• Lords call for environment czar

A House of Lords committee has called for a built environment czar to be appointed, to help improve co-ordination and deliver better quality homes.
The Chief Built Environment Adviser would disseminate best practice in architecture, design and place quality. And his annual report would assess progress towards delivering on key built environment issues, such as housing.
The new champion for better environment and planning comes as a recommendation in Building Better Places, a comprehensive report from the House of Lords Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment.
His role would be “to co-ordinate relevant policy across central government departments, to act as a champion for higher standards and to promote good practice across and beyond government”, with a status similar to the government’s chief scientific adviser. His department could also pick up some of the “key functions” of CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which the committee says have been lost.
The committee notes that housing supply has become an overriding policy concern, but it worries that haste threatens quality. “The overall emphasis on speed and quantity of housing supply appears to threaten place-making itself, along with sustainable planning for the long-term
and the delivery of high quality and design standards.” The report recommends a range of measures to counter this problem, noting that poor standards affect people in many ways, not least their health and wellbeing.
On energy efficiency, it calls on the government to reinstate the abandoned Code for Sustainable Homes, saying there needs to be a “viable trajectory towards energy efficiency and carbon reduction in new homes”. There ought to be more proactive support for retrofitting, perhaps with “a more effective replacement for the Green Deal”.
It also has some worries over parts of the Housing and Planning Bill, still in progress through the Commons. And top of those concerns is the concept of permission in principle, which may be adopted as a way to help streamline planning applications. Notes the report: “We are anxious to ensure that moves towards a permission in principle do not undermine the capacity of local authorities to develop, design and integrate key sites in a way that ensures that they function effectively and respond to local needs and aspirations. The relationship between principle and detail is important in the planning system. We recommend that the Government should carefully consider the impact its reforms could have upon this relationship.”
Looking in more detail at housing, the report notes there is insufficient current supply of specialist retirement housing. This could be incentivised, they say, perhaps by exempting such schemes from section 106 or CIL payments.
Town centres and high streets will continue to feel pressure from changing retail behaviour, says the report. It believes the answer is local leadership, while planners need to encourage alternative uses, thinking proactively and ensuring that where residential development takes place, it does so with regard for design quality.
The committee comes down in favour of retaining green belt policy, and encouraging a brownfield-first approach to development. And it proposes that site owners be charged council tax on sites where they are unjustifiably stalling the implementation of a planning permission, to encourage development. On viability, it wants the government to publish a “nationally consistent methodology” for assessments.
There are fears that government “starter home” policy is simply wrong. They should not be included in the defiinition of affordable homes, say the lords, and it is wrong to expect starter homes to be provided on every reasonably sized development site.

LPA Perspective: This is a well reasoned and researched report, its recommendations building on a large volume of evidence the committee received.
Plenty of its recommendations are either supportive of the direction of government travel, or sector opinions. Where government thoughts, notably on the housing bill, are believed to be out of line, there is clear criticism.
The call for greater co-ordination between departments in this report echoes recent evidence taken by the planning committee at the GLA, which found that government departments frequently chase cash when selling land, while they ought to be thinking more strategically about the best long term return.
So will the government listen, and install a czar? Someone with the power to bang heads together, draw policy more clearly together and speak clearly on the issues involved, could be found. Former CABE commissioner Paul Finch, OBE comes to mind as a strong candidate.

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