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Solving housing crisis will need 'Hercuean effort', Lords told

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A dearth of state-backed housing and a lack of foresight at both local and national level are among the root causes of the housing crisis, a House of Lords select committee has been told

The newly-formed committee on the built environment heard evidence from a number of industry experts at its inaugural public meeting on Thursday (9 July).

The panel included ex-CABE chief executive Richard Simmons, professor of design management at Lancaster University Rachel Cooper and professor of town planning at Newcastle University Mark Tewdwr-Jones.

The panel of built environment experts were asked questions relating to planning policy in the UK by the committee, which is due to report its findings next year. Asked specifically why the UK had failed to deliver enough new housing, Tewdwr-Jones said that a variety of reasons lay behind the problem which had too often been blamed on the planning system alone.

Speaking to the committee he said: ‘Planning was initially blamed for the problem - but it is not that simple. Sometimes opposition to schemes can lead to delays but there is also the fact that developers do not build an entire estate at once and so a lot of land with planning consent is land-banked.

‘Also, new housing is now viewed as a lifestyle choice so more supply may not bring prices down. A lot less state housing has not helped matters figures show that the private sector can’t do it alone.

Chasing home-ownership might not be the best route forward

‘Mixed tenures are also now found to be working better in cities, chasing home-ownership for all might not be the best route forward. However if we build too fast we may recreate the mistakes of the past. I am an advocate of Garden Cities but it will be a Herculean effort to solve the crisis.’

The ad hoc select committee has been established to look into the development and implementation of national policy for the built environment. It is the first time a select committee has been convened by either house to specifically look at the issues in specifically in the built environment profession.

The creation of the new committee is a result of the lobbying efforts of the cross-party group’s vice-chair Baroness Janet Whitaker. The committee has initially been established on a temporary basis and includes a cross-party coalition of MPs and design organisations.

It will also look at ways in which national built environment policy is development and implemented, and the effect that national policy has on local authorities, planners, developers and employers.

Asked about the main challenges facing the UK, Cooper said that there was a lack of co-ordination between local and national policies: ‘There seems to be a lack of foresight at local and national level, small cities and towns have no ability to think about planning in the long-term and no way to access data or expertise which could help them.

Cooper added: ‘There is a lack of relationships between departments. We need a facilitator to pick up with communities on the built environment and an integrator to bring in all the data we have together and push things forward’.

Labour lord and committee member Elizabeth Andrews sought advice from the panel on where they felt the UK was least informed in regards to the built environment policy and whether governments are being taken by surprise by changes in the planning landscape.

Tewdwr-Jones said that the planning issue had become ‘dominated’ by the housing problem. ‘Plans have become dominated by the housing and numbers issue and we’ve lost spatial awareness.

‘We are missing geographical and special perspectives. If you take parts of England where we think there will be more population in 30 years and add in other factors such as climate change and infrastructure availability then you can start to look at the geography of vulnerability. Some Local Authorities are working on this gap in national policy at a local level.’

The committee also asked what will the legacy be of the last 30 years of commercial and residential developments. In response Simmons said: ‘We have created a society where using the car to drive to retail outlets in the periphery which are mostly short-term tin sheds, towns have been hollowed out. However if car use changes we may be left with a legacy which we don’t know what to do with.’

Cooper said: ‘In some studies we have found that older buildings were much more flexible when it came to adapting for different families than new buildings full of one-bedroom flats.Developers tend to value-engineer out issues such as sustainability if it has an impact on costs.’

 

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