But the departing PM’s eleventh-hour announcements on housing might have given us just enough to build on. So let’s get on with it, says Julia Park

Julia Park

It’s become normal for the Secretary of State and the Housing Minister to make scheduled appearances at large housing conferences, praise their own record, make a couple of new announcements and disappear as quickly as they came – carefully avoiding awkward questions.

And so it was at the Chartered Institute of Housing conference a couple of weeks ago, where the swarm of housing professionals on Manchester’s streets seemed as large as ever but the mood more subdued. As we know only too well, add in a leadership contest to a Parliament already consumed by Brexit and near paralysis on everything else is inevitable.

The first hint of regulatory change came on the opening day of the conference. Speaking on early morning national radio, Amber Rudd announced a number of new measures to support disabled people – including making new housing more accessible. She wasn’t explicit, but my guess, following a review of Part M BRAC (Building Regulations Advisory Committee), is that we will be consulted on Category 2 of Part M (essentially Lifetime Homes) becoming the minimum standard for new homes. I hope I’m right; the demographic evidence could hardly be clearer. It’s worked in London and it’s the right thing to do as long as there’s a pragmatic understanding that step-free access will not be possible to every new home.

At the conference itself, both the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, and the Housing Minister, Kit Malthouse, gave scheduled keynotes. Brokenshire lauded the new housing ombudsman and the end of leaseholds for houses, and promised an improved planning process and money for councils to build. He also hinted that Help to Buy may be contingent on developers delivering to a defined level of quality – something that many of us suggested at the start and should also apply wherever public land or public money is involved.

Malthouse concentrated on quality too: “While we’re all accepting the case for more houses, we haven’t really yet embraced the case for better.” The motivation is fairly transparent. It’s very largely about winning public support for new development in order to meet the target of 300,000 new homes a year, but the fact that he mentioned a “promise that we made to future generations that we will leave this country in a better place than we found it”, is welcome. His message to local authorities to “let architects in”, a bit too cryptic.

Homes England and MHCLG were out in force and featured heavily in the conference programme as panel members and session chairs. Good work is undoubtedly going on behind the scenes but the jury is out on the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, and the newly commissioned Design Manual ­­– presumably intended to help local planning authorities to “refuse poor design” – as promised in the latest NPPF.

Rumours about a surprise visit from the Prime Minister on Wednesday afternoon began circulating on the opening day. I hadn’t given up on the Nationally Described Space Standard being taken into regulation, and Permitted Development has surely shown everyone that it’s a necessary move, but I wasn’t expecting to hear it at the conference and certainly not from Theresa May herself. Clearly well briefed, she seemed as close to passionate as she’s capable of sounding. Having campaigned on this issue for many years, it was quite something to hear the Prime Minister give the NDSS (cupboards in particular!) such fulsome support.

But it was bittersweet. Housing policy generally has improved under her watch but largely only because the preceding six years, from 2010-16, were so appalling. Acknowledging the need for more affordable housing, lifting the HRA borrowing cap and more funding have all been the result of buckling under sustained pressure rather than positive choices. And she’s leaving. She’s had three years. There is so much more she could have done if she’d really wanted to. It could have been a tangible legacy rather than a belated wish list.

So where does this leave us? These last-minute pronouncements will carry some weight going forwards but a new Prime Minister means new priorities, and a new Cabinet. Whichever candidate takes office will probably wish to distance himself from Theresa May so she might even have done more harm than good. If it’s Boris, he may need reminding that, as Mayor of London, he introduced minimum space standards to bring an end to “Hobbit homes”. His soon-to be-revamped London Housing Design Guide also brought in Lifetime Homes, ambitious energy targets and daylight standards.

I’d be surprised if London’s housing standards are at risk but it’s by no mean certain that the rest of the country will follow. There’s no doubt that all political parties agree that we need better-quality housing, post-Grenfell regulatory reform, and a step-change in environmental standards. Despite all of that, ministers and civil servants seem terrified of hard metrics, preferring instead to hide behind the fluffier blankets of design codes, toolkits and other words to describe non-binding, nice-to-haves.

Of course many facets of quality can’t be measured objectively but for those that can, let’s get on with it. We don’t need to spend years (and millions of pounds) on research or impact assessments that tell us what we already know; that daylight, ventilation, space, accessibility, soundproofing and air quality matter as much as ever and that regulation is the simplest way to secure them. Space and accessibility were subject to public consultation and impact assessment during the Housing Standards review too – just a few years ago.

The fact that so many developers are finally embracing MMC provides an equally compelling imperative. Factory building relies on economies of scale and regulatory certainty is crucial. It would be tragic if the improved performance metrics that are so badly needed were drip-fed over a period of years in the misguided belief that it would soften the blow or we might not notice. I think developers are ready to step up now but they need any changes to come in parallel and with a decent lead-in period to have the confidence to place large orders and allow the extra cost to come out of land value.

They, and we (design professionals across all disciplines) need to take the lead when it comes to framing the technical requirements too. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels that Approved Documents should be shorter, less ambiguous, more practical and aligned with each other. Give us a set that relates specifically to housing – but one that recognises the full breadth of mainstream and specialised housing, is based on wellbeing as well as safety, and that aligns with a new set of planning use classes. Too much to expect? Probably. But worth fighting for.