Now is the time for a Healthy Homes Act

Four people walking and talking, on a park path

If one thing is for certain, we have all become used to spending more time at home in recent months.  It is unsurprising then that many more people have begun opening their eyes to the importance of living in a home with good access to the natural environment that provides opportunities to exercise.   

On top of this, we now have a wealth of evidence which links the positive impact that parks, gardens and other types of green infrastructure have on our health and wellbeing.  Numerous studies have shown that spending time in nature can measurably reduce stress, and can even provide much longer-term benefits such as improved cognitive function amongst the elderly.  Research carried out by the charity, Fields in Trust, found that parks and green spaces contribute towards our health and wellbeing to the value of £34.2 billion.

Despite such recognition of its importance, the reality on the ground paints a very different picture.  As many as 2.5 million people in the UK live more than a ten minute walk from their nearest green space and one in eight British households do not have access to a private garden.  The proportion of urban greenspace in England actually declined by 8% between 2001 and 2018.

While intended to speed up the delivery of new housing, the government’s programme of radical deregulation of the planning system has led to homes in the middle of industrial estates and children playing in car parks, with few opportunities to access the natural environment.  As a number of charities including the Ramblers have recently warned, the government’s Planning for the Future White Paper and associated attempt to speed up the planning process could put access to green open spaces at risk, unless critical environmental rules are maintained and strengthened.  The White Paper proposes simplifying the planning application process by designating land into one of three zones: growth, renewal, and protected.  By oversimplifying the process important protections for the environment, along with measures to improve our access to it, could be lost in a drive to build more homes.

Driving the government’s proposals is the assumption that we face a choice between greater housebuilding or higher standards for new homes, but not both;  If we push for higher standards then we are denying people the new homes they need.  But as the Parker Morris design standards embedded within the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act demonstrated, it is indeed possible to have both.  That is homes that meet high standards relating to space, design, energy, transport, and access to green space.

The government’s proposed planning reforms make the case for new legislation to prevent the development of substandard homes a much stronger one.  The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) have developed the Healthy Homes Bill as a powerful way to guarantee such minimum standards, and help the government deliver on its commitment to create beautiful, successful, places.  At its heart, it puts into law a series of basic principles, which together define what constitutes a healthy home and neighbourhood.  These evidence-based principles are, we believe, the absolute minimum the public expect from their homes and would apply to all new homes, whatever the make-up of the planning system.

Among the eleven principles set out in the Bill is principle ‘f’, which states that:

“All homes should be built within places that prioritise and provide access to sustainable transport and walkable services, including green infrastructure and play space.”

If passed into law, this would guarantee that all new homes built would be situated within walkable neighbourhoods and have access to green space.  All government departments would be required to have regard to the principles when making policy, as would all public authorities that have responsibilities relating to planning and the delivery of housing.  The bill we have drafted also places a new duty on the Secretary of State to secure the health, safety and wellbeing of people in relation to buildings, and on local authorities to plan for affordable housing in a way that secures the long-term health, safety and wellbeing of residents. These changes and others proposed by the bill would transform the way we regulate the built environment, bringing certainty and coherence to a fragmented system.

To find out more about the campaign and add your support, please visit: www.tcpa.org.uk/healthy-homes-act

In mid-September, the Ramblers will launch a new report making the case for good access to green space and the findings a new survey into how COVID-19 has changed our attitude to walking and green space. The report will launch a new campaign calling on government to improve people’s access to nature and green space.