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Roundtable: Housing Standards Review won’t solve housing crisis

Government proposals must go further, say AJ experts. Standards should be enshrined in the regs and planning needs overhaul, writes Merlin Fulcher

Ten months after the first AJ More Homes Better Homes roundtable set out how the government could kickstart house building, a second gathering of top-flight experts convened last Monday to discuss progress on planning reforms and assess the Housing Standards Review.

The Review is currently out for consultation, closing 22 October, and proposes replacing 100 independent standards with a 10-point national standards framework, abolishing the Code for Sustainable Homes and floating controversial UK-wide minimum space requirements.

But the roundtable, which included leading housing architects and developers, plus two members of the government’s Challenge Panel, claimed the Standards Review did not go far enough to impact housing supply.

The panel criticised the government’s arbitrary ‘one-in, two-out’ rule on regulation, which has been blamed keeping the standards out of the regs, describing it as ‘ridiculous’. Challenge Panel member and planning consultant Paul Watson said: ‘There seems to be a consensus that we’re going in the right direction and we shouldn’t go there slowly.’

Developer Roger Zogolovitch also questioned the government’s focus on streamlining regulation, while the planning system remains arbitrary, saying housebuilders have a ‘desperate need for clarity’.

‘Regulation does not stop the housebuilder making homes, what does is this arcane planning system,’ Zogolovitch said, calling for New York-style zoning laws which would give developers the right to build to an agreed size before site purchase.

Alison Brooks argued that putting housing standards into the regulations would free up planners to consider more important issues, such as infrastructure, aesthetics and town planning. ‘Take them out of planning negotiations and empower planners,’ Brooks said.

The panel

  • Paul Finch, editorial director, The Architects’ Journal (chair)
  • Paul Watson, planning and urban design consultant
  • Julia Park, head of housing research, Levitt Bernstein
  • Claire Bennie, development director, Peabody
  • Andy von Bradsky, chairman, PRP Architects
  • Alison Brooks, director, Alison Brooks Architects
  • Alex Ely, partner, Mae Architects
  • Roger Zogolovitch, director, Solidspace

Regulation

Paul Finch Has anyone produced any evidence that conflicting standards and conflicting bits of planning is actually significant in slowing house building in percentage terms, compared with shortage of finance or unavailability of land in the right areas? It’s talked up as the really big problem; but in reality isn’t it a minor problem?

Alison Brooks It’s amazing how many schemes get stuck in conflicting standards and conflicting compliance. The only way to create a more level playing field is to consolidate the standards as regulations. Take them out of the planning negotiations and empower planners with the responsibility to deliver long-term infrastructure.

It’s amazing how many schemes get stuck in conflicting standards and conflicting compliance

Claire Bennie Pretty much every standard can go in the regulations. Space standards and affordability are problematic because they are locally treasured.

Andy Von Bradsky We don’t have the answer for supply and we don’t have the answer for land or planning. But, certainly, if you simplify the standards, put as many as you can in Building Regulations, you have at least a chance of getting the scale of development you need.

Paul Watson Artificial barriers such as the government’s ‘one-in, two-out rule’ for new regulations are being put in the way of common sense. There seems to be a consensus that we’re going in the right direction and we shouldn’t go there slowly on the back of the failing process.

Julia Park The ‘one-in, two-out rule’, whether we like it or not – and it is ridiculous – is there, and the idea that the civil servants could just brush that aside and say ‘housing quality is more important’, is not realistic. Furthermore, the Housing Standards Review was deregulatory, so the idea of streamlining to one regulated set of standards in one go, leaving local authorities no room at all to manoeuvre and no possibility to cope with genuinely geographically determined circumstances isn’t realistic.

Roger Zogolovitch The market doesn’t have an appetite for total deregulation. But as a manufacturer, I have a desperate need for clarity. Regulation does not stop the housebuilder making homes. What does, is this arcane planning system that makes it impossible to regulate. The principle for ‘of right’ development, such as in New York, could be embodied in more of a regulatory form. 

