Coronavirus Could Deepen Inequality. Planning Law Changes Risk Being An Accelerant

Efforts to simplify and streamline the planning system cannot come at the expense of the quality of homes, Henry Smith writes.

The government has announced today “once in a generation” reforms to the country’s planning regulations; far-reaching changes that promise to make it easier to build much-needed new homes.

Their focus on increasing house building is welcome, but efforts to simplify and streamline the planning system cannot come at the expense of the quality of homes.

Poor quality housing costs the NHS £1.4bn a year. The devil will be in the detail and the kind of design standards that sit behind different “zones” it has proposed.

But without care, these reforms could lead us into building a generation of substandard housing – or as many are calling “slums of the future”.

We all know that England is in a housing crisis with a lack of affordable, accessible housing. As the population ages, this need for better quality homes that are suitable for people’s changing needs as they get older is only going to become more acute. In less than 20 years, one in in four of us will be aged over 65 and, at that age, we can expect to live just half of our remaining years free from disability. Done right, these reforms offer government a real chance to respond to the shifting age profile that we’re experiencing.

One of the simplest way to do this is to require that all new homes are built to accessible standards. In practice, this means things like not having steps up to a front door, making doorways slightly wider, installing bathrooms that are one level. Homes with these features don’t just work for people with mobility issues – helping people to remain safe and independent in their own homes – they are the kinds of changes that make life much easier for families too. Ageing Better has convened the HoME coalition of 10 organisations, which is urging the government to bring forward changes to raise the minimum standard of accessibility in the Building Regulations.

Then there is the issue of quality. We’ve all seen the dangers of deregulation. The expansion of permitted development rights – essentially allowing developers to convert offices and other commercial buildings with limited checks has led to very poor quality – and in some cases virtually uninhabitable – homes. These homes are often without safe access and cut off from local amenities. The new planning reforms cannot allow these kinds of construction crimes.

Good quality means decent space and natural light, being energy efficient to allow people to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Data shows that one in ten over-60s who live alone struggle to heat their homes, which can lead or contribute to poor health. Better insulation is a key factor to creating more suitable homes for our ageing population, as it is for people of all ages and key to the decarbonisation of our homes.

We also need a proper chance for people to input into plans to build homes in their communities. Currently most local people engage with planning at the point when applications are made, and if the government make changes to this process, as proposed, there’s a risk that local accountability will be diminished.

The government then must make sure that local people understand and can feedback on plans that will affect them. This is particularly people in more deprived and urban areas who it seems from proposals will be less protected than those in areas such as greenbelt, requiring less scrutiny.

Finally, the government must use this as an opportunity to level-up by enabling more social housing to be built. They have already recognised the huge inequality that exists across the country, which the coronavirus pandemic threatens to deepen. They must then ensure that these changes don’t lead to a new generation of unaffordable homes or a lack of social housing.

The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us that where we live, the quality of our homes and our connection with communities we live in really matter. In trying to build our country out of this crisis it’s imperative the government doesn’t forget this.

Henry Smith is senior programme manager - homes, for the Centre For Ageing Better.


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