Briefing: Revamped housing standards system gets ready for take-off

The government's review of housing standards has made further strides over the course of the summer. Paul Watson explains.

Q. What is the Housing Standards Review (HSR)?

A. The government began the review in October 2012 to rationalise the "untenable forest" of overlapping and conflicting standards for the technical performance of new homes in England and to clarify and reduce duplication between regulatory regimes.

A Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) document issued last month consolidates progress so far. It proposes draft technical standards for security, water efficiency, wheelchair user and age-friendly adaptable homes and internal space. It also details principles for introducing and applying some standards via the planning system.

Following the review, the Code for Sustainable Homes will be wound down and a new Zero Carbon Homes standard will come into force through the building regulations from 2016.

Q. How will these new standards be applied?

A. The consultation describes minimum standards for home security, water efficiency and accessibility to be contained in the building regulations. It also defines more stretching optional requirements for water efficiency in areas of water stress and for wheelchair user and adaptable homes, alongside a national standard for internal space.

These optional requirements and the space standard would be introduced and applied through the local plans system and development management. However, the discharge of planning conditions and enforcement will, other than for internal space, be a matter for building control.

The HSR applies to the whole of England. However, it is notable that the proposed national space standard is similar to the terms of the Greater London Authority’s Design Guide – perhaps so as to minimise prospects for conflict or delay in the capital.

Q. Will the optional requirements or the space standard apply to conversions as well?

A. Yes, but only where planning permission is required. Conversions that are pursued as permitted development could not be required to comply.

Q. What would this mean for local and neighbourhood plans?

A. Local plans would be expected to establish the need for adoption of optional requirements for wheelchair user and adaptable homes, perhaps via strategic housing market assessments, and for water efficiency.

Local plan policies would then set out the proportion of new homes to be built to these standards, taking into account any impacts they might have on the viability of development, and criteria to guide their application through planning conditions. These criteria could, for example, recognise issues of viability, innovative design or site-specific constraints such as levels or flood risk. The national space standard would also be applied where necessary and appropriate through the planning system.

Planning authorities would be constrained from setting or applying local policies for building performance other than those established by the HSR. The government will consider enforcing this change through legislation should it prove necessary.

Local authorities would need to consider their existing policies on housing standards and update these accordingly, for example through a partial review of the local plan. Before the optional requirements come into force, they will also need to publish a statement on how current policies should be interpreted in the interim.

Neighbourhood plans could apply the space standard but cannot apply the optional requirements unless a relevant policy is contained in the local plan. Neighbourhood plans could also disapply local plan standards.

Q. How much industry support do these changes carry?

A. There is widespread support for the HSR and the latest consultation is another good step in the right direction. However, concerns remain over the two-tier standard for water efficiency and the government’s reluctance to incorporate the national space standard into the building regulations as well.

The relationship between the application of the new standards and moves to widen permitted development rights also has to play out. The review would place additional burdens on local planning authorities, but this is perhaps reasonable in the light of the needs of the country’s ageing population and pressures on its water resources.

Housing Standards Review: Technical Consultation is available here.

Paul Watson is principal at PRW Strategic Advice and a member of the Housing Standards Review Challenge Panel

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