Government unveils plan for housing boom

The Government unveiled its plans for a huge boost in house building this week by bringing forward a package of measures to reform the planning system which it says will increase investment in infrastructure to support the growth.

The Government has announced plans for a massive boost to house building

The Government has announced plans for a massive boost to house building

Critics have condemned the plans as an environmental "free-for-all" which will increase house-building in areas that already suffer over development, while one construction company has said any benefits from the Government's entire Sustainable Communities plan will be "short lived".

The housing boost was set out in the Government's response to Kate Barker's independent review of housing supply which showed that more people are being excluded from the housing market and recommended increased building supply to meet demand.

As a result, the Government announced plans to increase housing supply in England to 200,000 net additions per year, compared to around 150,000 now. This should improve long-term affordability, the Government claims.

The plans include:
  • reforms to the planning system through Planning Policy Statement for Housing (PPS3) to force local authorities to release more land to meet housing requirements.
  • the merger of regional housing and planning functions by September 2006 to ensure regions take strategic approach to integrating housing and infrastructure requirements.
  • consultation on the recommendation for a Planning-gain Supplement (PGS) to help finance the infrastructure needed to secure proposed housing growth, and to ensure local authorities better share in the benefits that growth brings.
  • a new Code for Sustainable Homes covering energy, water and materials; consultation on new draft flood planning policies (PPS25), and a new Greenbelt Direction to reinforce Greenbelt protection.

    Housing and Planning Minister Yvette Cooper stressed that the level of new homes being proposed still fell short of post-war building rates and that new homes were needed to ensure people could afford their own homes, while Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott highlighted the need for environmental standards.

    "Building more homes at affordable prices must also mean building to high design and environmental standards, supported by the right infrastructure - transport, hospitals, schools, parks and leisure facilities. We are in the business of creating sustainable communities - not just bricks and mortar," he said.

    However, critics have attacked the new plans for what they see as the utter lack of sustainability in the proposals.

    Friends of the Earth said the plans would encourage house building to be focused on the South East, which is already suffering over development. Barker's recommendations on PPS3 mean housing will be provided on the basis of price rather than social need, the group says, meaning areas of high demand, such as the South East, will grow in line with market forces and have no regard for social or environmental consequences.

    Similarly, the new Code for Sustainable Buildings is only voluntary so will have little or no effect on builders as they won't be obliged to obey its guidelines, FOE says.

    WWF last week resigned in "despair" from the Steering Group looking at the code as they said its proposals were weaker than current guidelines on water and energy efficiency (see related story).

    The Campaign to Protect Rural England issued a statement saying that making the planning system more responsive to housing market signals would undermine urban renewal and add to pressure for Greenfield development. Also, while the proposals recognise the need to promote the reuse of brownfield land, they contain no fiscal incentives to deliver this or to increase the 60% target for new housing on brownfield land.

    "The Government's approach to tackling the lack of affordable housing appears increasingly wrongheaded, inadequate and ignorant of the environmental implications. The outcome could see the worst of all possible worlds: a failure to provide housing for those in greatest need, a reversal of recent progress in urban renewal, and a return to the days of unsustainable sprawl across the countryside," said CPRE's Policy Director Neil Sinden.

    "CPRE accepts there is a desperate need for more affordable housing. But, this is not the way to do it."

    It was not just environmental groups which have criticised the plans. Construction firm Wates released a report ahead of the housing announcement, criticising the Government's entire approach to Sustainable Communities.

    The report, Failing Communities: Breaking the Cycle warns that the investment in sustainable communities is set to fail unless massive changes are made to practices across the industry.

    "Although sustainability is central to the Government's regeneration plan, a standard system of measurement by which delivery can be benchmarked has not yet been formulated. Procurement processes remain focused on short term capital costs rather than the whole-life cost method that is central to a sustainable approach," it says.

    "We have been tasked with building sustainable communities, yet our performance is not measured against this objective. Although the Government is using 68 Key Performance Indicators to assess whether a community is sustainable, these have not yet been translated into standard practical measures of sustainable development."

    The report says that the construction industry could quite feasibly reduce its environmental footprint in terms of emissions, waste and water usage, but that this will not happen without impetus from Government regulations.
    David Hopkins

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