Bonfire of the regulations

Monday 12 November 2012

Well-intentioned standards and guidance have become complex, overlapping and statutory requirements that are used by local authorities in an inconsistent way.

So said PRP chairman Andy von Bradsky at a special breakfast session called ‘Bonfire of the Regulations’ organised by NLA last week. Von Bradsky was talking on behalf of a group of housing architects – PTEa, Levitt Bernstein, HTA and PRP, whose views fed in to a working group for the housing forum, in pursuit of government’s desires to cut red tape. ‘Standards and guidance need to be embedded into a much simpler regulatory framework’, he said, with a focus on simplifying the standards that surround regulations rather than deregulation as such. Confusing and overlapping issues surround issues such as stairs and windows, with Lifetime Homes regulations often being well-intentioned but ‘onerous’, and the Code for Sustainable Homes too ‘complex’. Sir John Harman’s separate review on broadly the same area came up with similar proposals, including that CLG should dedicate resources to cutting red tape. ‘We are going to challenge the status quo’ said von Bradsky. ‘It is not possible to carry on the way we are. It is about protecting quality but we do, between us, recognise the value of building regulations’.

There is also perhaps a case for a national housing standard, added von Bradsky, but ministers are ‘much mistaken’ if they think this is an easy fix to attend to problems of housing supply, said von Bradsky.

PTEa executive director Andrew Beharrell said existing guidelines about rights to light were also causing confusion and delays. ‘Antiquated’ daylight targets, established almost 100 years ago by one Percy Waldram, were based on a reader looking at the small ads in the Times newspaper by the light of a candle set a foot away. The complexity and uncertainty of rules about this are still bad for business, Beharrell argued, and affect future occupiers who have to wait longer for a new home. There is confusion between the legal rights to light and assessments made by local authorities considering a planning application, with most finding the distinction between the two difficult and the system opening itself up to challenge.  Further, BRE guidelines are more suited to Milton Keynes than inner London areas, said Beharrell, being incompatible with good design at high density. Indeed, some of the most popular typologies in London today could not have been built because they fall far short of some of these guidelines. But neither are there clear and fixed rules governing compensation over rights to light. ‘It’s worth asking, at least, why retain rights to light and what sets those apart from other considerations you can control solely through the planning system.’

Finally, Ben Derbyshire of HTA said he believes that less regulation will actually improve quality in certain circumstances. ‘Yes, let’s simplify the whole thing, but the really important proposition is what culture do we replace it with’, he said. Deregulation is half the story, with the other half the role of the consumer in helping to build a better, higher quality product in future. Regulations do not necessarily bring forth design quality, which Derbyshire claimed is proven by the fact that CABE spent 10 years creating guidance without leading to any notable design improvements in housing. Instead, people must have diversity in the market place, information on energy performance and be able to access the right kinds of homes at the right stages in their lives – and that needs a properly functioning housing market. ‘It’s just as important for ministers to understand that they need to do something to enable that’, said Derbyshire.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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