Housing technical standards

These are a few reflections on the new housing standards regime introduced with a short sharp ministerial statement in the dying days of the last parliament.

That makes it sound as though it was a bit of a shock – but it shouldn’t have been, what with two consultations and the general zeitgeist of the Government’s  challenge to localism in plans.

What surprised me at the events that we have just finished is that it had caught many LPAs by surprise.  Luckily, the building control sector have been much more on board and as the regime sees much of the heavy lifting being done through the building regulations, this is just as well.  But the standards effect planning both DM and Policy making so we should have been paying attention.

The big sell for the new regime was to introduce some consistency for developers. The impact statement predicts huge cost savings for developers.    These will largely come from the greater ability to standardise house types/ construction methods for large developers who can build a standardised set of designs -albeit faced and decorated differently as appropriate – and deliver these more speedily.

Paradoxically,  by allowing councils to opt in to the standards has meant that inconsistency remains. And…there are additional costs to councils in collecting evidence before deciding whether or not to adopt policies requiring compliance with the standards in their local plans

Summarising hugely, here is the way the regime works:

  • Councils no longer have the right to impose local technical standards for housing.
  • All local standards (also lifetime homes and code for sustainable homes)  have been replaced by a suite of national standards that cover accessibility, energy efficiency, water efficiency,  security and internal space standards
  • The national standards are known as “optional standards” because (except for security*) it is optional for the LPA to impose the standards through local plan policies
  • The national standards don’t apply to conversion properties (they only apply to applications for building and therefore not to homes created from e.g. PD office conversions)
  • The standards for water, energy and accessibility have been adopted into the building regulations and if imposed by a planning condition, compliance  will be “enforced”** through building control
  • The  national space standard will remain with planning – ie. imposed by planning condition and subject to planning enforcement.***
  • The transition phase is now finished (1 October 2105 for everything except energy)
  • From now, only councils with policies in their plans that would have required housing to meet similar local standards can impose the new standards.  This is called “Passporting”****
  •  But councils are encouraged to consider the matter in a partial review of their local plan – policies requiring adherence of the optional national standards should only be made if the council has considered evidence as to whether the standards are required in the area and that imposing them will not adversely affect the financial viability of development.
  • the code for sustainable homes  is no more except for legacy cases
  • zero carbon homes is also a thing of the past (although not yet formally abandoned)
  • In regard to energy, councils can use existing policies but only to require up to code 4 with Part L of the building regs coming in October 2016.
* The security standard is now Part Q of the building regs and covers locks etc, is compulsory but doesn’t effect other secure by design issues.
** Enforcement in the context of building regulations is rather more compliance – ie. if you haven’t complied with the requirements, you will not be getting the completion certificates that you need to have to satisfy lenders etc.
*** For space standards, planning will have to work out a compliance mechanism for checking during the construction.  You might seek the services of your LA building control colleagues – but remember that they may be reluctant to take on a service that will put them at a market disadvantage vis a vis the local independent building control people.
****As there is a degree of discretion about whether an LA chooses to use the “Passporting” option it must be good practice to let your  developers and community know what to expect.  Therefore I suggest that you take a report through committee or council setting out what your current position is and explaining  the new standards will mean for development.

Each council at some stage will need to make a decision on which if any standards are going to be applied in their area.  This decision the guidance says , should be based on evidence of need and a judgement about impact on viability.

Thinking about access standards. Its clearly important to ensure that percentage of new homes capable of adaptation for people with disabilities, or wheelchair housing for those who need it.  But a examining building regulations requirements under part M2 and M3 really underlines the need for planners to ensure that the policies requiring compliance are nuanced to place.  A broad percentage requirement (20% of all new homes…) is not sensible.  Idealism shouldn’t trump a good look out of the window to understand what need really is and whether there is capacity to deliver in a sensible way.  Building regs dont have the same give and take in their implementation, so practicality and place need to be considered. Try a criteria based approach policy identifying which kind of sites are suitable for the standards to be applied.

Are space standards  always necessary in order to prevent falling standards for those who cant exercise market choice, but aren’t protected by housing association standards?  Some small residential units built to a good quality and standard can be perfectly acceptable living accommodation. There is no way to police the number of people living in a units, so larger units can in fact have similar issues simply from overcrowding.  Delegates from areas with notable deprivation cited more issues due to bad landlords than to small new homes.  So its important for planners to seek guidance from their housing colleagues before embarking on detailed evidence gathering.  Do they feel the existing housing is meeting the need most of the time?

To an extent the decision about whether energy and water efficiency standards are required is likely to be driven more by the leanings of the politicians in an area, and in the case of the latter by a judgement based on evidence already help by the Environment Agency.

What’s not covered by the current suite of national standards but may impact directly on the quality of homes are:

  • indoor environment inc daylighting, sunlighting and sound insulation
  • materials
  • use of labelling, insurances & warranties

But as these are technical standards, as I understand it, for now  at least, councils are not going to be able to set policies to deal with these.

Any questions or doubts – look at the PPG – its  helpful guidance about specific issues.  The Written Ministerial Guidance is here and the technical standards themselves are here.



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