Andy von Bradsky The timing of the standards review and its closeness to an election becomes an issue for how reform is delivered. If we leave it to the usual processes of getting changes into regulations, it could take up to three years and that might jeopardise the review.

Julia Park I’d like to see this process succeed, but there are real dangers in holding out for regulation because regulation, as distinct from standards, has to be subject to ‘one-in, two-out’. It will take years, not months, and I think we risk losing it because of that.

Paul Watson I simply don’t buy the argument that it will take years and not months to introduce changes to Building Regulations. We’ve found ourselves in a ludicrous position of the government’s own making. We need to make sure the review is completed through a process that’s got drive and pace in it.

We’ve found ourselves in a ludicrous position of the government’s own making

Paul Finch This process is not deregulation at all, it is rationalised regulation. Furthermore, the word ‘regulation’ should not be pejorative because, Roger, you like the New York system and it is an extremely rigid regulatory system. In many free market Tory minds regulation equals evil, but if it is referred to as a standard, like an educational standard, it’s rather good. The best standards are really elitist, and isn’t that what Tories all like?

Space

Paul Finch I’ve heard no evidence that reducing standards and allowing hutches somehow produces more properties which satisfy the market.

Alison Brooks Parker Morris standards were based on very conventional families and there are all sorts of diverse make-ups that aren’t catered for. Existing space standards are too small and there isn’t encouragement to design a house so it can be extended or expanded. The Netherlands is one of the densest countries in Europe and has space standards 30 per cent bigger than the UK.

Roger Zogolovitch The debate focuses on large-scale housebuilders, but we forget the inventive and innovative stuff on the fringe. Developers like Pocket, for instance, have looked at young professionals looking to buy for the first time. We must be very careful we don’t preclude this kind of development and make it impossible to occupy a central London property.

Julia Parks Pocket’s main product is a small one-bed flat but, by referring to it as a one-bed, one-person flat it then falls within the 37m², 38m² or 39m² category and is permitted within the London Housing Design Guide. Some of its developments are even smaller, at 29m². They like to build studios at 29m² [two or three units this size feature in Burrell Foley Fischers’ 2008 Weedington Road scheme in Camden]. The Greater London Authority capitulated [on Pocket’s Waugh Thistleton Architects-designed Marcon Place development in Hackney, which has permission for two studio flats at 32m²], as there is woolly wording in the Supplementary Planning Guidance, which says: ‘In exceptional circumstances and subject to excellent quality, a small proportion of smaller homes would not be ruled out.’

Claire Bennie We have been using the London Housing Design Guide a lot and we find it provides quite a lot of simplicity and certainty. Londoners, however, need options, and affordability is key; sometimes smaller-sized homes offer people affordability.

Sometimes smaller-sized homes offer people affordability

Andy von Bradsky If you talk to anyone who is using the London Housing Design Guide at the moment, the advantage with it is the ability for local authorities to do trade-offs. This idea of flexibility within the regulation application is really important. There needs to be a level playing field between tenures, protection for social housing, and the Housing Act needs to be revisited in terms of what constitutes an adequate bedroom or double bedroom. A better-informed customer is important, so having standard labelling for all new and existing homes is vital.

Planning

Alex Ely If you could pin down a set of standards and if local authorities could be much more rigorous with local development frameworks, using localism to define what land use and quantum should happen where, then if you meet those requirements you should get your permission. Also if you exceed standards or regulation there must be some sort of mechanism to incentivise.

Alison Brooks With Newhall, it is like a competitive bid process, but instead of developers putting forward a bid with an architect in tow and working up a deal with the local authority, it is a design-led bid with the land value built into the bid, and once it is consented by developer Newhall Projects, it goes through planning quickly, like a shot. The pace of consents and builds has got to be an incentive for developers to build more.

Andy von Bradsky There needs to be a document that sits in the National Planning Policy framework which refers specifically to an aspiration for quality and sustainability for housing in the UK, not the building performance issues which should clearly be in Building Regulations.  

