Housing Boss: Government plans to expand office block conversions could create “slums for the future”

MARY Parsons, Chair of the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA), and a Commissioner for the Government’s ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ Commission, has written to the Prime Minister, urging him to use his reforms of the planning system as an opportunity to ensure that that the system delivers effectively and ensures better and more consistent outcomes.

Ms Parsons is a key member of Places for People who are instrumental in bringing to life the Harlow and Gilston and Garden Town project.

The letter will resonate with many in Harlow, who fear that the government plans will undermine a number of the projects in Harlow.

Dear Prime Minister

I write as Chair of the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA), but also as one of the Commissioners for the Government’s ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ Commission which reported to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government at the turn of this year.

In both capacities, the Government’s commitment to address both the quality as well as the quantity of new homes is welcomed and I look forward to seeing how the Commission’s findings can be implemented in communities across the U K through your proposed planning reforms.

However, many people have voiced concerns that, through the extension of permitted development rights, we risk creating what will become the slums of the future. Homes that are not fit to live in, to bring up children in – that may have a catastrophic impact on the mental and physical health and wellbeing of the people forced to live in them and a blight on their future life chances.

As the research by UCL and the University of Liverpool, commissioned and published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, highlighted recently, “it is the combination of very small internal space standards, a poor mix of unit types, lack of access to private amenity space / outdoor space, and inadequate natural light which can provide such a poor residential experience in some permitted development units.”

It was reassuring to hear your response, therefore, at Prime Ministers Question Time on 22nd July to this very issue being raised by Clive Betts MP, that, “… we will ensure that we not only build back better and more beautifully, but that we will give people the space that they need to live and grow in the homes that we will build”.

This is something that the TCPA has campaigned for now for some time, and that the Commission recommended; that all homes, whether by new build or through permitted development rights, “should meet minimum standards for space, amenity and comfort, as well as the safety of the people that live there” (p30). The TCPA has advocated the introduction of a ‘Healthy Homes Act’ which we believe offers Government a powerful way to promote good place-making and design by enshrining the ‘healthy homes principles’ in law, which together define what constitutes a healthy home and neighbourhood.

As you look to the reform of the planning system, we believe this is a real opportunity to make sure that that the system delivers effectively and ensures better and more consistent outcomes. The Minister of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Lord Greenhalgh, stated on 28th July that our concerns were addressed through building regulations.

But this simply is not the case. At present rules for housing and planning are spread across building regulations, the national planning framework, technical standards and local planning requirements and key factors of residents’ wellbeing may fall between the gaps. This creates uncertainty for the housing sector and allows forthe development of dangerous housing and places. We welcome the steps the Government has taken on daylighting and fire safety, but there are other essential elements of a “healthy home” that must not be overlooked.

Covid-19 has made every one of us realise the true importance of our homes and our neighbourhoods. As you turn attention to the health and wellbeing factors that may increase our risk from Covid, please don’t lose sight that poor housing is a real contributory factor and the investment the Government may make now would show returns on the health of our communities for generations to come. Specifically, we also ask you to include in the forthcoming planning reforms the need for legislation setting out the principles for a “healthy home”. We would be delighted to set out more detail about this if it would be helpful.

As before when our country has faced crisis, we know the value of building better. The Addison Act that understood that crucial correlation of health and housing, the birth of the Garden Cities movement, which are the roots of the organisation I am proud to Chair, the post-war slum clearance and new housing programme of Howard Macmillan are testimony to this and offer lessons for us today. Please make your commitment to build better and more beautifully a true legacy of your premiership for all of our nation.

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