Five steps to providing more homes without trashing the environment

Let’s start by putting aside the debate about whether we need more housing. It’s been done to death, and the overwhelming consensus is that we need more homes if the law of supply and demand is not to make housing already more unaffordable than now.

The real-world debate is about where those new homes should be built. There are broadly three options: within existing settlements, both rural and urban; extending the boundaries of those settlements; or creating new settlements. Reality means a combination of all three, but striking the balance is the difficult bit.

A key tension is how we create enough housing while preventing unnecessary damage to the natural and built environments. Can we proceed in a way which will not inflame town against country? Can we deliver development with minimum adverse impacts on the natural environment – of which we are temporary stewards – and maximum positive impacts on the built environment? Can we avoid building sprawl which changes the character of communities, often for the worse?

There is no magic wand, but we could begin with a simple toughening-up of some planning policies.

First, force house-builders to stick to their commitments on providing affordable housing. When a developer says a specific proportion of the houses on a development will be affordable, that is the figure that should be delivered. The final plans for the Sherford new community near Plymouth show a reduction from the initial 40% proposal to 15%. Affordable housing benefits local people on modest incomes.

Second, to make better use of what we already have, there should be restrictions on second homes. This will assist the housing shortage and prevent communities from being turned into ghost villages. An outright ban on owning more than one home would certainly be unenforceable and probably politically unacceptable, but some form of punitive taxation on homes not normally occupied for less than, say, 4 days a week could be devised.

Third, and continuing the theme of better use of existing buildings, the common practice of planners specifying separate zones for housing and for other non-intrusive uses should become the exception, not the norm.   Housing and retail can mix very easily. Walk along almost any shopping street outside the honeypots and look at the number of unused rooms on the floors above the shop facades. As current buildings reach their sell-by date, there is an opportunity to use high-class architectural designs to turn those streets into a vibrant mix of ground-floor retail with 3 or 4 floors of housing above them.

Fourth, stop the urban sprawl. In my home town of Exeter, the local plan provides for 12,000 new homes over the period 2006-26, mostly located on the existing city boundaries, and taking up greenfield land. More intensive housing densities within the city, a willingness to think of 5 floors rather than 3 as the norm, and a purge on persistently empty houses would not only enable the city to meet its own needs. It would also retain its compactness, which is one of Exeter’s great attractions. The same can be said of many towns around the country.  And sprawl doesn’t help our battle against climate change.

Finally, central government needs to take land use policy out of the “too difficult” tray. In particular, it needs to recognise that land is not just there to be built on.  Policy needs to understand the vital role of land in producing our food and put food production on a level playing-field with other industries when it comes to land allocation decisions. At present, agricultural land can be taken for housing developments because government inspectors enforce policy-led housing targets in local plans. In the same way, renewable energy structures on farmland have been gaining planning permission because there is a government policy to increase renewable energy generating capacity. But there is no food production target, because successive governments believe it’s best left to the global market, and so farmland has no defence against the developers.

These measures don’t provide all the solutions. But can we make a start here please?

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