Building the homes the nation needs has been the subject of much political attention, both in February’s Housing White Paper and the recent general election. As Martin Harper blogged yesterday, the RSPB recognises the challenges in delivering the new homes that the country needs but we think that it is possible to meet housing needs in a way that contributes to nature and people’s enjoyment of our natural world, and reduces our impact on the environment.

Today a group of housing experts publishes their view of what’s needed to put this into practice. Building homes is not simply a matter of increasing housing supply, but – as the housing white paper recognises – ‘creating healthy and attractive places where people genuinely want to live’. To me, that means not only avoiding special places like Lodge Hill, but adopting high quality design and environmental standards. It’s sometimes argued that this is too costly, so my paper ‘Are high quality homes a utopian ideal?’ explores whether cost is really such a big issue.

Take energy-efficient new homes. They bring clear benefits to consumers in lower fuel bills, and are also a key part of strategies to reduce dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The upfront costs have been falling over time, and the evidence shows that there are significant savings for consumers. Yet, under the last government, progress towards zero carbon homes stalled. It’s essential that the new government set out a clear pathway to delivering energy-efficient homes at scale.

Nature-friendly housing developments are a rather different matter. It’s harder to regulate for biodiversity features when wildlife depends so much on the local context. Yet there are many low-cost interventions that designers can make, like swift bricks, hedgehog highways and wildflower verges. We are working with Barratt Developments to incorporate features like these in their Kingsbrook development in Aylesbury (see photo below). The issue here is more about making sure that local planning authorities have the right technical skills to know what to ask for, so it’s important that the housing white paper’s proposal to boost local authority fee income supports specialist officers such as ecologists as well as front-line planning staff.

 

Ultimately, the additional costs of building to higher standards – if there are any – should be reflected in the price the housebuilder is willing to pay for the land. What really matters is the standards that society is willing to accept.

While I was writing my paper, I was also researching my family history and I discovered that a distant ancestor had lived in a back-to-back house in Nottingham in the 1840s. Nottingham was notorious for its poor housing conditions and had the highest concentration of back-to-back houses in the country. Yet in nineteenth-century debates, it was argued that banning back-to-backs would restrict the choice of housing for people at the bottom end of the market. There is an uncanny parallel with modern arguments about the costs of high standards for new homes.

Society’s notion of what is acceptable was changing then and it will continue to change; as we build homes fit for the 21st century the question is whether we can take a perspective that recognises the wider benefits for people’s quality of life. Back-to-backs were eventually outlawed, and few now survive anywhere in the country. We need to take action now so that in the future, high carbon homes with no access to nature will equally become a historical oddity.

Note:

The Lyons Edited Collection was published by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) and edited by Sir Michael Lyons, Luke Murphy, Charlotte Snelling and Caroline Green.

The essays in the collection (found here) build on the work of the original Lyons Housing Commission in seeking to help the new government to orchestrate a bold and sustainable increase in the supply of new high quality homes of all tenures.

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