UK Prime Minister David Cameron

The UK government has been censured in a House of Lords built environment committee report for failing to ensure quality housing development and removing requirements for new housing to be zero carbon.

The National Policy for the Built Environment Committee report, Building Better Places, said the government’s deregulatory agenda on housing was “short-sighted”, with a focus on speed and quantity threatening place-making “along with sustainable planning for the long-term and the delivery of high quality and design standards”.

Committee chair Baroness Detta O’Cathain, from the Conservative Party, said the committee “wholeheartedly” supported the need for more houses, however said if houses were built poorly, in the wrong place and without local support, it was “only storing up future misery for the people in those houses and others nearby”.

“Spending a little bit extra on good quality design at the outset can avert massive costs to people, society and government in the long-run,” Lady O’Cathain said.

The report recommends local authorities be given increased input into planning new homes and ensuring developments are of suitable quality. It also calls on the government to review the National Planning Policy Framework to ensure that developers aren’t using financial viability to “play fast and loose with design quality and sustainability”.

“If developers submit substandard plans local authorities should be able to ask them to think again without builders falling back on questionable viability assessments to get their way,” Lady O’Cathain said.

“We are also calling on the government to appoint a Chief Built Environment Advisor to work across government departments to integrate planning policy and act as a champion for higher standards and good practice. It’s important that the government sets a good example and leads from the front on design quality.”

The report also calls for the reversal of the decision to axe a requirement for new homes to generate no net emissions, which was set to come in from 2016.

“We disagree with the government’s decision to remove the zero carbon homes policy and the Code for Sustainable Homes. These decisions are likely to add to long-term housing costs through a reduction in energy efficiency, and we have heard no clear evidence that they will lead to an increase in housebuilding. Nor has the government given a clear explanation as to how new homes will be energy efficient and environmentally sustainable without the provision of such standards,” the report says.

“The government should reverse its decision to remove the requirement for new homes to generate no net carbon emissions (known as the “zero carbon homes” policy) and its decision to remove the Code for Sustainable Homes. The government must set out and implement a viable trajectory towards energy efficiency and carbon reduction in new homes.”

Lady O’Cathain called on the government to take heed of the report.

“Ensuring we have a better built environment in the coming decades is one of the key challenges facing government. It impacts on every area of our lives,” she said.

“The government must now take that challenge seriously. We hope in responding to our report they will recognise that the drive for more homes must not come at the expense of quality. Everyone deserves a home but they also deserve a good quality home, in a good quality place, that meets their needs as individuals and families. We don’t think the government’s policy as it stands will deliver that.”

The report was welcomed by the UK Green Building Council.

“The government’s U-turn on the zero carbon standards for new homes threw away a decade of planning and investment by progressive developers, designers and manufacturers, and made our carbon targets even harder to hit,” UKGBC campaign and policy director John Alker said.

“The houses we build today need to stand the test of time, and it is perfectly reasonable to expect quality as well as quantity.”

Recommendations of the report:

  • The government should reconsider the proposal to include “starter homes” within the definition of affordable housing as starter homes cease to include any element of affordability after five years
  • The government should reconsider additional elements of the Housing and Planning Bill that would undermine the maintenance of mixed communities
  • The government should appoint a Chief Built Environment Advisor to champion higher standards in the built environment across government departments
  • The government should reverse its decision to do away with the zero carbon homes requirement and Code for Sustainable Homes
  • We need a new strategy for managing our historic built environment that recognises that our historic built environment is a “unique national and local asset, central to place-making” and a “cultural and economic asset rather than an obstacle to successful future developments”
  • The government should make design review mandatory for all major planning applications, in order to offset the long-term burdens and costs of poor quality design
  • Local authority planning departments need to be better resourced and the planning profession needs to rediscover the prestige it once had. The Committee calls for more bursaries for planning students, and a greater emphasis on “proactive planning” from local authorities