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Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets, a new social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streets not multi-storey buildings.  Follow Create Streets on Twitter.

BOYS SMITH NickThere has not been such political focus on building new homes since the 1950s and ’60s, when Supermac promised to out-build Labour and Harold Wilson promised to keep building in the ‘white heat’ of his technological revolution. This is good. House-prices show clearly that Britain, certainly South East Britain, needs more homes. But it is also risky. Last time we got into a government-dominated, political arms race on house-building, the quality of our built environment was massacred.

The 1956 Housing Subsidy Act biased the system in favour of multi-storey housing. Flats at fifteen storeys received a government subsidy nearly three a half times the subsidy for a normal house. The painful results was that we created neighbourhoods that housed fewer people, were less popular and far more socially isolated than what went before (if you doubt that look at chapter four of our report with Policy Exchange).

Surely we wouldn’t be foolish enough to do that again? Would we? And surely not a regulation-scrapping, rule-burning Conservative administration?

Dream on, I fear. It turns out that is not just planning rules that restrict the supply and type of homes in this country. It is also building and housing rules. There is a whole debate to be had on the vital importance of these rules in preventing people getting what they want and constraining growth and house-building. We need that debate if we are to build the homes and the types of homes that people actually want. At present we are building too many homes for planners not for people.

For example, Create Streets has had a detailed look at the London Plan and the London Housing Design Guide (you can read our full report which is published today here). It turns out that, in London, despite some improvements, the rules are still stacked against the normal streets that about 89 per cent of people actually want. We found at least eleven rules (there are probably far more buried in the detail) which are materially biased in favour of multi-storey blocks and against the type of terraced streets which are popular and which can reach very high densities, so meeting London’s housing needs.

It’s not light reading So let me give you just a couple of examples. London Plan Key Performance Indicator 3 is meant to ensure ‘no net loss of open space… due to new development.’ Gardens do not count as open space. However, the often wasted small spaces on housing estates do count as open space. This makes it very hard to redevelop unpopular and low density estates into the sort of popular and high density terraced streets with gardens that most Londoners prefer. This is despite the fact that evidence has shown for many years that people prefer private gardens (however small) to less usable communal space.

For example, in a recent survey by the Royal Institute of British Architects of apartment block residents they found that, ‘private gardens were preferred to shared gardens’ and that ‘those in urban London [were] most keen across all the groups to have some outside space in their new property.’ In order to stop the rules being biased against what people want, we have therefore recommended today that the London Plan key performance indicator 3 should be adjusted to permit the recycling of open land into streets or gardens when the plan is approved by a local community via a neighbourhood plan referendum.

There’s more. Requiring lifts, wheelchair lifts and stair-lifts for every new ‘unit’ makes it more expensive to build conventional homes and flats off a vertical staircase. Rules against staircases being too narrow or too steep make it harder to build the conventional tall but thin London terraced houses. Super-high density targets make achieving planning agreement to build normal terraced houses & low-rise flats hard in some areas. There is a bias against on-street parking (doesn’t seem to make Chelsea a slum) and there are requirements for bathrooms on every level that make building conventional high-density terraced streets just much harder. And so on. And so on.

The results? The easiest way to manage down the costs of all this regulation is to build large bocks with horizontal entry to as many front doors as possible – despite the evidence that this is not what people want and that it is strongly correlated with crime, alienation and problems with children’s’ development. London is being covered (again) with multi-storey and high rise. If you want an example go and look at the block going up right now just opposite the Olympic Stadium. Or the prize-winning block in Southwark which repeats nearly all the design flaws of the 1960s. It is so depressing.

If you are sitting there, thinking ‘that’s just in London, we’re all right’ then I am afraid you’re not. The Government is currently consulting on changes to the Housing Standards. The government’s proposals are a genuine simplifying move but there is still way too much buried in the detail that makes it harder to build normal homes in normal streets – particularly in urban terraced streets. A host of interest groups, developers and housing-providers will no doubt have responded but I bet no one else will have responded whose simple aim is to stand up for the types of homes and streets that real people really want.

You can see our draft response here (let us know if you agree and we’ll add you to our petition). I fear we’ve found lots more needed to make normal homes possible and to let the voice of the consumer, the resident, the house-buyer dominate not the plethora of planners, designers and architects.

Up and down the land and particularly in towns and cities, Conservatives should girdle their loins, screw up their noses and read their local housing standards codes. Be warned, it is not fun but I bet you will find multiple rules which, when you work it through, are biased against normal homes in normal streets – above all urban terraced houses where you could build a multi-storey block instead. Contact us. We can help you understand the detail. And please do send us what you find and we’ll publish it.

The system of housing delivery needs a rethink. We need far fewer housing rules. We need to end the bias in favour of multi-storey homes. And we need to give local communities the power to opt-out of council housing standards when they wish.

A generation ago, Margaret Thatcher gave millions of people the power to own their own homes. Now, Conservatives should strip away the rules which are giving people not the homes they want but the homes planners think they should want.

31 comments for: Nicholas Boys-Smith: Red tape stops us building the homes we want

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