The case for a new Healthy Homes Act

Houses! In Bristol. Image: Getty.

The head of the Town & Country Planning Association on how to fix the housing crisis.

Last week a survey by Ipsos MORI for the Chartered Institute of Housing found that almost three-quarters of people across Great Britain believe there’s a housing crisis – and more than half think it’s not spoken about enough. I appreciate I might at times operate in a bit of a policy bubble, but I feel that there is a lot of discussion about the housing crisis. What is more of a concern to me is the lack of action to tackle it!

We know we need more homes. The government is currently aiming to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. But that is easier said than done. It is going to take policy change and a range of solutions.

One of those solutions will need to be new, high quality, large-scale developments. There are important lessons to learn from the Garden Cities and the New Towns programme, but the TCPA is not, as some might suggest, working to prevent all other kinds of development.

Regeneration and renewal of existing places must be an essential part of any attempt to tackling the housing crisis – and also, as highlighted by the UK 2070 Commission, attempts to address the current, totally unacceptable levels of regional inequality. In some locations that may mean densification. We absolutely must use land efficiently and we need a flexible approach to density as part of high-quality urban design and place-making.

It cannot, however, be seen as a one-size-fits-all solution. If we want to deliver better outcomes for communities, regenerating places needs to be considered alongside wider issues including the provision of play space, recreation facilities and green infrastructure.

In the race to deliver more homes, we can surely all agree that the new homes that are built must be of a decent standard? Sadly, we know that some of the homes being built today are not of a high enough quality. The planning inspector’s decision back in July that will allow 15 bedsits to be built in Watford, seven of which will have no windows, is one such example.

To try and make sure that all new homes support people’s health, safety, wellbeing and life chances, we are calling for a new Healthy Homes Act. The Act would set out ten high-level principles that, when taken together, set out what constitutes a decent home. These principles would then be implemented through a policy statement, and subsequent changes to building regulations and national planning policy.

We believe the benefit of having the principles in legislation would be that they carry more weight in the process. The relevant Secretary of State would be required to report to Parliament. And, most importantly, they would provide consistency and certainty for all local authorities and developers.

But, if we really are going to tackle the housing crisis, getting more truly affordable houses built must be a top priority. Over the last six years 165,000 of England’s social homes have disappeared, either changing over to private ownership, repurposed as “affordable rent” or demolished. Long waiting lists for affordable housing, which are seen across the country, demonstrate the need to urgently replace these lost homes.

At the moment, most new affordable housing in England is created through the planning system, a result of negotiations between developers and councils. This poses various challenges and if places are to secure the homes necessary to meet local needs, strong policies in local plans are essential. But developer contributions are not going to deliver the scale of new affordable homes we need.

To achieve that, we need to give more support to local authorities to deliver homes that are urgently needed. Top of that list must be significantly more government funding available for social rental homes as well as other genuinely affordable tenures. This needs to be coupled with a revised definition of affordable housing that links housing affordability to income, and the suspension of the Right to Buy in England, as has already happened in Scotland and Wales.

There is consensus on the need for more homes – but we must not oversimplify the root causes of the problem, or the solutions, if we are to tackle the issue in a sustainable way. The Raynsford Review, for example, proposed a large number of reforms necessary to unlock high-quality housing and place-making, which included a stronger, well-resourced planning system, changes in land taxation and the creation of a national sustainable development plan.

Getting political support for such reforms will take time. But, in the meantime, from a small number of new affordable homes in a village through to large-scale new communities, all have a role to play in tackling the crisis.

Fiona Howie is chief executive of the Town & Country Planning Association.


As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.

The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.