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) 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.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

GreenSpeed bypassed again and again

Following closely on the blog of the response to Government's air quality (or more correctly its NOX) consultation, readers might be interested in the more comprehensive analysis of the transport system that was a (failed) submission to the 2017 Wolfson Economics Prize.   In that context it is interesting to see that the Technical Report on which the Government's proposals are said to be based confirmed 50mph as the optimum maximum for the national speed limit.  As already noted speed limiting does not feature in the Government's plan and it will be interesting to see whether it is included in any of the shortlisted entries to the Wolfson Prize.

Click either link  for a read through GreenSpeed failed Wolfson Prize .

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Govt consultation on air quality

Apologies for the  lengthy post that is intended to provide an angle for those interested in the Government's latest attempt at avoiding legal challenges to its inadequate response to the health' emergency' being caused by road traffic.  It might be an exaggeration to claim that the General Election was called and legal  challenge mounted in an attempt to have this in the public domain after 8 June, but 11 million drivers of diesel vehicles is a significant constituency.  In the event the Government has limited the scope of the proposals to an extent that the Courts might be required again to seek to protect its citizens.  There is also an attempt to saddle local government with the blame for anything potentially unpopular.

Please go to the consultation (see URL below)  and (before 15 June) put the Government straight on the need to take advantage of an opportunity to improve life for all.

7.   Are Clean Action Zones the quickest way?
The quickest way to reduce all the pollutants from road traffic is to implement systemic measures and not singling out NOx in a few areas that apparently fail to meet an artificial standard.  Speed lim its can be reduced immediately, at no cost and with completre fairness. As the Technical Report says "C.6 Speed Limits:  A reduction of 20mph is the most effective in terms of NOx emissions, so a 50mph limit is presented as the maximum technical potential option."  Not only do the proposals ignore the issue of speed limits (eg 20mph being more polluting than 30mph with the current generation of petrol and diesel engines)but what the Technical Report says is an "immediate" problem has now become the "most immediate".  This is a very significant difference both in law and for the people being poisoned meanwhile.  The costs attributed to reductions in speed limits in the Technical Report are down to its very limited viewpoint affecting a few isolated areas and stretches of road rather than the systemic change required.

8. What should local government do about CAZs?
The Government should not be dumping this issue on local authorities.  Local measures could have very limited and local effects without the Government taking responsibility for systemic change.  There are places which fail air quality tests which are not on the Government's list. Everybody deserves to be protected from harmful pollutants wherever they live or visit.  The Government could start by changing the name from "Clean Air Zones" to something more truthful which does not imply the absence of poison gases, which might happen to be coming slowly down to legally acceptable levels. 

The impacts on businesses (and local residents/visitors) of truly effective measures to bring pollutants from road traffic down to harmless levels could be very severe.  This is why the Government needs to have a proper plan for the transition.  The alternative will be a repeat of legal challenges while the health and lives of citizens is impaired.  Local Government should not be expected to take the blame for these profound effects.

9.         Options available to local government?
 First reduce the national speed limits to 50mph(see Technical Report) and 20-mph (see all evidence on safety).  Every area must be equipped with electric car clubs.  A lower national speed limit (ie 50mph) is suited to electric cars where range is a priority.   Such a limit would remove most if not all of the comparative advantage enjoyed by ICEs.

All new residential and commercial developments must pay for charging points and for a number and range of ULEVs for the new and existing residents.  Public money should be used to build this fleet and charging possibilities.   These cars will be privileged in terms of use of lanes (on dual carriageways) and workplace, town centre and retail centre parking.   Public money should  not be spent on scrapping diesel or petrol cars.  Their use will just become more limited and much less convenient than (shared) electric club cars.  It will be up to private car owners how to react; move to clean buses, cycling, walking or the car club.

10.      How can impact be measured?
 It should be relatively easy to have a plan of an area and assess the need/demand for access to electric vehicles.  Some of these can be provided by developer funding from new development.  Where these opportunities are unlikely to arise local government must step in and seek to recover some of the cost from users.   Bans of ICEs from urban areas (and failing stretches of inter urban roads) should be put in place after a reasonable warning/grace period.  These should need limited monitoring other than the level of exceptions allowed for special reasons. It is a fundamental principle that measurements are not designed to gauge whether legal limits are being achieved but that the levels are immediately (ie within 12 months) reduced to de minimis levels so that the measurements are to identify and correct any unintended incidence of unfairness in the new system.

11. Which vehicles to retrofit?
 Buses could be converted to LPG or hybrid LPG/EV.  HGVs should be LPG. Vans and taxis (why only black cabs?) should be LPG and EV or hybrid.  There could be some slow to convert/remove HGVs and a shortage of or cost implications of reliance on LPG.  If there is a reduction of heavy goods movements by road then that would be a very welcome consequence of this power shift.

12.      Information to customers?
 Government should make it clear that the use of privately owned ICEs (no distinction between petrol and diesel) will be limited on the strategic road network (ie lanes reserved for ULEVs), and in urban areas (eg parking reserved for ULEVs).  Individual ULEVs might be purchased but as the Technical Report says, that is a very expensive option.  This story must be justified by the special duty of care which must be shown to children as the most vulnerable to irreversible damage to brains and lungs and to other disadvantage groups (see Technical Report).

13. How could the Government further support innovative technological solutions and localised measures to improve air quality?
The Government should be honest about the challenge of this transition and immediately start to place the health and wellbeing of its citizens (esp children) above the (hyper)mobility of the few.   This good news story should explain that the complementary measures of introducing electric car clubs would improve accessibility for everybody.  The streets would be better for walking and cycling. Reduced congestion would allow public transport and taxis to be more frequent and run on time.   The lower national speed limit will incentivise the research and development of electric vehicles no longer attempting to compete with the performance and allure of ICEs. Vehicles designed for lower maximum speeds (ie ULEVs) are, unlike ICEs, less polluting at lower speeds.
This is the only route to improve air quality to acceptable levels (not standards) and establish the pathway to zero carbon transport by 2050 (or earlier), see Technical Report.
These proposals represent the wrong answer to the wrong question.   The harm being caused by diesel and petrol engines (and dust from brakes, roads and tyres) as well as the noise (engines, wind and tyres) and harm to life and limb will not be removed by targeting NOx reductions at a few isolated areas and roads.  This challenge is actually an opportunity to move quickly to a clean, safe, reliable, affordable and fair transport system - in and between towns.  The trigger for the virtuous circle creating these new conditions would be one of the essential elements of such a system that would be lower maximum speeds in and between urban areas. 
The alternative (as being proposed) would be to continue with a dirty (just clean enough), dangerous, unreliable (eg congested), expensive and inequitable transport system that becomes an increasing burden on people, business and the environment.