Thursday, 7 May 2009

Squaring circles

Today's announcement of a new planning policy for Wales, with new building regulations taking us towards zero-carbon buildings is unquestionably the right thing to do. It's a good example of how the Assembly Government can make positive changes to tackle one of the major issues facing the whole world.

It's not without its downside though, and it highlights the difficulties involved in making the right judgements, given conflicting policy objectives. In this case, the downside is that it is hard to reconcile the need for such tighter building regulations with the serious problems of providing adequate affordable housing - and affordable housing is one of the most frequent issues raised with me by people in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.

The simplistic response is that, by reducing energy costs in particular, zero-carbon housing will be cheaper (and thus more affordable) over its entire lifetime. True, but it doesn't help the young people who can't afford the increased capital cost of purchase now.

There is a danger that, faced with this obstacle, the Assembly Government might be lobbied (and the beginnings of that were apparent in the story) to relax the rules or delay implementing parts of them. I hope that they'll resist such calls – as I said at the outset, I'm entirely convinced that bringing in these rules is the right thing to do. Slackening them to help a faltering building sector merely puts off the problems for another day.

That leaves a problem though; and the problem cannot simply be ignored. How do we make sure that homes which will be more expensive to build will be affordable for those who are struggling at current price levels? And not only that, but how do we find a way of doing that when government budgets are going to be much tighter, with less money to spare for grants and incentives than has been available in the past?

Lenders certainly need to look at their lending criteria, and change them for truly zero-carbon houses, since people paying less for their energy should be able to afford to pay more for their mortgages. It's taking a more holistic approach to personal finances, and taking account of the lower running costs.

But I think that government will need to do more, particularly in areas such as this where outside purchasers place a higher upward pressure on house prices anyway. One major change which I'm convinced would help in this sort of area would be to require planning consent for a change of use in the case of second homes.


Valleys Mam said...

Funny time to announce this with little or no building taking place

dalesman said...

Good policy, but I agree with VM, bad timing.

John Dixon said...

Is there ever a right time? If there were vast amounts of building happening, I'm sure that some would argue that was the wrong time as well. As it is, the rules are being announced now and come into effect in September. I think the challenge is less to do with timing and more to do with whether this is just one action, or is part of a joined-up policy.