Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets
The Prime Minister and the new Secretary of State for Housing and Levelling up have been very clear that they want to cut regulation which gets in the way of economic activity and growth. Here’s a profoundly ill-judged new regulation that should be cut as soon as possible.
The new Part O Building Regulations, signed off on June 15th this year, introduced a new requirement that non-ground floor windows should be at least 1.1 metres from the floor. In a normal sized suburban house this will make first floor rooms darker and less pleasant. The normal line of sight of a seated adult or smaller child will barely see out of the window. Think of these miserable 1960s buildings with once trendy horizontal strips of window obscurely lighting the gloomy interior. But this time in your own home. Your bedroom or home study will be noticeably darker. And it will be nearly impossible to create houses that “fit in” with their twentieth century, Edwardian, Georgian, Victorian or local vernacular predecessors.
The ostensible reason for the regulation is that with global warming people will be opening windows more frequently and that this manages a risk of people falling out of their houses which needs to be controlled. This is clearly fatuous. Millions of existing homes have much lower windowsills than will now be required which are very frequently opened already. Is there a plague of people falling out of windows? Of course not. This is a non-problem. And the Government has no up to date information on how many people fall out of windows each year for the very good reason that this is not an issue so no one bothers counting it. The latest data is over 20 years old, includes other categories (reaching out to get the cat etc.) and even then only accounts for 0.8 per cent of domestic accidents (that’s not a typo). Before we ban nice windows, we should be banning cars, kettles, planes, trains, domestic electricity, and any form of light industry. We should probably also be having a good think about whether it’s a good idea to get out of bed in the morning.
There is a proposed work-around of adding window bars but this costs money and is visually unpleasant. Whereas the economics (if not the aesthetics) might work in more expensive areas, my conversations with developers and housebuilders lead me to the melancholy conclusion that in most of the country, housebuilders will simply raise the windowsills. It is not fanciful to say that it will be possible to date homes by whether they are pre- or post-Part O buildings. The post-Part O homes will be recognisable by their meagre and miserly first floor windows.
The regulations have already delayed home-building in the short term as they have been applied to tens of thousands of homes that already have planning permission meaning that developers have either had to re-apply for planning permission to raise the windowsills or design, pay for, and install new window bars – adding unexpected build cost at a time of rapidly rising costs.
In sum, this regulation was foolishly imposed less than six months ago. It will slow down housebuilding in the short term. It will make homes uglier and more expensive (or both) in the long term. It will make it much harder for new places to ‘fit in’. And this matters for housebuilding to be acceptable. It will all but ban the use of sash windows or larger windows upstairs other than in richer areas that can pay for the bars. (And do you want bars at home?) This regulation serves no actual purpose. There is absolutely no plague of people falling out of windows. Worse, this regulation is opposed to the government’s wider strategic aim of creating more homes and better, more beautiful and more sustainable places. It will actively prevent creating homes that ‘fit in’ with their surroundings in the way that a clear majority of the British provably prefer.
Some decisions are complicated with difficult nuance on both sides. This is not. I try hard not to write in clichés but if you are seeking a real live walking and breathing example of “health and safety gone mad”, here it is!
My advice to the new Secretary of State when it comes to this particular bit of red tape is “cut through it.”