planners have decided to do anything to accommodate the needs for downsizers in a sustainable way.