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Housing quality is a key pledge to the future

Gwyn Roberts of BRE shares his thoughts on the critical importance of housing quality, and the UK’s leading role in sustainable and innovative construction

 

WHEN Prime Minister Theresa May called for a snap General Election last month she made it clear that Brexit – and in particular her attempt to strengthen her hand ahead of potentially UK prosperity-defining trade negotiations with the European Union – was central to her decision.

Brexit has dominated the early pre-election political exchanges, and with just weeks to go until the electorate heads to the polls, we expect the issue to remain at the very top of the agenda for all the main parties.

As such, we feel that housing and construction, as high-value commodities and significant contributors to UK export figures, should be given due consideration by all the main parties in their election manifestos. Furthermore, the debate should be extended beyond mere number-based targets to factor in wider issues such as quality and the sector’s post-Brexit significance.

The UK construction industry is currently seen as being at the leading edge of sustainable design and construction, as exemplified by the major roles played by UK companies in the success of a broad range of high-performance projects in both the UK and abroad.

As a result, the UK’s sustainable design and construction capabilities – including its knowledge and expertise as well as its focus on innovation, driven by standards such as BREEAM – have become significant contributors to UK exports.

Given that the campaign manifestos currently being finalised [at the time of writing] will span a period when UK prosperity will be heavily dependent on our position to negotiate favourable trade deals with Europe, ensuring we protect and nurture these assets is essential.

This requires active debate and investment on a much deeper level than just numbers – both in terms of targets and budgets.

By way of example, the Labour Party has recently pledged to build one million new homes during the next five years. All well and good, but there has been no commitment given to the quality of these homes and the viability of delivering quality homes and communities.

If we are not to create any “dead weight” (cost) to the treasury for UK PLC, one area that the political parties could give some thought to is evolving existing mechanisms to be more effective to new challenges. With increasing demands placed on Planning Authorities, and reduced funding to be as much of a mantra post-election as it is pre-election, it is essential that the parties give local authorities space and capacity to look at development and the wider context of what we need to achieve at a neighbourhood/community scale. With a great suggestion that a windfall tax on developers could also be applied if they don’t achieve quality / sustainability standards, this is a space to watch I'm sure.

This should be focused on seeking positive improvements in the quality of the built, natural and historic environment, as well as in people’s quality of life:

  • Making it easier for jobs to be created in cities, towns and villages
  • Moving from a net loss of bio-diversity to achieving net gains for nature
  • Replacing poor design with better design
  • Improving the conditions in which people live, work, travel and take leisure
  • Widening the choice of high quality homes

I therefore hope that the parties, as they look to an agenda of growth, ensure this wider perspective is taken. We have already heard much talk about the police and the NHS, but to ensure that we don’t put pressure on these important services in time of crisis, we need to build better communities to reduce crime and promote healthier living.

With all the necessary elements already in place, there is just the need to take the long-term view on the viability of development – the avowed purpose of the planning system but sometimes only looked at as the viability of the individual site and not the wider community. I would therefore hope that the parties look to recast how we consider development.

A number of keen eyed readers will perhaps already noticed increased amount of column inches given to land value capture as a concept. But one thing is for sure we need to:

  • Take a long-term view, to ensure that issues such as inter-generational equity or climate change mitigation and adaptation are taken adequately into account
  • Address the social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainable development “jointly and simultaneously”
  • Consider the likely success of any proposal in achieving positive improvements in the quality of the built, natural and historic environment, as well as in people’s quality of life

I hope the debate on quality as a base to demonstrate what the UK can achieve and to drive the quality of our buildings and communities is one that will not get passed by. To make BREXIT work, we need to show what we can achieve and make the UK a success. Quality is a key to much that we need to achieve to drive this success.

 

ADDENDUM: The above blog was supplied just prior to the publication of the main party manifestos. In the wake of their publication, Gwyn Roberts comments:

“In light of the publication of the main parties’ manifestos this week, it is encouraging to see housing quality mentioned in all three. Housing quality is very important in improving people’s health and wellbeing.

However, while the main political debate is focusing on increasing the quantity of houses being built, I would urge MPs to elevate the position of housing quality in their priorities, to ensure that the homes built are able to stand the test of the time, with minimal environmental impact during the building process.

Promises of specific numbers of houses to be built, for example, 300,000 a year by the Liberal Democrats, must not be rushed at the cost of quality. It may be advisable to take a more limited, higher quality approach, to ensure that the homes we invest in building are durable and long-lasting.

Whilst the Conservatives have vowed that “more homes will not mean poor quality homes”, remaining parties have been restricted to zero carbon homes with regards to build quality. However, it is important to understand that there is much more to quality than this one factor; housing quality covers a whole spectrum of areas, including high specification building materials, good indoor air quality, sustainable community and quick links to transport and amenities, in addition to minimal environmental footprint.

It is imperative that whichever party is elected follow through with their commitments in the housing sector, and recognise the strong links between good quality housebuilding and general wellbeing.”

 

Gwyn Roberts is Home Quality Mark (HQM) project leader and BRE homes and communities team leader

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