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Park: 'The Housing Bill's implications are devastating'

new council housing
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The Housing and Planning Bill is law-making at its worst - but there could still be time to change it, says Julia Park

Like most busy architects we try to keep on top of changes and respond to major consultations, but we rarely find time to track the passage of new legislation or read all the detail. This is different. The Housing and Planning Bill gets at the heart of what we do and why we do it. It’s been ideologically driven, ill conceived and bulldozed through by here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians who know much less about housing and planning than most of us. This is law-making at its worst. 

The process has evidently been every bit as insidious and undemocratic as the proposals. On 17 December, after the second reading (the last stage at which the Commons can make changes) the planning minister slipped in an extra 65 pages to the 145 page Bill. And, instead of taking place in ‘working hours’, the third reading debate on Tuesday was pushed back so it started at 20.50 and ended at 02.00. Hardly a priority then. 

The implications for affordable housing are so devastating that holiday reading has been Hansards rather than the stack of saved-up novels. Who knows what ‘affordable housing’ will mean tomorrow. The last time I checked to see whether the definition had changed again, this is what came up on Google. Not a definition but a pitch from one of the many businesses whose sole mission in life is to help developers get out of their obligation to provide something we should all be proud of. 

We love designing private housing but its hard not to feel compromised

No one should be against home ownership or helping young would-be buyers to get started unless it worsens the situation for those with even greater need. We love designing private housing but it’s getting more and more difficult not to feel compromised given that we feel so strongly about delivering a balanced mix of tenures. One of the best things about Britain, and London in particular, is the economic and social diversity of its population. Savour it while you can - it’s fast becoming a city where the poor live on the pavement while thousands of new luxury flats lie empty. 

The four-year trialling of permitted development for office to residential conversions has produced some truly terrible outcomes including ‘apartments’ of 13.5m2 with no outdoor space. We’ve known since the autumn that the Bill intends to make this permanent and introduce ‘permission in principle’ (a confusing variant of PD) for brownfield sites. Why? Surely ‘presumption in favour’ and ‘outline approval’ has it covered? In reality you often need to work harder to create good housing in these situations so where’s the sense in giving them a free pass? 

Introducing designated persons to deal with applications smacks of privatisation

But far from pulling back, the government intends to go further. The Guardian notes that in the new 65 pages, ‘there is nothing in the legislation prevents it [permission in principle] from being applied to any kind of development on any site’ and the introduction of ‘designated persons’ to deal with planning applications smacks of privatisation. Few of us like the way the planning system currently operates – LPAs are under-resourced, officers often lack design awareness and it still takes far too long. But it’s hard to blame the housing crisis on the planning system when the LGA reports that permissions have been granted for nearly half a million un-built homes. 

Estate regeneration used to mean safer streets and a fresh start for families who have had to put up with poor living conditions for decades. It still means a fresh start for these families but often in a new place many miles from home where housing is cheaper. The message is ‘you don’t belong here anymore’. Even if you manage to score enough points to get housed how can you feel settled if you only have a two to five year tenancy? And how can a family with three or four children in Cambridge possibly manage to pay market rent on a household income of £30K? 

None of this would be quite so bad if the government was committed to quality. For a while we thought it was. The NPPF makes many convincing references to the importance of quality and sustainability, but in the race for numbers, none of this seems to matter anymore. Like others, we’re replacing housing that was built in the 80s – only30 years ago. This housing hasn’t suddenly failed; it was never good enough. Small, inaccessible, not energy efficient and poorly built - many of these were ‘starter homes’ - a quick vote-winning fix with little regard for quality of life or longevity. Here we go again. 

The RIBA’s response has been futile and embarrasing

Ranting is cathartic but not productive. So what can architects do apart from keep going? Of course it depends on your viewpoint but if you mind about things like this, and most of us do, make the effort to respond to consultations, lobby your local MP and send submissions to the public committee as Bills are made. Give them better ideas like protecting the status of starter homes in perpetuity so that relatively well-off young buyers don’t just walk away with an instant 20 per cent profit when they sell, or become buy-to-let landlords. And get on to the RIBA! The few architects who joined the protest on Tuesday must be among the many who regret the institutes’ abject failure to grasp the significance of what’s going on or make its voice heard on behalf of members. The Housing and Planning Bill is the most far-reaching piece of housing related legislation this century yet the RIBA has chosen to focus on getting the space standard into regulation. It’s been futile and, to be honest, a bit embarrassing. 

We need the RIBA to consult with its members and collaborate with other organisations like the RTPI, RCIS, LGA, NHF and Shelter to present a powerful lobby and demand that government take a step back and make time for reasoned, democratic debate with experts. There’s just time to explain to the Lords why this package of proposals will make things worse, not better. And there’s always time to remind everyone that a stable home-life is not too much to expect and that good housing is worth every penny. The fact that ministers don’t want to listen is all the more reason to speak up.

Julia Park is head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein 

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