New Housing Design Debate

5th September 2017
Alok Sharma responds to a Westminster Hall debate on new housing design.

Thank you, Mrs Ryan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, I think for the first time in this Parliament. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate on new housing design. He is a long-standing advocate of high-quality development and his passion about the subject has come through clearly today and in the media as well; indeed, all Members who have spoken today have spoken with passion about why design is important.

We all acknowledge that it is critical that we build more homes. Our housing White Paper, published earlier this year, set out how we intend to tackle that challenge. Just as important as building more homes is the need to ensure that they are of good quality, are well designed and respond positively to the local context.

Around the country, there have been some fantastic examples of good design in new house building and a number of colleagues have pointed to examples in their own constituencies. However, we can also all point to soulless developments that ultimately destroy the character of a local area. That is something we must change.

The Government have put in place a robust framework that promotes and supports high-quality design. Both the national planning policy framework and our planning guidance emphasise the importance of good design and provide advice on planning processes and tools, which local planning authorities can use to help achieve that aim. Over the months ahead, the Government will engage with the housing industry to showcase good practice and develop new policies that support that ambition, but we know we must do more.

The housing White Paper contains proposals to improve the quality and character of new development. We want to strengthen the national planning policy framework to introduce an expectation that local and neighbourhood plans in development plan documents should set out clear design expectations. That will provide greater certainty for applicants about what types of designs are acceptable in a local area.

We also want to use national planning policy to strengthen the importance of early, pre-application discussions, as a means to encourage more valued discussion of the design of new homes between communities, developers and local authorities. The Government also have a longer term ambition to support the development of digital platforms on design.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton talked about a number of surveys. He concluded that people would support the building of homes if they are well-designed and in keeping with their local area. It is important that local authorities and developers work with communities to ensure that they get the quality of new housing development that they want. A range of tools is in place to engage the local community, both when preparing plans and at planning application stage, yet I know community engagement is far too inconsistent. Far too often local people hear about new housing schemes late in the day, after a planning application has been submitted.

There are of course good examples of where engagement works. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) talked about the Beauty-In-My-Back-Yard toolkit; there are of course others. Our housing White Paper proposals will go a step further to help make sure that local communities are not left behind.

A number of colleagues have mentioned neighbourhood planning. I see plans driven by local people with a vested interest in the quality of design for the place they live in as an incredibly valuable tool to achieve good design and local engagement. Since 2012, more than 2,200 groups have started the neighbourhood planning process in areas covering nearly 13 million people. In some areas, neighbourhood planning groups are keen to ensure that good design does happen in practice. For example, the plan for Bristol Old Market Quarter sets out design principles for the development of key sites to ensure that new buildings make a valuable contribution to the character of the neighbourhood. The Government recognise the significant effort neighbourhood planning groups make and that is why we are supporting them with funding. The housing White Paper sets out our commitment to further funding for neighbourhood planning groups in this Parliament. We are committed to providing £25 million of funding to boost the capacity and capability of local authorities for a three-year period, starting this year, which will open up opportunities to support and provide design resources to neighbourhood planning groups.

Turning to the issue of a new housing ombudsman, we have already published proposals to tackle unfair lease practices, including banning the sale of new leasehold houses, but it is the case that, according to the latest Home Builders Federation survey, 84% of new home buyers would recommend their builder to a friend. That figure has fallen steadily from 90% over the last four years, and means that 16% of new home buyers would not recommend their builder. In any other market, that would spell the end of the most poorly performing companies. I am having a set of discussions with developers; I also make the point to them about the need to improve quality and design.

 

Is the Minister aware of the survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Home Builders Federation, the trade body for the largest volume house builders? It said that 67% of buyers would prefer not to, or are unlikely to, buy the product of volume house builders.

 

My hon. Friend makes the point perfectly. It shows that customer satisfaction is absolutely key. House builders need to step up to the plate.

The housing White Paper sets out the Government’s plan to diversify the housing market, which will play a part in helping to improve quality. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) talked about custom building and the importance of small and medium-sized builders as well.

Of course mechanisms are in place for redress, such as the consumer code for home builders, which a number of colleagues have talked about. I have been encouraged by the industry’s response to last year’s report by the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment, “More homes, fewer complaints”. A working group was set up by the Home Builders Federation and has commissioned an independent report into consumer redress. We expect that to come forward in the next few weeks. I will review the report in detail and I will consider the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton for a new homes ombudsman.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) talked about the Women and Equalities Committee’s report. We expect to respond next month. Colleagues also raised the issue of space. As the hon. Members for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) will know, we have committed in the White Paper to reviewing the nationally described space standards, because of feedback from the sector.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) talked about building out. We will amend the national planning policy framework to address the scope for higher density housing in urban locations.

The Government will continue to work with industry, local communities, developers and all those with an interest in the quality of new homes to drive up standards and create the type of places that people want to live in. It is clear that Members and their constituents want that to happen, and I want that to happen too.

 

Before the Minister sits down, will he give way?

 

Of course.

 

May I press the Minister on this point? He said that the Government’s intention is to review the national space standards. That is welcome, but the suspicion is that the review will reduce the standards rather than enforce them. Will part of the review be about making them obligatory across the length and breadth of the appropriate domain?

 

Let me be clear: we are not talking about a race to the bottom. We want new development to be well designed, but that does not mean that current space standards are sacrosanct.

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