Burgeoning demand and planning permission exemptions are contributing to a worrying trend of low-quality housing
Last week’s Stirling Prize shortlist had something of an end-of-an-era feel to it. We’re unlikely to see the likes of AHMM’s £40.9m Burntwood School in Wandsworth again, now the government has turned its back on uplifting school design.
Equally worryingly, Niall McLaughlin’s Darbishire Place, a mixed-tenure block of flats in Whitechapel for Peabody, could also be one of the last of its kind. Even housing associations with the heft of Peabody are finding development programmes increasingly under pressure as the government works out its grudge against social housing.
In a 2013 report for The Smith Institute, Social Hearted, Commercially Minded, I flagged up how associations were increasingly moving into the territory of housebuilders, developing housing for sale to cross-subsidise housing for social rent. But few could have predicted just how quickly the landscape would change.
We’ve seen the disappearance of housing grants, severely reduced rents and now stock sell-offs at generous discounts to tenants. It’s got to the stage that housing associations like Genesis say they will no longer develop any homes for sub-market rent.
Starter homes for sale are a short-term political stunt
And last week’s Housing Bill served as another attack on their modus operandi, putting the kibosh on one way they have traditionally delivered new homes for those on low incomes – section 106 obligations for low cost housing for rent and shared ownership were cancelled.
Starter homes for sale is where the government now says the action is - to be provided by housebuilders at 20 per cent market rates and offered for sale at no more than £450,000 in London and £250,000 in the rest of the country – 17 and 10 times more than a nurse’s salary respectively. It’s a short-term political stunt, not a much-needed affordable solution, for those on low incomes.
And to accelerate the process, the bill is ushering in a planning free for all, with housing development on brownfield sites being waived through without a mere whiff of objection from the planning department. It’s a major threat to housing quality generally.
Back in 2000, the housing minister of the day, Nick Raynsford, called for an end to the ‘tawdry little boxes’. The response has been patchy. Countryside’s Accordia scheme won the Stirling in 2008 but you still don’t have to look too hard to find housing design that makes you wince – castellations and Olympic torches sit outside the front doors of two recent blocks of flats in my neighbourhood.
Housing is a dysfunctioning market with demand far outstripping supply, forcing purchasers to be less discerning.It’s this weight of demand that persuaded government to waive planning permission, allowing developers to turn offices into flats that are tiny and poorly executed.
It’s just plain wrong that this policy has now been extended. And it is a worrying portent of what’s down the line – wendy houses as starter homes, perhaps?
To compound the bodged nature of government housing policy, housebuilders are no happier with the latest changes than housing associations. A major concern is that starter home initiatives on one side of the road will be competing with help-to-buy schemes on the other. They’ve no real interest in building them.
The only hope now for quality housing is that local authorities wake up and adopt the national housing standards created in 2014. It would also help if the Terry Farrell-led design panel set up before the election to advise on starter home design shows a bit of mettle. Its make-up and choice of exemplar schemes may be controversial but it seems to be the last line of defence.
To date, though, it has been ominously silent. Although, as brownfield housing is now almost entirely exempt from planning permission, how they might exercise constraint is anyone’s guess.