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Our Response to the Housing White Paper \

I have mixed feelings about Sajid Javid’s announcement- out of the usual to-and-fro of political sniping today, there were some positive messages- and a few things we should be worried about.

Build to Rent

Firstly, the emphasis on Build to Rent is hugely encouraging.  At last we have an acceptance that home ownership by any means possible is not realistic and acknowledgement that we are moving toward a more ‘European’ model of institutional ownership.  Larger collective renting, with an emphasis on more attractive tenancy agreements and better amenity for residents is already being championed by leading Build to Rent providers- who also have a long-term vested interest in build quality, maintenance, energy efficiency and robustness.  The principle of the three-year tenancy is welcome- and is also in the spirit of leading providers, who are already offering this as an attractor to the open market.

Modern Methods of Construction

This is encouraging, but I suspect it’s the open market pushing this rather than government policy.  Compared to volume housebuilders developing for market sale, Build to Rent developers are leading the way in Modern Methods of Construction, including directly developing prefabrication plants of their own.  Volume housebuilders’ in-house cost analysis and procurement teams- used to applying a finely tuned model based on the same construction techniques as they did two decades ago- should take note.

The Right Homes in the Right Places

This is where the White Paper loses its way- I think there is a fundamental conflict in allowing local communities more control over location of housing – and promoting increased density.

Despite Figure 5 in the White Paper, out of the cities the UK is one of the most densely populated regions in Europe.  It’s understandable that communities are resistant to increased population density, where they are already fighting for access to local resources such as healthcare, schooling – and even standing space on a train to get to work.  Surely the key to unlocking housing density is improvement of social and physical infrastructure, rather than hoping ‘localism’ will solve housing provision.

Review of Space Standards

This feels like a potential backward step – the introduction of the London Housing Design Guide in 2010 leading to the Mayors Housing SPG, whilst not a panacea, felt like a big step forward- and a leveller of the playing field.  The introduction of the Nationally Described Space Standard based on these criteria in 2015 beyond London was similarly welcome.  

In parallel with this, permitted conversion of B1 office to C3 residential use outside of these standards hasn’t pushed the quality agenda forward and shows us what the wider new-build offer would be without such standards.

In the right context there should be room to develop alternative approaches- but with much more emphasis on design quality.  Pocket Living are rightly mentioned as an exemplar in the White Paper- but they operate within very robust parameters- and high quality design is part of their business culture.  

Green Belt

It’s right that there is focus on urban brownfield land rather than expansion into the Green Belt (although this is nothing new - Richard Rogers’ Urban Task Force championed this almost twenty years ago) but there should be a more nuanced approach to Green Belt development that makes better use of previously developed sites and brownfield land within green belt boundaries.  Developing such sites in an intelligent design-led way with increased density could actually create ways to create more open public access to Green Belt land.

Right to Buy and Estate Regeneration

A refocus on estate regeneration is encouraging – but often the legacy of Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy scheme is stymieing the regeneration of council estates with complex CPO issues.  Javid’s recent decision against Southwark at the Aylesbury Estate reinforces this.  Extending Right-to-Buy to housing association developments could compound problems for the future.

Planning

Javid mentions increased resources for local planning authorities to speed up planning, which is welcome- but there should be much stronger emphasis on design quality.  Most planning authorities lack the support of an impartial and qualified design review panel, and if the White Paper could help, it could be in the context of raising design quality to enable increased density.

CABE should be resurrected as a centrally funded national advisor for design quality, without having to tout themselves to developers and authorities as an added, optional service.  Every UK city, county and London Borough should have a Design Review Panel- or access to one, such as Urban Design London.  And such panels should have teeth.

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