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James Parker reports whether housing will get anywhere near net zero

Hitting zero carbon in 2050 depends on the housebuilding industry embracing efficiency, including offsite, which in turn depends on some other things changing, notably planning.

Of course, the housebuilding industry faces a raft of conflicts – local and political moves against development versus the drive to build in the right locations for buyers’ amenities, transport and sustainability.

Some blame developers for dragging their heels, developers tend to blame the planners for not giving them the sites.

If planning is the main problem for unlocking MMC, it needs a deep and interventionist solution, now.

James Parker James Parker Editor of Architects Datafile and Housebuilder & Developer

The bottom line

Recently heard on Radio 4, The Bottom Line with ‘Dragon’s Den’ Evan Davis gave anyone new to the current landscape a quick guide to the key problems.

According to Rico Wojtulewicz, of the National Federation of Builders, who bangs the drum loudly for SME firms however, the dominance of the major volume builders has become more, er, dominant by the day.

As land, already an over-inflated community, becomes more expensive, and such a financial risk, only the biggest firms can swallow that risk. However, a Tory Government would have to intervene way beyond its normal comfort zone in order to change that.

Waiting for 'better' technology

The Future Homes Standard doesn’t effectively kick in until 2023 (if you got your plans in by this June).

Peter Trustcott, chief executive of Crest Nicholson, was dismissive of the push for heat pumps as the key to the FSH on the Radio 4 show.

However, his idea of waiting around until a “better technology” magically shows up seems to forget the urgency of our current climate predicament.

Local authorities were under fire again for not granting planning to sites quickly enough, but also for initially “constraining” developers putting in heat pumps – until recently.

They are perceived as the gatekeepers of not just sites, but sustainability it seems, but despite the Radio 4 panellists’ assertions, it’s hard to believe they are the only ones responsible.

Adding in beauty

Alongside this, and in line with the Government, an organisation called Create Streets is campaigning for ‘beauty’ in housing.

However, their contention that better-looking developments will mean less opposition from locals was ridiculed by both Crest Nicholson and the NFB as a “cop out.”

Trustcott defended housebuilders’ record on producing attractive homes, and said that local objection was in fact about “Governments abdicating responsibility” for freeing up sites.

For a very successful housebuilder, Trustcott didn’t seem very sunny about the industry’s current focuses, such as attempting to get to the 300,000 (although of course Sunak for one has cast doubt on whether such a figure will remain).

Unrealistic targets

The Crest Nicholson man said that 300,000 homes is “never going to happen,” not because of problems with sustainability and heat pumps, but because the land isn’t being made available.

There was also a somewhat downbeat conclusion from these key voices on the ability of offsite to deliver, because it relies on a planning system that gives certainty, and also which “allows repetition.”

Currently, said Trustcott, the system wants “everything to be different.” The Department for Levelling Up (etc)’s plan for ‘street votes,’ was “fantasy world” in the context of factory-built homes – he asserted, “you can’t have both.”

If planning is the main problem for unlocking MMC, and thus the numbers and quality required, it needs a deep and interventionist solution, now.

James Parker is editor of Architects Datafile and Housebuilder & Developer