Planning policy must adapt to the shifting need for working from home space, says Philip Barnes, group land and planning director at Barratt Developments
The government’s directive to work from home is being relaxed, as we begin to live alongside Covid-19. Yet many companies – and employees – are reluctant to move back to a rigid five-day week in the office. So, with the future of work becoming more flexible, it’s never been more important for homes to have a dedicated space to work without the distraction of family and pets.
As the country’s largest housebuilder, and in conjunction with national planning consultancy Lichfields, we looked into the impact that home working is having on the nation’s housing stock to see whether planning policies are suited to a post-pandemic world.
The Working from Home: Planning for the New Normal report found that almost half of households felt that their home was unsuitable for home working. While 72% of workers want a mix of working from the office and home, only 28% of those surveyed had a dedicated workspace in their home. The reality is that many workers, especially younger workers, are struggling to do their job effectively from home, often being cramped into working from their bedroom.
The report reveals that working patterns have shifted dramatically over the last 18 months during the pandemic, with working from home at least some of the time now the norm for millions of people across all age groups. And the trend is set to stay with an estimated 7.5m people in the UK looking at hybrid working or hoping to do their jobs from home on a permanent basis – double the pre-lockdown estimate.
One of the key findings of the report is the need for local planning policies to be reviewed to ensure they are adapting to modern requirements for homes of the future, including a space to work from home. Local planning authorities are required by the National Planning Policy Framework to set local housing policies based on up-to-date evidence found in Strategic Housing Market Assessments (SHMA).
The challenge is that without updating their SHMAs, the evidence for housing need will be based on pre-pandemic requirements and won’t take account of the changing way in which many households want to live in their homes in the future.
Often these policies are based on pre-pandemic trends that indicate a reduction in space required in each home because of a growing demographic of young couples, empty nesters and older single people. This reduction in space often means fewer rooms overall and more one- and two-bedroom houses planned for each local area.
Now younger working households – who are more likely to be seeking their first homes or are trading up homes – are particularly likely to feel that their needs are not being met by the one- or two-bedroom properties favoured by current housing mix policies.
Far from simply being about convenience, not having a dedicated workspace with the right equipment can be damaging to the physical and mental health of workers, leading to problems such as increased stress and back problems. The research revealed that almost half of younger workers experienced a negative impact due to lack of proper home workspace.
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that there was a 326% jump in the number of searches for “workspace”, “office” or “working from home” on Rightmove during 2020, as consumers’ priorities shifted overnight.
Local planning policies, which aim to control the size and mix of residential developments, have to be urgently re-evaluated in the light of the report’s findings. Pending preparation of new local policies and SHMAs – which can take years – planning authorities need to be more flexible when it comes to determining planning applications for homes with more rooms than expected by their outdated policies.
National planning policy already asks local authorities to accommodate needs not anticipated when policies are drafted, to allow for new and flexible working practices. We need to see this in practice, to take into account the shift towards millions of us now working from home.
Without an urgent review of housing mix policies, the existing mismatch between the supply and demand of homes will become even more acute, making family homes – with a dedicated space for home working – even less affordable for those who most need them, with consequential harm to the wellbeing of the country’s working population.
How to make planning policy fit for the modern world of hybrid working
1) Local planning authorities reviewing their local plans should take into account that existing housing mix policies will be based on evidence (SHMAs) that predates the pandemic. This shift makes it more likely that the LPA’s review should conclude that the local plan must be updated to revise policies.
2) Pending policy updates, local authorities should be flexible in interpreting their existing out-of-date policies when determining planning applications, particularly to encourage delivery of homes that are work from home friendly.
3) Planning judgements should recognise that the provision of homes that cater for home working has a benefit to the well-being of households and to local economies.
Group land and planning director
Tel: +44 (0)191 430 2804