The healthy homes bill

Published on
5 min read

On 15 July 2022, the Healthy Homes Bill received its second reading in the House of Lords. 

The Bill is a private members bill that aims to put in place some protections to improve the quality of new homes in England. It was introduced in March of this year following a ‘healthy homes’ initiative led by the Town and Country Planning Association. The TCPA argues that some new homes are failing to provide for basic human needs such as fire safety, access to natural light, and adequate space.

An issue of quality

Concerns over the quality, suitability, and sustainability of housing in England have grown in recent years for myriad reasons, ranging from the exposure of poor fire safety standards in cladded buildings, to extreme temperatures, and the simple fact that people have spent more time in their homes since the onset of COVID-19.

The Government’s decision to loosen planning controls under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 (GPDO) has also contributed to concerns. In a bid to tackle housing shortages, the GPDO created “permitted development rights” (PDRs) that permit office and industrial spaces to be converted into new homes without the need for planning approval. It is not a requirement of the GPDO for these homes to meet the Government’s minimum standards for size and access to natural light. It’s estimated that some 73,500 new homes have been created from old office space under the PDR regime since 2015 and some of these are considered to be sub-standard in terms of liveability quality.

How the HHB works

The HHB sets out 11 ‘healthy homes principles’ (HHPs) that are intended to become minimum standards for new homes.  These are set out below.  

All new homes must:

  1. be safe in relation to the risk of fire
  2. have as a minimum the liveable space required to meet the needs of people over their whole lifetime, including adequate internal and external storage space
  3. ensure that all main living areas and bedrooms of a new dwelling have access to natural light
  4. be inclusive, accessible and adaptable to suit the needs of all, with particular regard to protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, as must their surroundings
  5. be built in places that prioritise and provide access to sustainable transport and walkable services, including green infrastructure and play space
  6. secure radical reductions in carbon emissions in line with the provisions off the Climate Change Act 2008
  7. be resilient to a changing climate over their full life time
  8. design out crime and be secure
  9. be free from unacceptable and intrusive noise and light pollution;
  10. not contribute to unsafe or illegal levels of indoor or ambient air pollution and be built to minimise, and where possible eliminate the harmful impacts of air pollution on human health and the environment
  11. provide year-round thermal comfort for inhabitants

Policy statement

The Bill provides that the Secretary of State should be required to prepare a “policy statement” on the HHPs explaining how they will be interpreted and applied by Ministers making policy. That statement is then to be laid before Parliament which can make recommendations before it is eventually published. Subsequently, Ministers would be required to have regard to the HHPs when devising policy in areas dealt with by the policy statement. Relevant responsible authorities will have to consider the policy statement when discharging their duties under the planning, building and public health Acts. What constitutes a “relevant responsible authority” is left open-ended, but will include local planning authorities, public health authorities, urban development corporations, new town development authorities, and Homes England.

Progress report & a Healthy Homes Commissioner

The Bill also requires the Secretary of State to compile progress reports and seeks to create the role of a Healthy Homes Commissioner whose primary function would be to promote awareness of the healthy homes principles and implement them.

Commentary

The Bill has been warmly received by pressure groups and charities in the residential sector who are pleased with the attempt to create a universal guarantee of a minimum standard for all new homes. The current planning and regulatory framework for new homes in England is said to be fragmented and contains loopholes, such as PDRs, that allow for poor quality new homes. It is hoped that the HHPs can act as a safety net.

However, as currently drafted, the Bill does not guarantee that all new homes will meet the HHPs as the obligations placed on key players do not go this far. For example, the HHPs would not be binding on Ministers making or revising policies dealt with by the policy statement; they simply must have ‘regard to’ them.

Similarly relevant responsible authorities are only required to consider the policy statement when discharging their duties.  It is, therefore, doubtful that the HHB would provide authorities with the legal teeth necessary to review or reject developments carried out using PDRs, for example, in instances where there are concerns relating to the HHPs.

Moreover, the duty placed both on Ministers and relevant responsible authorities under the Bill are tied to the extent and content of the policy statement drafted by the Secretary of State. It follows that an inadequate policy statement will further narrow the scope of their duties under the Bill.

Even so, the content and breadth of the HHPs as a benchmark for new housing is to be lauded, particularly the recognition that new homes must be able to provide year-round thermal comfort. Many homes are not fit to withstand the pressures wrought by a warming climate, even as working from home possibilities mean people are spending more time in their homes than ever before.

Will the HHB become law?

It is doubtful that the Bill will reach the statute books. Private members bills have a notoriously high failure rate, particularly when the Government opposes the legislation, and Conservative Peer Baroness Bloomfield has confirmed that the Government will not support the HHB.

Still, this does not mean that the HHB will be in vain. It has generated a positive conversation around the quality of new (and existing) homes in England and highlights the urgent need to ensure that rigorous minimum standards apply for every new home, as the Government seeks to tackle the ongoing housing shortage.

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