Speech

National Housing Federation

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Stephen Williams' speech to the National Housing Federation on the housing standards review.

Very glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me and that kind introduction.

Early days for me in this new role, but I am already very well aware of the important work of the National Housing Federation – the key organisation leading and coordinating the vital work of housing associations in getting new houses built and providing a home for thousands of people across the country.

We are all here today of course to talk about housing associations and the importance of building regulations and standards. This might seem a backwater to some, or a technical and arcane area. It’s certainly a complex area and one I’m still learning about. But the complexity should absolutely not detract from its importance.

If you ask someone in the street what matters in their lives, a roof over their head would feature at or near the top of the list every time.

Housing isn’t always a glamorous issue, but it matters every bit as much as good schools or healthcare. And it’s an area where we have serious challenges to take on.

Some of you might have seen recent claims that 1997 was the year housing affordability started to become out of reach to a groundswell of people - a growing, locked out and significant section of society.

Now we can argue about both the scale and the exact timing of the phenomenon. But it’s clear the phenomenon is real and significant.

We know there are millions of people who want to buy a first home but cannot, and families who have had children and outgrown their home but are unable to take the next step on the housing ladder. We must help and are helping these people, working with you who are on the frontline.

The causes of the problem however are multiple and like housing standards they are complex. Previous governments built too few homes for too long.

We have tackled all these causes:

  • our £4.5 billion affordable homes programme – rising to almost £20 billion with private sector funding – is on course to build 150,000 new affordable homes this Parliament
  • the national planning policy framework and guidance reviews have slashed many needless pages of red tape, but maintained sustainability policy
  • the new homes bonus is giving incentives for new home building
  • councils can now tackle empty homes through increased Council Tax on owners who abandon homes
  • but on top of this the standards we set for building are also vital
  • the quality of what we build will affects how homes are used, how comfortable they are, and how long they will last
  • and they affect the sustainability – with buildings accounting for almost half of the UK’s carbon emissions this is a major factor in tackling climate change.

But quantity is important too.

Some costs associated with building are essential – ensuring buildings are safe and warm for instance. Concerns I know you share on behalf of all your tenants. But unnecessary red tape makes building homes more expensive, and puts off house builders, housing associations and buyers. It widens the affordability gap.

So, like everything in politics, the housing standards review has tried to strike a balance. Between costs and quality. Between sensible rules and limiting bureaucracy.

I’m sure lots of you are awaiting the outcome of the review and hoping for something today. We’re not quite there yet.

So while I can’t set out today what happens next, I can at least rule out some things that won’t be happening. To bust some myths, and bring some clarity.

Let me start by thanking you for your helpful responses to the housing standards review. We are highly reliant on external advice and responses from professionals and experts on the ground like you.

The review has generated huge interest – 700 substantive consultation replies. Also several thousand more if you include the emails we received after Stephen Fry retweeted a link to the work. We are wondering whether space standards will come up as a question on QI.

Why are we doing this review? Quite simply to tackle the issues of housing supply, cost and sustainability.

Part of the picture is the regulatory burden. There is widespread recognition of the need to sort this out.

We needed to unpack this “plethora” of standards to see if it really could be sorted out, to rationalise standards to a core of what is really needed.

But I should stress that in this review we are in listening mode – the consultation has been very open, seeking input and evidence.

But we have provoked quite a discussion. Also there has been a lot of misinformation over last few months. Some have said the review is only about reducing costs, to sacrifice quality. Well, no. Not true. A great many have welcomed the reduction in bureaucracy and contradictions about housing standards.

There is no case for having 20 or 50 different versions of the same standards. So why not rationalise these into a single resource?

Energy

We have taken important steps to strengthen the energy performance requirements in the building regulations with the recent part L announcement and set out our further thinking on the zero carbon homes standard. These are major milestones.

Did you know that more carbon has been saved, over the years, through the building regulations than from any other policy area in government? That’s another one for QI.

These are demanding requirements – don’t underestimate challenge meeting them. That’s why the consultation said we don’t need extra standards. And the Merton Rule (Planning & Energy Act 2008). Another misconception. The consultation didn’t say it is being abolished. It asked what its value would be in a world where we have set out demanding building regulation requirements. Why have 2 sets of conflicting targets?

Security

I know that security is a particularly important issue for the social housing sector. We are proposing a standard with a baseline level of provision which might apply across the board, together with a higher level which could be equivalent to “secured by design part 2”.

Access

Similarly access is a very important issue, and again particularly for the social sector, as consultation makes clear.

We have worked hard with lifetime homes and wheelchair housing specialists to work up these options, which are very carefully considered. The proposals set out a single, sensible national standard set.

Space

The specialists amongst you may recall the old Parker Morris standards only applied to affordable housing. We have asked for views on whether space standards are appropriate across all tenures, linked to access. This clearly shows that quality considerations are important in our thinking.

Other standards

Some have said the review is stopping other standards (such as materials, or overheating). Wrong again. The review didn’t rule these out. It just asks what is the evidence? What is the standard? Are standards the right route, or is this something the market could lead on instead? We’ll listen if the case is sound.

We have all along said it is about the right tools for the job. If an issue is already covered under one regime, such as national planning policy or guidance, why duplicate it with another? This just adds to complexity, cost and bureaucracy.

Local choice

Some people have suggested the review is anti local, or that any outcome will be difficult or costly to apply.

We have suggested the triggers for standards could be local, so how is that anti-local? Authorities are closest to their local housing situation and know what the needs profile looks like.

If you mean authorities should just be allowed to apply anything they want, regardless of need or cost considerations, well that is not right. Takes us full circle back to the current proliferation, which people have told us needs fixing!

Transition

I recognise transition is a complex issue. How and when would any new approach be applied, and what would the impact be on planning, or on the housing quality indicators? We are thinking this one through.

But we would like the benefits of rationalisation to be felt early. It will help make your lives simpler as you plan and bid for new rounds of social housing. It will also reduce your costs.

Tenure issues

I have also heard claims that the review is anti-affordable housing. The housing standards review is cross-tenure for good reason.

We recognise that pressures and demands in your sector are often higher than the private sector (eg access, space, security). That’s why the proposals include these possibilities. The essential elements of the housing quality indicators have been captured.

But we recognise too how affordable housing provision is changing, with more open market competition. Making standards cross tenure accommodates shifts in stock ownership over time - a more flexible stock.

Process

The review has also come up with proposals to regularise compliance checking. We need to reduce the current tangle of different agencies all involved in assessing standards.

We have proposed that building control specialists are best placed to check on technical building standards. This plays to the skills and strengths of this sector and could also help to improve compliance.

We are of course eager to make decisions as soon as possible, but there is work we need to do on the issues which I have discussed. And that will include continuing to talk to many key partners, such as you.

There are a wide range of possible outcomes - reflecting our genuinely consultative approach. These are exciting and creative times, and as a new minister I am enjoying this challenge! We will get there and most importantly get the right result.