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Health, happiness, and our ability to thrive: this all begins at home. Access to satisfactory housing is seen as a basic human right, but too much of the housing that we live in and that we design and build doesn’t hit the mark. At Design Council we think that we can do more to get this right, for everyone.
A full exploration of these issues could fill several libraries, of course. But to keep it (overly) simple for now: when it comes to new housing, we are simply not doing well enough. The 2020 National Housing Design Audit, which looked at new housing developments across England, found that three quarters of our new housing stock is of “poor” or “mediocre” quality, and should have been refused planning permission. Meanwhile, of the 23.2 million homes in England that have already been built, nearly one in five don’t meet the basic standards required of a decent home – and these really are the very basics when it comes to housing quality. And the findings from our recent report, A Public Vision for the Home of 2030, show that while there are 20 principles that people regard as important attributes of their future homes, these are not being met in their current homes - with the most significant gap being in those basic housing needs: homes which get the basics of good ventilation, heating, space and storage right; homes that are affordable to live in; and homes where people don’t need to worry about everything working as it should. We need to be building more homes – this is an undeniable fact. But we also need to be doing more to make sure that we are designing, building and maintaining homes that are properly meeting the needs of the people who are going to live in them.
For us at Design Council, understanding and championing the importance of well-designed homes and neighbourhoods, and providing the tools to help achieve this through independent design review, advice and training, has been a part of our work for decades. But this is all the more critical to our mission today. Earlier this year, we published our new strategy, setting out our three interlinked priorities for the next four years: to improve the nation’s health and wellbeing, enable sustainable living and improve people’s design skills so they can best respond to these and other challenges. Housing sits across this, as a critical enabler of sustainable, healthy lives for all.
We understand the importance of home now, more than ever before. To beat a drum we are now all too familiar with, Covid-19 has transformed the way we think about our homes, our neighbourhoods and our communities. It has made all of us more attuned to how critical the space that we live in is to supporting our health and wellbeing, and how poor quality spaces and environments, insufficient indoor and outdoor space, and a lack of amenities that we have around us, can have a significant and sudden detrimental impact on our quality of life. It raises the urgency and vital need for us to do more to make sure that our homes are providing for these basic needs – and allowing all of us, and not just the most wealthy or privileged, to thrive.
It’s against this backdrop that Design Council is proud to be a signatory to the Healthy Homes Act. The campaign, being led by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) is responding to the critical issues that we face in this country with the poor quality of our new homes. Via new primary legislation and powers, the Bill proposes a series of basic principles for healthy homes and neighbourhoods that will in turn require minimum standards for future homes. It enshrines a duty on public authorities to have regard to the principles in the planning and delivery of housing; and a duty on the Secretary of State to secure people’s health, safety and wellbeing in relation to buildings.
In the context of a complex and fragmented system of regulation, through which poor quality housing too often slips through the net, a bold step towards clarity and coherence is welcome. These principles should not be seen as a gold standard – there are broader issues and factors that good housing should also strive to achieve, from enabling people to have choice and agency in their homes, to creating homes that support meaningful connections and communities. But these principles and the duties of the Bill provide a foundation to build on and the potential for a greater shared understanding and a legal bottom line about what constitutes the basic requirements of a good quality home.
The timing of this Bill couldn’t be more apt. As MHCLG consults on proposals for a reform of the planning system in England, we are starting to understand the scale of change that will be coming to how we design and plan new homes and neighbourhoods, and the shifts that will be required in how we secure and ensure quality at all stages of the process. A new suite of guidance in the form of the National Design Guide; a new National Model Design Code; and the future Manual for Streets, all form a critical part of ensuring those involved in the planning and design of new homes and neighbourhoods have the tools and resources they need to achieve well designed homes. But we need to keep thinking bigger, at the same time. The planning system alone is not enough: nor are building regulations or the plethora of standards. Housing touches on every part of our lives; is impacted by policy and legislation from health to transport; and can unlock benefits that are felt from Wigan to Whitehall. If there is one unique way in which the Healthy Homes Act can help us, it is to unlock a more systemic conversation about what good enough looks like to us, and how we can achieve it for the good of everyone.
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