The 2015 Election and Housing Standards

The next year will be a defining one in the history of UK housing. In March (?) we expect to hear from the Housing Standards Review that there will be a once-in-a-generation set of changes to housing standards. This may involve extending the Building regulations to include spatial standards as well as standards for wheelchair housing. It will signal the end of the Governments use of the Code for sustainable Homes to set higher standards for affordable housing, and it will also end the DCLG’s ability to use this standard to indicate future direction for housing regulation. So, while DCLG can now use the Code to propose and test future regulation, giving housebuilders, designers and developers time to test, feedback and prepare for the new rules well before they come into force, in the future we will be back to using the Building Regulations Advisory Committee (BRAC).

There is no doubt that having a mechanism to test future regulation well before it is adopted has been a useful feature of the Code. Projects like AIMC4 have been spurred by the presence of the Code and have enabled housebuilders and fabric manufacturers to develop systems and processes that otherwise wouldn’t have been contemplated. Without this type of mechanism changes in regulation are subject to political whims, such as the delays to the announcement of the Building Regulations 2014 targets for Part L which means that designers and housebuilders won’t get access to new versions of the SAP 2013 tool until March this year, a month before they will be used. This is not good enough. Any industry needs time to understand new regulation before it is enforced, and a few weeks is not long enough.

Returning to the Housing Standards Review, I wonder whether ministers are going to take the political gamble of proceeding with the steps as consulted upon. A very wet winter has brought the subject of climate change to the top of the political agenda. The parties are scrambling to produce policies for the next election that demonstrate that they are taking flooding seriously, and that means taking climate change seriously. It is interesting that the Housing Standards Review doesn’t mention flooding or flood risk at all, and only considers water in the context of water usage and low water use fittings. SUDS is left out of consideration in the document, despite being an element of the Code for Sustainable Homes since 2007. The National SUDS standard being developed by DEFRA has been delayed since 2011, apparently by resistance from housebuilders who don’t want to incorporate measures into schemes because of the additional costs involved. The national standards came from the Pitt report which was prompted by widespread flooding in 2007. This omission will come under more scrutiny when the review announces its proposals.

later on in the year we will have the preparations for the 2015 election. Already Labour and the Lib Dems are making noises about housing in preparation for their manifestoes. Even the Princess Royal is getting into the act! Every man and his dog will have a housing policy by the end of the year. Including innovative measures such as:

-offering homes for sale in the UK first, and only offering unsold units overseas.

-using Government land for self-build-custom build-small developers only

-a land tax on land banking

-capital gains taxation for overseas buyers (why don’t we have this already?)

-confining growth to every rural village!

None of these are going to be popular with housebuilders or the Conservatives, but I can see the first being popular with UKIP voters, and anything that is likely to work for UKIP will get serious attention from the Tories as the UKIP vote eats into Tory seats.

The truth is that politics and housing do not work well together. Housing policy needs to be long-term to work, and the current set of knee-jerk policies look to be out-of-date even before they are implemented. The revolving door of the housing ministry has meant that no-one has taken the job seriously for a decade and that is at least partially responsible for the hotch-potch of measures and policies we are now discussing. The five-year window of opportunity granted by modern politics is simply too short for a housing industry to function. Getting a single site built takes at least three years, when you already have the land. The housing industry, including housebuilders, contractors, designers, housing associations and local authorities needs to take more control of its destiny, and tell Government what its policies ought to be.

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