All political parties now agree that there is a major need for a concerted and long term house building programme and inevitably there is a push now to provide more dwellings on ‘green-field sites’ which may mean intruding into our historic landscape and eroding our invaluable green belt. Cwrt-William-Jones (see my earlier blog) is what is known as a ‘brown field site’within a town setting, and as such could reasonably be expected to be tightly planned. It is what is likely to happen to our green and pleasant land when developers are given the go ahead in that more rural environment that I worry about, because I fear that we ‘risk a rash of starter homes’ relieved by the odd model development such as ‘Poundbury’ in Dorset, and that has as many detractors as admirers.

My earlier blog (Homes Fit for Hobbits) drew attention to the trend to the reduction in space standards in the modern home, and it is worth referring back to earlier attempts to define what could be reasonably regarded as acceptable space standards in the average family home and to establish just where things had taken a turn for the worse.

The ‘Parker-Morris standards’, as ‘Homes for Today and Tomorrow’ was more commonly known, was a government report produced in 1961. This report recognised that rising prosperity and changing life styles meant that homes needed to have more space and needed to be adaptable to changing circumstances. The report was considered to be a benchmark for housing design standards in Britain at the time and recommended a set of minimum space standards for all new homes, and by the end of the 1960s all new social housing had to meet those minimum standards. Significantly the space standards were not made mandatory for the private sector. If an improvement in space standards was recognised as appropriate then because of changing life styles, how much more appropriate is the case now with the enormous increase in personal possessions as a result of the technological boom of recent years.

In 1980 the then Thatcher Conservative government scrapped the standards altogether. and introduced ‘The Right to Buy’ that came into force in October 1980. And so began the marketisation of houses, and the house, previously regarded as ‘a home’, began to be viewed as a commodity and an opportunity for profit. Builders seized their opportunities to profit and eventually along came the birth of that monstrosity, if it isn’t a contradiction in terms, the ‘Starter Home’. Fit for hobbits, but certainly not for heroes! And plot ratio ruled.

A review by the  Greater London Authority in 2006 concluded that residential space standards in the UK are below the European average. Indeed, UK standards appear to be near the bottom of the range. More recently in 2010, The Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), proposed Core Design and Sustainability Standards which proposed new minimum internal space and storage requirements for the first time since the abolition of the Parker Morris standards. Welcoming the proposal the Royal Institute of British Architects said: ‘The standards are both practical and achievable for the industry. We should no longer accept poor housing, be it publicly funded or private development’. Later that year however, Housing Minister ‘Grant Shapps’ decided not to proceed with the proposed ‘core design and sustainability standards’. Instead, the minister said he was inviting the house-building industry to be in charge of developing “a simple and transparent menu of costed standards that will not place unrealistic burdens on developers”.  The resulting Local Standards Framework will be implemented through the National Planning Framework.

Ruth Reed, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), commented: “This is a deeply troubling decision that will have profound implications for communities across the country. The proposed HCA standards were designed to raise the overall quality of publicly funded housing and ensure that new homes meet the most basic of lifestyle needs – reform was desperately needed.”

However, by May 2011 Grant Shapps had a change of heart and announcing that the government would not be setting up a local standards framework, he said: ‘ We’ve been discussing these ideas with government, and there are fears that devolving control to local authorities may actually increase regulation. And councils aren’t that keen either. ‘So I can tell you now that I don’t propose pushing forward with the Local Standards Framework. Instead it will be for the industry, local authorities and government to work together to find the right solutions.’

The Parker-Morris standards as applicable to social housing acted as both an example of what constituted sound building practice (they are eagerly sought even now for just that reason) and as a brake on market prices rocketing out of control. As the charity Shelter reminded us: ‘The most damaging legacy of the right to buy was the selling-off of the social housing stock, which fuelled the housing boom and bust that has ruined so many lives.” And as Gerald Kaufman said: “It’s one thing, as Macmillan said, to sell the family silver. It’s quite another to replace it.”

In March 2012, The National Planning Policy Framework was announced with no reference to ‘Core Housing Standards’, and in September 2012 Mark Prisk replaced Grant Shapps as Minister of Housing.


The Parker Morris Standard ‘Homes for Today and Tomorrow

Right to Buy: see Guardian Dec 2009


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