This article forms part of the LGA's Re-thinking local think piece series.
What’s the minimum we expect from new homes?
What’s the minimum we should expect from homes built in England today? Most of us would expect windows in the main rooms. We’d also expect enough space to move around freely, and given our collective experience of covid-19 access to a private balcony or garden. Some degree of adaptability would also be important, so that when we grow older, or if we get ill, the home can accommodate our needs. We’d probably also say that walkable pavements, access to some green space, and basic local services are necessary.
We need to urgently change the way we regulate the quality of new homes and places.
It should be a national disgrace that every year we build tens of thousands of homes which completely fail to meet these basic standards. These homes are not being built illegally, or through ‘loopholes’, but as a direct and purposeful result of government policy; permitted development rights (PDR), and an under-powered, emaciated planning system.
We need to urgently change the way we regulate the quality of new homes and places. We need a Healthy Homes Act.
Homes in industrial estates - the reality of housing in 21st century England
Thirty minutes’ walk from where I’m currently sitting there is a large industrial estate that contains a mixture of metal workshops, recycling and waste collection centres, car repairs, plant hire, and concrete manufacturers. In the very centre of the estate, directly opposite the concrete manufacturers, is a small former office block that is home to 200 children and their families. The smallest units are 12 metres square and home to entire families. The block has no garden or amenity space. Children have to play in the car park or on a road used by heavy goods vehicles and littered by cars being broken down for scrap. Residents have complained that the nearby industrial activity is causing breathing problems in their children.
There was very little local community or council could do to stop these homes being built because they did not need planning permission. They were created through ‘permitted development rights’ (‘PDR’), which bypass the normal system. PDRs have existed since 1948, but since 2013 the government has expanded them so that offices can be converted into homes with very few checks or balances.
Between April 2015 and March 2018 46,292 homes were created via PDR. Not all of them are of the terrible standards described above, but evidence suggests that thousands are. Some of the most compelling comes from research the government itself commissioned from scholars at UCL. This examined 639 buildings across England, and found that only 22.1% met nationally described space standards, 72% had only a single aspect window (ten units appeared to have no windows at all), and shockingly, only 3.5% had access to private amenity space.
The punchline to this unfunny joke is that the government published this research on the same day that it announced it will radically expand PDR to include two-storey extensions to existing homes, the conversion of shops into homes, and – unbelievably – the demolition and rebuild of entire commercial buildings as homes. None of these changes will require planning permission.
A symptom of a strange sickness
Not all substandard homes are delivered through PDR, and the planning system is probably still responsible for the majority of the poor-quality new homes. Indeed, a recent review of 142 developments built by large volume housebuilders found that one in five of the schemes should have been refused planning permissions according to the government’s own National Planning Policy Framework. But the recent changes to PDR do powerfully symbolise just how broken our overall approach to housing is. PDR is a symptom of a strange sickness in which all regulation of the built environment is seen as a burden, regardless of what it aims to achieve. Removing it is seen as an intrinsic good, even when doing so is completely at odds with other policy ambitions. PDR is incompatible with decarbonisation because climate change is not something planners can consider when they receive a PDR application. It is incompatible with ‘place making’ because developers do not have to contribute to local infrastructure, services or greenspace to get permission. It is incompatible with the goals of the NHS because poor quality housing costs the NHS something in the region of £1.4bn a year. It is incompatible with ‘localism’ because it removes all local democratic input and discretion over relevant developments.
How the Healthy Homes Act transform the quality of new homes
This deep dysfunction characterises successive governments’ treatment of the planning system over the last decade. But at its heart planning is still a powerful tool for social justice and health, and we could yet reprise its role as a radical improver of lives.
The TCPA, Association of Directors of Public Health, Nationwide Foundation, CPRE, Chartered Institute for Housing, National Housing Federation, and Royal College of Occupational Therapists, amongst other supporters, are campaigning for a Healthy Homes Act which will fundamentally change this situation.
The bill we have written would put into law a series of basic principles, which together define what constitutes a healthy home and neighbourhood. These evidence-based principles are, we believe, the absolute minimum the public expect from their homes; they cover things like accessibility, minimum space, walkable neighbourhoods and access to greenspace.
All government departments would be required to have regard to the principles when making policy, as would all public authorities that have responsibilities relating to planning and the delivery of housing. The bill also places a new duty on the Secretary of State to secure the health, safety and wellbeing of people in relation to buildings. These changes and others proposed by the bill would transform the way we regulate the built environment, bringing certainty and coherence to a fragmented system. The bill wouldn’t end PDR, but it would make it illegal to build the slum housing we have witnessed.
This might sound over-ambitious, but for the two decades up to 1980 we built new council homes to the Parker-Morris standards. These concerned space and design, energy, transport and green space, and improved many thousands of lives.
If the government is genuinely committed to ‘building back better’, localism, ‘levelling up’, and ‘beauty’, rather than the mindless pursuit of deregulation and housing numbers, it has nothing to fear from adopting a Healthy Homes Act, and we have everything to gain.