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Kickstart under scrutiny

18 December 2009

CABE has been working with the Homes and Communities Agency on a £1 billion government initiative called Kickstart to unlock housing schemes stalled by the recession.

Photo by Knightstone Housing Association.

Photo by Knightstone Housing Association.

So far, 136 projects have been allocated £359m to build over 10,000 homes and create thousands of construction jobs. The aim is to deliver up to 22,000 homes by 2012. CABE’s role is to advise the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) on the quality of the proposed schemes.

To do this assessment, CABE and the HCA jointly agreed at the start of the process to use Building for Life. This is the industry standard for assessing design quality and the basis by which Communities and Local Government (CLG) and local government measures performance on housing quality.

For Round 1 of the programme, CABE assessed all 257 schemes that were considered, including the 136 schemes that are being funded. We agreed to present our findings in the form of a risk assessment based on: the Building for Life score, which is made against 20 Building for Life criteria; compliance with the Code for Sustainable Homes; and whether schemes were capable of improvement within the context of the planning permission granted.

CABE’s assessment of Round 1

From a design perspective, our assessments have shown a significant proportion of the 136 schemes being funded by Kickstart should be classified as “very high risk’. They do not meet, for example, the standards for National Affordable Housing Programme grant funding.

‘Very high risk’ represents a score of 9.5 or less out of 20. Seventy four of the 136 schemes (equivalent to 54% of the total) fell into this category.

In terms of their design, the schemes most commonly struggled with poor space standards and over reliance on single aspect dwellings; inflexible house types; poor sustainability standards; dominant and excessive car parking provision; bad highway layouts; and poor relationships with neighbouring homes.

These results are obviously bleak. CABE recognises that Round 1 took place last year at a time of crisis for the housebuilding industry. But the housing market is now slowly improving. Most of the big housebuilders have repaired their balance sheets. Prices and volumes have stabilised and they are buying land again. So as decisions are now made on Round 2 of Kickstart, CABE believes the HCA should only commit public funding to schemes offering much higher standards of design.

Calls for release of the data

There have been calls in the media for the data on Round 1 to be published immediately. There is clearly a valid public interest in disclosing all the information on Kickstart: it will allow public scrutiny of the way in which public money is allocated, and influence the quality of future housing. For CABE, the question is when and how to do this.

We have always planned to publish a full analysis of Kickstart at the end of the programme. We think it makes sense to have the most complete analysis possible of the Building for Life scores from Round 1 and Round 2 before publishing detailed information. Otherwise the information itself and the insights it offers will be partial, and that in turn obviously negates the value of public scrutiny.

Our assessments have also all been based on the information supplied to us by the HCA, which they in turn received from house builders and agencies seeking funding. The HCA says that it augmented our analysis with additional information from their regional teams on 65 of the schemes.  At this stage, we have not seen this information. They have agreed that they will share it with us. But until we get it, we clearly cannot publish a comprehensive report.  

A pivotal year for housing

Kickstart will not be the only big debate of 2010. This is set to be a pivotal year for housing standards. The consultation has just closed on the Mayor’s Housing Design Guide for London, and the London Plan – which includes new space standards for London housing - will have an Examination in Public (EiP) over the summer of 2010. Many developers are lobbying hard against the proposals for improved space standards.

In the next month the HCA plans to go out for public consultation on a national design and quality standards framework. This will set benchmarks for the majority of housing in receipt of public funds nationwide. CABE thinks the HCA should set out a minimum design standard for all the schemes it will fund. This would be in line with the recent commitments by Government in its World Class Places action plan (PDF).

CABE thinks the HCA should adopt a minimum design standard of 14 out of 20 for all publicly funded housing programmes, and promote this through its partnership with every local authority. Perhaps more than any other single measure, that could have a profound impact on the quality of all housing development across the country.

More about Kickstart