The government’s review may have been long winded, but it looks like it could deliver a better system

Rachel Fisher

It is no secret that we are not building enough homes to keep up with demand. This lack of supply is one of the reasons that house prices (both rental and purchase) remain out of reach for millions of people in England. In the run up to the election the three main parties are vying with one another as to how many homes they pledge to build. Of course those with memories stretching back to the Barker Review (v.1) will recall that pledging to build homes isn’t the same as actually seeing them come out of the ground.

The actual causes of this affordability crisis are more complex than simple supply and demand curves on a graph. One of the issues raised by housebuilders is the level of regulation to which they are subjected. The government has listened and the past two years has seen a plethora of reviews, challenges and commissions touching on the issues of standards and design. Since the then housing minister Grant Shapps scrapped the HCA Standards in 2010 we have seen: The Harman Review, a crowd-sourced Red Tape Challenge led by Cabinet Office, the Housing Standards Review (with its attendant Challenge Panel), and of course the Planning Guidance Review led by Lord Matthew Taylor. Finally the Environmental Audit Committee held a brief enquiry which reported last week focusing on the wind down of the Code for Sustainable Homes proposed in the Housing Standards Review’s consultation.

Speaking at the National Housing Federation’s housing standards conference the new minister Stephen Williams MP said that “the housing standards review had tried to strike a balance. Between costs and quality. Between sensible rules and limiting bureaucracy.” There is no question that additional standards can cost money.

The EAC has failed even to refer to the emerging evidence that some of the technologies incentivised by the Code for Sustainable Homes are costly to run and maintain.

The question is, is this money enough to hold up development in any meaningful sense? And, perhaps more importantly, do these ‘additional’ standards result in homes that will be adaptable and flexible enough to survive the changes in lifestyle, technology, and costs of living that we are likely to see in the next 20 years? If so, then arguably the upfront costs of creating quality homes will ultimately be repaid through lower costs over the lifetime of the home.

One area for which this seems increasingly true is that of energy efficiency. Fuel bills are only headed in one direction, and so it makes sense that the homes we build use less of it. As fuel bills and other costs of living such as food continue to go up, you could conceive of a time when homes (for rent or purchase) are advertised based on the total projected monthly bills. Yes, the lovely Victorian terrace may cost the same to purchase as a new home, but I can almost guarantee that it will costs a heck of a lot more to heat.

The Environmental Audit Committee has called the Housing Standards Review proposal to wind down the Code for Sustainable Homes ‘a lawyer’s charter’ and that the government should revise and retain the code as a way to drive continuous improvement and innovation in the sector. No doubt the code has driven the housebuilding industry to take sustainability seriously, and to embed it within their design and procurement practices, but the EAC has failed even to refer to the emerging evidence from housing associations (who have by far the most experience of not only building, but managing code homes) that some of the technologies incentivised by the code are costly to run and maintain. The EAC’s conclusion, to update and keep the code, would not be consistent with the drive to simplify and streamline housing standards. If we are really serious about embedding environmental performance across all house building then that must be done through Building Regulations.

In an effort to reduce the costs of housebuilding, thus making more schemes viable, we cannot lose sight of quality, but nor can we cling to systems that grew by accretion and are therefore not fit for purpose.

The housing standards review’s terms of reference made it clear that they wanted to radically reduce the “untenable forest” of standards that had grown up over the years. I agree, but rather than a radical deforestation policy we need to look carefully at the standards which are essential, and which make homes that are good places to live both now and in the future. I believe that overall the housing standards review, with its close involvement of all sectors of the housebuilding industry, standards owners, and other interest groups, has broadly accomplished this task. We eagerly anticipate the government’s response to the consultation (sometime in the new year). Clearly the transitional arrangements will be critical as will measures to ensure that this level of undergrowth does not develop in future, but with a bit of luck, all these reviews and commissions will have created a simpler system which

Rachel Fisher is head of policy at the National Housing Federation