The future of sustainable housing

We recently hosted a roundtable at Elevate’s Northern Sustainability Summit where we discussed the future of sustainable housing.

Housing was a key element of the new Labour government’s election manifesto.  

With a commitment to building 1.5 million new homes over the next parliament, the announcement of an ambitious New Towns strategy and promises of much-needed planning reform, Keir Starmer’s government vowed to solve the housing crisis.  

Whilst increasing the supply of housing was evident in their manifesto, there was a distinct lack of detail in Labour’s plans for how it would build sustainable housing for a greener future.  

To understand the views of the property sector on the new government’s housing plans, we held a roundtable at the Northern Sustainability Summit earlier this week, with representatives from across the industry including planners, architects, social housing providers, real estate lawyers and higher education.  

Here are some of the key themes discussed: 

Labour’s 1.5m housing target

“1.5m is an ambitious target. I’d like to see what policies the government puts in place to make sure it happens. But I don’t think the target goes far enough. Nobody’s talking about the backlog of homes that should have been delivered in the past 14 years but haven’t either. 

There’s also the question of whether the 1.5m target is realistic. It hasn’t been achieved in recent history and I think it will be really difficult to meet. Do we have the workforce or the materials? And is the industry ready for it? At the moment, it doesn’t appear to be.” 

Maria Buenaventura, Senior Associate, ECD Architects

“The 300,000 homes per year target that the previous government decided was the need, is somewhat arbitrary. We’ve also not been building anywhere near that figure in recent history. We’re currently hitting around 160,000 completions per year. 

There were some arguments whether that 300,000 figure is right and whether we should be aiming higher. I’d say yes, it’s just enough, but we could potentially do more, but it’s more about delivery and being able to deliver that scale. 

The Labour government might hit the 300,000 homes per year by the end of their parliamentary term, but it won’t hit that this year.” 

Peter Bartley, Head of Sustainability, AEW Architects

“The ambition of building 1.5 million homes is great, but the mechanism needs to change for us to achieve it. That’s the difficulty within a five-year parliamentary period. It’ll take much longer than five years to change the mechanism and it’s the politics that’s the problem. 

Unless housing targets become cross-party agreements, we’re always dealing with general election timescales and meaningful change is unattainable in five years.”

Derek Shepherd, Director, P+HS

The announcement of Labour’s New Towns plan

“Labour’s New Towns plan is really important. The challenge, however, is how you achieve a new town within the current planning system, which isn’t set up for it given the local politics. The length of time it takes to get a new town off the ground is a lot longer than the initial five years the Labour party will be in government for.  

One solution to that is including housing and new towns in the Development Consent Order process, which means it’s treated like an infrastructure project, similar to a windfarm or tidal power scheme, that’s dealt with by national government, rather than local authorities. Housing would then, rightly, be seen as vital infrastructure.” 

Anna Relph, Director, Turley

“Labour’s New Towns plan is great, but unless you put the schools, health centres, and other vital infrastructure in first, we’ll end up with a lot of tarmac and a lot of cars. A real town needs all this infrastructure to make it a success.” 

Maria Buenaventura, Senior Associate, ECD Architects

The importance of retrofitting existing homes

“Improving the sustainability of our housing stock is massively important but it all comes down to cash. We’ve got the oldest housing stock in Europe, but the cost of retrofit is huge, and we don’t currently have a cohesive long-term plan to solve that or sufficient government funding for it. 

It costs over £28,000 to retrofit a home just on a fabric-first approach. That’s a huge cost burden, particularly for homes in areas where house prices are low to begin with. There’s just no return on investment there, particularly for owner occupiers.” 

Alex Andani, Executive Director of Property for The Regenda Group

“The retrofit debate is important. New build homes only account for 6% of our housing stock, while most of our housing was built pre-1980 and is highly inefficient. Should we therefore be investing in building 1.5m new homes or upgrading our existing housing stock? Morally, the answer should be to put the money into the retrofit approach, but we would still have a housing shortage and there isn’t an unlimited pot of money.”  

Derek Shepherd, Director, P+HS

“We need to focus on retrofit. While there’s a big cost attached to retrofitting existing housing to make them more energy efficient, you’ve got to consider how much you would save in other areas like the NHS, job creation, and broader economic opportunities. Good quality housing is key to economic growth.”   

Peter Bartley, Head of Sustainability, AEW Architects

Enforcing local plan preparation  

Getting up to date local plans adopted is vital to solving the sustainable housing problem. We’ve got local plans in place which are either really old or non-existent, yet the same local authorities are declaring climate emergencies. Even local authorities which have adopted a local plan recently, still don’t have sustainability policy commitments that go beyond building regs, i.e the basic requirements. We need to go further.” 

Anna Relph, Director, Turley 

“We need local authorities to have up to date local plans to increase housing delivery and as the Government has announced, this must include green belt reviews. The last government didn’t help, taking away the housing targets which meant some local authorities didn’t progress local plans because they thought they could get away with it. We need to reverse that.” 

Carolyn Lord, Partner, Clarion Solicitors

“There’s a lot of confusion from the government when it comes to housebuilding. They want strategic planning, but they want local decisions. That’s going to cause contradictions. One way to address that is standardised design. 

 The government needs to take the autonomy away from local authorities or define clearly what decisions they can make. Standardising housing design will speed up delivery and support the supply chain. You can still have parametric design, but within an agreed framework.” 

Aaron Robertson, researcher for housebuilding innovations in volume, environment and efficiency at the University of Salford

Are energy efficiency regulations up to scratch?

“From a sustainability perspective, the Future Homes Standard doesn’t go far enough. We’re building homes now that will need to be retrofitted in the near future; that doesn’t make any sense.  

 There are instant improvements we can make to the sustainability of our new build homes. For example, banning the use of fossil fuels should be mandatory. New homes in Scotland aren’t allowed to use fossil fuels. Why is it not the same in England and Wales?” 

Maria Buenaventura, Senior Associate, ECD Architects

The challenges with the planning system

“Labour’s ‘quick fix’ plans to reintroduce mandatory housebuilding targets  and revert the National Planning Policy Framework  levers that Michael Gove got rid of, is a good start, but is that enough? Probably not.  

 There’s also a myth that there’s a huge amount of land banking going on by the large housebuilders and the government thinks they can perhaps unlock that. But it’s not land banking that’s holding things up, it’s viability challenges and the practical challenges of building.  

 NIMBYism is one of the biggest obstacles to housing delivery and the planning system must address that. It’s also not easy to cut ‘red tape’ when there are statutory protections for the environment and safety that are complex to unravel, even when there is a will to do so. Adding to the challenge are some local politicians that object to developments because their main concerns are ensuring they secure local votes at upcoming elections. We’ve got to change that mindset.”

Carolyn Lord, Partner, Clarion Solicitors

Affordable housing

“The government is talking about delivering 50% affordable housing as part of its plans, which is fantastic, but it’ll be much harder for housebuilders to turn a profit if there isn’t adequate funding supply from the government for the affordable housing programmes.   

The housing sector is struggling currently with all of its priorities. It wants to build more homes, but it also wants to build good quality, affordable and sustainable housing for people. Meeting all of that is a challenge in the current climate.” 

Alex Andani, Executive Director of Property for The Regenda Group

Get in touch with the team