Government plans to respond to its Housing Standards Review by introducing a mandatory set of national standards for the technical performance of new housing, implemented through building regulations, seeking to simplify regulation. But they will make planning policies obsolete, according to Paul Watson, a member of the challenge panel which advised the government on this approach.
"The detailed housing standards promised by government for this summer aim to reduce the burden on the planning system," he says. "But they could mean important revisions need to be made to plans." He also points to potential issues for councils that could be created by the forthcoming national space standard for homes. "Some have (space standards), but they may not conform with the government's proposals to be published in the summer," he suggests.
Many councils already have policies in their local plans that concern the environmental performance of new homes. "Under the government's proposals, policies such as those requiring homes to achieve level four or five on the code for sustainable homes will be inappropriate in local plans once the standards are brought in," Watson says. Instead, these environmental standards will be addressed in building regulations that will be set nationally and monitored by local authority building inspectors.
Transition to the new arrangements could present a major challenge for local authorities that have already set space or environmental standards for new housing in their existing or emerging local plans, says Royal Town Planning Institute network manager Andrew Matheson. "We are looking for transitional arrangements to avoid causing delays to plan-making," he says. He recommends that "the government should allow local authorities to put off modifying their plans to conform with the changes until the next programmed plan review, so that the process of implementation is not affected and existing plans do not have to be revised". Some of the timescales for the review's implementation, which is targeted at April 2015, need to change to reflect this, he suggests.
The changes are part of the government's attempt to reduce bureaucracy and speed up decision-making, but there are questions about whether that will be achieved. The proposed system might reduce the time spent on planning considerations, but may cause delays further on, according to Ben Frodsham, senior planner at consultancy Indigo Planning. "The time and cost savings in the preparation of planning applications and discharge of conditions are likely to be lost at the detailed design stage and in dealing with building regulations at a later date," he suggests. Alex Dutton, associate designer at consultancy Barton Willmore, points out that the changes will place a heavy onus on local authority building inspectors, who "may or may not be properly resourced", he says.
Housebuilders have, however, welcomed the fact that assessment will be done by building inspectors. Home Builders Federation head of planning Andrew Whitaker argues that it will simplify matters. "The Code for Sustainable Homes process involved a separate appraiser coming in to measure performance and the Homes and Communities Agency had a role as well," he points out. Officer decision-making is also likely to be more predictable than that of councillors on a planning committee, he says. Whitaker also points to the proposed new environmental standards, which he says are set out more simply than in the existing system. "It does not specify the details, like which materials should be used to achieve the environmental efficiency sought," he explains. "We are free to choose how the target is met and this can then be checked by the building inspector."
But with the levels currently proposed, some fear environmental standards may be compromised. Joan Walley, chair of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, fears that the national standards could be set at the level acceptable to the least demanding authorities and it will be difficult for councils to enforce requirements for higher levels. She says that: "We need to have an incremental improvement in environmental housing standards to achieve the target of reducing carbon emissions by at least 80 per cent in 2050 from 1990 levels."
The Code for Sustainable Homes will become defunct under the current proposals. Instead, the government has committed to ensuring all homes built from 2016 are "zero carbon". However, the government's definition of zero carbon is set at the equivalent of level five of the code, rather than the highest level of six. In addition, "small sites" will be exempt from the requirement, and the government has not yet defined what will be classed as "small".
The Building Research Establishment, which developed the Code for Sustainable Homes, suggests that local authorities should work with developers to achieve environmental standards above the basic level. Its head of sustainability Martin Townsend says: "Developers have come a long way since the first ecohomes standard was introduced. But they need to be pushed to adopt new technologies."
An aspect of the proposed changes which has prompted particular uncertainty is the proposal to introduce national space standards to be implemented through planning policies, according to the challenge panel chair Andy von Bradsky, who is also chairman of PRP Architects. The government's explanatory note on the changes suggests that the national standards "will offer a consistent set of requirements with regard to the internal area of new homes and will be based on a consolidation of existing space standards used by authorities".
Von Bradsky says that, so far, the government has confirmed that the standard will include three tiers for housing accessibility. These range from a basic level of accessibility that all homes will be required to meet, through to housing that could be easily adapted for wheelchair users to fully wheelchair-accessible homes. "Councils will have to demonstrate need and viability if they are seeking homes that are at the higher two tiers of accessibility," says von Bradsky.
This summer's announcement is expected to put forward an overall space standard that local authorities will be able to adopt, according to PRP associate director Kirk Archibald, who was also a member of the challenge panel. Adoption of this standard in their local plans will be optional and they will have to prove both the need for it and that it will not unduly affect viability, "which could be quite difficult", says von Bradsky. He expects the standard to be quite basic, but it "would give local authorities reasons for objecting to some of the smallest homes," he says.
The space standards, however, could be a straitjacket for local authority planners because they might not be right for all locations, Birkbeck says. He explains that one of the reasons why the government is keen on setting space standards is to secure larger new homes, but he points to the trend, particularly in London, for smaller homes. "Developers are putting up small homes for graduates and young people, who are more concerned about location than size," he says. Some developers will have to rethink their schemes once the national standard comes in, Birkbeck suggests.
Other commentators do see advantages for housebuilders in introducing a standard because it will bring uniform unit sizes across the different sectors, creating an even playing field for developers and social housing providers, according to research organisation the Building and Social Housing Federation (BSHF). "Housing associations have had to meet higher standards than private developers," points out BSHF senior researcher Jenny Line. "This will even out land negotiations."
The New housing standards: Key points
New environmental standards are intended to be incorporated into building regulations, which would be enforced by local authority building control officers. Voluntary standards applied at the planning stage, such as the Code for Sustainable Homes, Lifetime Homes, Secure by Design and Homes and Communities Agency standards are to be phased out. Under the proposals, environmental standards in local plans would become obsolete and councils would need to review plans to reflect that.
The government intends to offer councils a national space standard, which would cover the internal area of new homes. This will be a consolidation of existing space standards used by authorities in their local plans. Application of the standard would be optional for local authorities and they would need to justify its application by demonstrating need and viability.
Local plans will, under the proposals, be able to define the proportion or the number of accessible homes they require which exceed the basic level required in part M of the building regulations. Higher tiers of accessibility, including adaptability and wheelchair housing, may be required by planning policies, but this would be defined by local circumstances, and subject to viability testing.
Local plans will be able to identify areas of water stress where a higher level of water efficiency measures will be required through the building regulations, according to the new standards. Part G of the current regulations would be amended to allow for water efficiency measures in water stress areas. How these areas will be defined has yet to be devised.
Energy efficiency standards would be set through national building regulations. Councils would not be allowed to introduce a local energy requirement in excess of the provisions set out in Part L of the building regulations The government's zero carbon homes policy for new homes from 2016 would be achieved through a strengthening of the energy performance requirements in Part L of the building regulations and the delivery of allowable solutions.