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.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.