Infrastructure

Alison Brooks Housing is a kind of infrastructure. It needs regulation and it needs to be dealt with in a way that isn’t based on the short-term market’s development appraisal sheets. It needs to be embedded into a long-term strategic development framework that comes from local government and supported by national government.

Paul Watson There are all sorts of issues in the Penfold Review about infrastructure, roads, utilities, which haven’t been brought forward and that’s the review that happened two years ago. If you could recreate an effective strategic planning system in this country and then take some tough decisions around new towns or garden suburbs, for example, then you could make a real difference to the amount of homes that would be built.

Andy von Bradsky I’m encouraged by the fact that all three parties are fighting to be top of the tree on housing policy, and two of the three parties are advocating garden cities. There are ways of expanding our towns, but of course it cuts across electoral boundaries which makes it very difficult, so you need a strategic authority of some sort to make those decisions.

Land

Claire Bennie There are a lot of viability arguments around sites. A lot of people are still saying: ‘Oh, we can’t do much affordable housing, because look at the Community Infrastructure Levy and look at the space standards, etc.’ But they’re basing it on what they paid for the site when there was more grant and so forth. A very gradual diminution in land values needs to happen, so that asking for higher standards doesn’t mean fewer affordable homes.

Alison Brooks The laissez-faire way properties are valued keeps the consumer ignorant. You don’t really know what you’re buying, which creates a false or inflated value. There needs to be a much more succinct and scientific method of measuring the physical properties and qualitative aspects of housing.

The laissez-faire way properties are valued keeps the consumer ignorant

Roger Zogolovitch I don’t buy this argument about land being artificially priced. If Claire and I were competing for a plot in auction this afternoon, we would both have independently assessed the site and we would probably come up with a different development figure; then one of us would outbid the other. It is market value based upon an assumption.

Paul Finch You’re bidding on the unknown where nobody quite knows what will win planning consent. Would you get more if you could eliminate that uncertainty? Does there need to be proactive planning? What you’re arguing for, Roger, is New York-style zoning, where every bit of land has got an as-of-right ‘this is what you can do’.

Looking forward

Alison Brooks It’s great that this debate is even happening, when you think about where the housing industry was 10 or 15 years ago. The fact that it has come to the forefront of everybody’s consciousness in the past five or so years is great. It’s a crucial debate because it is about the economy of cities and social wellbeing.

Claire Bennie Building more homes is great and all the standards are great, but what does it look like? You can have something that meets every single standard, but is still ‘pig ugly’ in planning minister Nick Boles’ words. This is something Peabody and the RIBA are going to be working on shortly.

Alex Ely If regulations are too far off and we need an interim stop-gap, I would like to see standards in the hands of one agency, because Code for Sustainable Homes is owned by BRE, Lifetime Homes by Habinteg, Secured by Design by someone else [ACPOS]. They’re all upgraded and changed in their own time frame, and they’re not cross-referenced.

Roger Zogolovitch The advantage of a national regulatory framework is that you may get to European sizes and scales of effectiveness in prefabricated design, and start to disaggregate your design and manufacturing process from the land itself. We would then start to get some interesting, fresh players.

Readers' comments (2)

  • "Alex Ely If regulations are too far off and we need an interim stop-gap, I would like to see standards in the hands of one agency, because Code for Sustainable Homes is owned by BRE, Lifetime Homes by Habinteg, Secured by Design by someone else [ACPOS]. They’re all upgraded and changed in their own time frame, and they’re not cross-referenced."

    Code is owned by DCLG, and LTH and SBD are integrated within it. If you actually read documents like SBD and LTH there is a lot of cross referencing.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • Hal-Luke Savas

    if the only constant is change then changing the strategy on housing can not be a bad idea or strategy. Having sad that, reducing bureaucracy can only be good omens for future; but -also- that does not mean reducing quality of housing construction!!

    Hal-Luke Savas
    www.hallukesavas.webeden.co.uk

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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