The built environment affects us all. The planning, design, management and maintenance of the built environment has a long-term impact upon people and communities. It is widely acknowledged that the quality of life, prosperity, health and wellbeing of an individual is heavily influenced by the ‘place’ in which they live or work.
Policy towards the built environment in England is not the sole preserve of any one Government department; this both accounts for the diverse range of elements which comprise the ‘built environment’, and reflects the diverse range of impacts which it has upon people and communities. There is an urgent need to co-ordinate and reconcile policy across numerous different areas and priorities.
Recently, however, one priority has become dominant in debates concerning built environment policy. Increasing the overall supply of housing, and the speed at which housing is delivered, is a central part of the Government’s policy agenda. When seen in the context of the housing crisis facing many communities across England, this is understandable and, overall, we welcome the Government focus on increasing and speeding up the supply of housing.
Restrictions on financial freedoms and flexibilities, however, pose a threat to the ability of local authorities to build houses of their own. The private sector, throughout the post-war period, has very rarely achieved the delivery of 200,000 homes a year. We do not believe the Government can deliver the step-change required for housing supply without taking measures to allow local authorities and housing associations each to play their full part in delivering new homes. In addition, Government initiatives have so far failed to address a further part of the housebuilding problem, which is the gap between planning permissions granted and new homes built. We recommend measures intended to address this, and other, barriers to increasing the number of housing completions.
More fundamentally, however, we are concerned that 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 Government is pursuing a deregulatory agenda as seen, for example, in the introduction of more flexible arrangements for office to residential conversions and the strong policy emphasis placed on the financial viability of new developments. These changes, however, have the cumulative effect of progressively diluting the capacity of local authorities to scrutinise new developments, to safeguard quality and sustainability and to ensure that proposals contribute to an overall and beneficial sense of place. This is compounded by the removal of national building standards—including the zero carbon homes requirement—which were intended to ensure that new developments are planned with long-term challenges and consequences in mind. Speed need not come at the expense of quality, and a short-sighted approach runs the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past. Buildings should be built to last, and to stand the test of time. We recommend a range of measures which are intended to create better places, promote design quality and enhance the resilience and sustainability of new developments.
We believe it is important that the Government sets high standards for the built environment, and provides the vision, aspiration and leadership to encourage others to deliver against those standards. As a nation, our aspirations for the quality of the built environment have been routinely too low. Only the Government can set a more ambitious national path, and we urge this one to do so. This should begin with much better coordination of policy across the various Government departments that have an impact upon the built environment. We recommend the appointment of a Chief Built Environment Adviser, appointed to integrate policy across central Government departments, to act as a champion for higher standards and to promote good practice.
Better design and higher standards cannot be delivered from the centre alone. We have seen what a powerful actor good local government can be when, through outstanding local leadership, it brings its multiple resources and responsibilities to bear. Across England, however, local authority planning departments have been diminished by funding cuts, leading to a loss in capacity and skills. We believe that local authorities need to play a key role in establishing an ambitious ‘vision’ for their area, and that the capacity to plan proactively and engage with communities is vital in delivering this vision, wellbeing, prosperity and a stronger sense of place. We would like to see the planning profession regain the status and prestige it deserves. We recommend measures intended to address funding, promote skills and raise capacity, and to promote the concept of proactive planning at the local level.
All too often, the link between people and place is lost in decision-making concerning the built environment. Places fail to function effectively for the people who live in them, and exert a long-term negative impact upon health and wellbeing. We therefore recommend a number of strategies for improvement to streets, highways and the public realm, combined with additional measures intended to promote greater joint working between health and planning professionals and better local monitoring of health impacts resulting from the built environment.