Planning reforms welcome but existing housing stock should be better used

The government’s planning reforms were largely welcomed by the housing sector but how we use our existing housing stock should also be part of any reform, if we really care about sustainable housing. Liz Emerson, IF Co-founder, explains

Planning Reforms

The recent Queen’s Speech announced the government’s intention to turn last year’s Planning for The Future white paper into legislation. The white paper set out a range of government planning proposals intended to produce a “simpler, faster and more predictable system” in order to speed up the delivery of new housing of the right type, in places where people want to live, and at prices that they can afford, supported by community infrastructure required – be it schools, hospitals, surgeries and local transport.

The government intends to oversee all the above, while protecting our architectural heritage and natural environment. Builders get to build, councils get financial support for infrastructure, and NIMBYs find it harder to object to new homes.


Meanwhile, the Environmental Audit Select Committee has turned its attention to housing and has just closed a consultation asking for evidence about how best to decarbonise new building by making the building materials that are used more sustainable as we build, build, build for younger generations. Refreshingly the consultation also asked organisations to offer solutions over how best to retrofit or use our existing housing stock. And that brings us to the thorny issue of increasing under-occupation.

According to IF’s latest housing research under-occupation is on the increase with 52% of private homeowners under-occupying in 2021. On the one hand, England has some of the smallest homes in Europe – thanks to the introduction of micro-homes – and on the other, we are consuming more housing than we are building and housing space is increasingly inequitably distributed by age, with the divide exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While older generations went on a spending spree for more internal and external space during the pandemic, younger generations were trapped in cramped flats or shared homes, worrying about how to pay the rent to largely older landlords.

Time to move on?

If governments, planners and those interested in sustainability are really serious about solving the housing crisis, then they should all want to address under-occupation. There are a number of ways we can make our consumption of housing more sustainable. Firstly, the rent-a-room allowance, not uprated since 1981, gives homeowners £7,500 of tax-free income a year for renting out a furnished room, and could encourage greater levels of intergenerational living, thereby better using currently under-occupied homes.

Secondly, older generations could be encouraged to downsize either through withdrawing single person council tax discounts or introducing stamp duty holidays for downsizers but sellers need attractive downsizing options in order to take the jump. Furthermore, permitted development rights could be given to older homeowners who want to downsize in their own homes by subdividing their living space. Finally, governments could pour water rather than petrol on the housing market by making it less financially attractive to use housing as a form of investment.

Photo courtesy of Brett Jordan on Unsplash.

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