Producing 240,000 well-designed homes each year by 2016 with no net additions to global warming emissions is a tall but achievable order, former English Partnerships chief executive John Callcutt argued last week when he delivered his review of the house building industry.
Callcutt has managed to generate some consensus among planners, developers and ministers on what is needed to drive forward housing delivery. At the launch of the review, many expressed agreement and even delight with the proposals, which focus on regenerating large chunks of urban areas and avoiding sprawl.
Callcutt's key aim is for local planning authorities and the development industry to work more closely to overcome a historical relationship of mutual suspicion and mistrust. He suggests councils should join forces with developers through partnership agreements to help attract money to low-value areas.
For planners, the proposals might spearhead large-scale regeneration and revive difficult brownfield sites. Equally, developers will have an opportunity to revamp larger areas than they would usually be able to tackle through individual projects. While there are examples of large-scale partnerships in north Solihull and east of Leeds, Callcutt wants to see a wider rollout to meet the government's housing targets.
Government welcomes review
Other measures in the review have also been well received. The government immediately endorsed moves to oblige developers to make a genuine start on sites with planning permission. It has also promised to work with the UK Green Building Council to set up an independent body to co-ordinate the task of making all new homes zero carbon by 2016.
However, housing and planning minister Yvette Cooper was less forthcoming on Callcutt's call for a national design review process. She recognises that many developers do not see this as central to their work and believes that there should be proper incentives to improve quality. But she seems to have overlooked Callcutt's suggestion that passing design reviews could help secure planning approval more speedily.
"The biggest issue on planning is the politicisation of design. A national design review will help drive schemes through the system," Callcutt argues. RTPI policy director Rynd Smith emphasises that the government needs to recognise the role that quality plays in supporting housing quantity. "Councils need access to high-level design expertise that provides quick and timely advice," he maintains.
The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment welcomes the potential for extending its design review service. But campaigns director Matt Bell is concerned that some developers will still not take quality seriously. He disputes Callcutt's idea that once a scheme passes a design review it should be immune from planning challenges. "We do not want developers shredding the quality or sacking the designers once they get a half-decent review on the assumption that no-one can now hold them up," he warns.
Much of the review's success will depend on persuading all the players in the sector to move quickly. English Partnerships director of corporate strategy Trevor Beattie endorses the review's key messages. "When a major expansion of house building is planned it is the right time to stress the importance of quality and sustainability," he argues.
The zero carbon goal presents the most difficult aspect of the housing challenge, most parties acknowledge. Callcutt stresses that the UK has to move from lagging behind other European nations to become a world leader in this field in less than nine years. Hitting the target depends on sorting out the definition of zero carbon and resolving the vexed question of whether it includes off-site renewables. The government's 2016 task force is due to pronounce on these matters next spring.
Green body to outline strategy
UK Green Building Council chief Paul King acknowledges the scale of the challenge: "Building 240,000 zero carbon homes in vibrant, sustainable communities will make the Olympics look like a hobby." King welcomes the move to establish a body to drive the process and aims to produce a report on ways ahead for the government by Christmas.
For some, the review does not deal with ongoing problems in the planning system, although Callcutt points out that this was not part of his remit. DLA Piper partner Peter Taylor comments: "Any failure to reach the 240,000 target will not be down to land banking but will be because of continued delays in the planning system."
Some developers have been vocal in raising grievances about what they call the "slow and cumbersome planning system" and dismiss land banking as an issue. "A significant change in the attitude of local government will be needed to speed up the planning process. All parties need to find better ways of working together," says Home Builders Federation chief executive Stewart Baseley.
Overall, however, the review offers positive measures for delivery. "This is a practical rather than an intellectual report. We have got to find a better way forward," Callcutt insists. Now it is up to the government to provide strong leadership on zero carbon, local authorities to be proactive in driving renewal and developers to take quality seriously.
The Callcutt Review of House Building Delivery is available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc
- Councils and developers should form partnerships to regenerate urban areas.
- Developers must make a substantial start on sites with planning permission.
- An independent body is needed to drive the zero carbon goal.
- A national design review process should be rolled out to improve housing quality.
- An industry standard should be created to make it harder for house builders to hide land assets.
- House builders must meet customer satisfaction standards to receive public subsidy.