Planning reforms 'favour builders'
Government proposals to streamline the planning system will "bulldoze" local choice in favour of developers who want to build homes on the cheap, a cross-party committee of MPs has warned.
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee urged ministers to reconsider plans to ditch the Code for Sustainable Homes, which they said has driven up home-building standards and helped to create a thriving sustainable building industry.
The committee also warned that the changes currently being consulted on by the Department for Communities and Local Government risk becoming a "lawyers' charter", forcing local authorities to waste money defending themselves against legal challenges while curtailing local choice and delaying the construction of new homes.
The CSH sets out standards on sustainability factors including energy efficiency, carbon emissions, water conservation, use of materials, surface water run-off, waste and pollution. About 130,000 homes have been built to CSH standards since its launch in 2007 and in 2012, 39% of new dwellings completed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland achieved one of the six levels of CSH compliance. It does not apply in Scotland.
But developers have complained that it adds to the cost of home-building, with a 2011 study finding that the bill for top-level compliance ranges from £28,000 to £38,000 per dwelling - though lower levels were significantly cheape. However, the committee said that ministers had failed to take account of evidence that costs have come down since then.
Environmental Audit Committee chair Joan Walley said: "The Secretary of State should think again before demolishing the Code for Sustainable Homes. The policy has been a big success in driving up home building standards, delivering local choice and supporting green exports. Building materials manufacturers in the UK told us that they use the Code as a green kitemark when they sell their products abroad."
The committee criticised the DCLG for its decision to remove local authorities' discretion to set high CSH standards in favour of a "lowest common denominator" national standard. The 2016 zero carbon homes standard, which is intended to replace CSH standards on energy and water saving, has been "significantly diluted", said the committee.
Ms Walley said: "The Coalition Agreement promised that the Government would 'return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils', but this decision bulldozes local choice in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach designed to benefit developers who want to build homes on the cheap.
"Hundreds of thousands of homes have to be built in the coming decades. Smart energy and water saving measures - which will ultimately save homeowners money on their bills - must become the norm if we want our homes to be fit for the future.
"The Code for Sustainable Homes incentivises developers and designers to think about sustainability from the outset of a project and throughout the development process. It is a proven and flexible way of pushing up home building standards and should not be dropped."
Mike Jones, chairman of the Local Government Association's environment and housing board, said: "This report rightly recognises the role of local authorities in driving up the quality of housing and the need for local areas to have a say on standards. We share its concerns that current Government proposals put this at risk.
"Housing standards have become unnecessarily complex and confusing, partly as a result of additional rules promoted by the industry over the years. The long-overdue simplification of these rules could be achieved through a national framework but only if the range of standards support the development of quality housing and local needs without undermining or delaying local plans. We are keen to work with Government on its review of housing standards to improve on its current proposals."
Communities Minister Stephen Williams said: "New homes are already being built to high standards of energy efficiency introduced by this government, saving people up to £200 a year on their fuel bills and £60,000 for businesses, as well as making major reductions in carbon emissions from all new buildings.
"We will be going further still by making all new homes zero carbon from 2016.
"There exists however an array of additional standards that councils can apply, or not, on their patch creating a bureaucratic mish mash of rules that housebuilders face across the country. We are consulting on how best to end this confusion and create a simple and effective set of standards that councils and housebuilders can understand and that support new homebuilding without compromising safety or sustainability standards."