This is the evidence provided by the Royal Town Planning Institute to the Environmental Audit Committe on the Voluntary National Review (VNR) of the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Our response focused primarily on the Government's preliminary Emerging Findings document, and in particular on the section regarding SDG11 'Sustainable Cities and Communities' and its achievement in the UK. The RTPI, as a founding member of the Global Planners' Network, was instrumental in lobbying for the creation of SDG11 and including planning as an instrument to achieve it in the UN-Habitat's New Urban Agenda.
How well does the Government's Emerging Findings document reflect the progress that the UK has made domestically on implementing the SDGs?
The Royal Town Planning Institute recognises that the Emerging Findings are a work in progress and that the VNR is meant to offer an opportunity to national stakeholders to engage in a conversation around the delivery of the SDGs.
In the Government's programmatic document 'Agenda 2030 - The UK Government's approach to delivering the Global Goals for Sustainable Development - at home and around the world', "driving up house supply" is described as "essential" for achieving SDG11. New homes delivery targets are actually featured as the main national policy for the achievement of SDG11 in the UK.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) interprets the monitoring of the SDG housing indicator 11.1.1 ('Proportion of urban population living in slums, informal settlements or inadequate housing') as the percentage of dwellings failing minimum standard decent homes criteria, defined as dwellings posing a category 1 hazard under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS).
The monitoring approach uses dwellings failing the decent homes criteria as an approximation for 'slums, informal settlements or inadequate housing' - as defined in UN global metadata – in the UK context. Considering that 25% of English homes fail to meet that essential Health and Safety standard, the ONS is correct in pointing out this issue and bringing it to public attention in the Voluntary National Review. However, it may not necessarily be the most appropriate or only way of monitoring that indicator for two reasons:
1) The UN definition of inadequate housing is broader than just health and safety, and crucially encompasses affordability . This is particularly relevant in a context such as the UK, where essential health and safety standards might be seen as a baseline, rather than a goal to achieve by 2030.
2) Building new homes is not guaranteed to substitute homes that fail decent home criteria, which may continue to exist next to the new-build stock. This is particularly true when the policy is designed to satisfy the projected demand for new homes, rather than to substitute an ageing or inadequate housing stock – as stated in the 2017 Government's Housing White Paper.
For this reason, the RTPI suggests that it may be worth considering adapting the monitoring of indicator 11.1.1 to the UK context by looking at data on the impact of housing unaffordability on the most deprived segments of the population. Furthermore, it would be useful to clarify in the VNR exactly how policy intended to drive up housing supply will address both the issues around adequateness and health and safety – as currently monitored – and those around affordability – which are identified as crucial by the UN and are relevant to the UK context.
The VNR might be an occasion to not just report to the UN on progress towards the achievement of the SDGs based on a set of globally agreed indicators, but also to discuss how these can be adequately transposed in the national context and how organisations can partner to achieve and monitor the SDGs.
The RTPI commends the ONS for partnering with the Ordnance Survey and coming up with a simple data set for monitoring the SDG indicator on land consumption 11.3.1 ('Ratio of land consumption rate to population growth rate'), which encompasses all man-made changes in land use patterns. However, considering that the Government aims to deliver 300,000 new homes a year from the mid-2020s, new housing might be a significant driver of changes in land use, and might require special consideration in both policy design and monitoring efforts.
According to Eurostat data, in 2017 approximately 86 percent of the UK population lived in either detached or semi-detached houses. The VNR monitoring approach may want to consider how policies intended to achieve SDG11 by driving up house supply might affect land consumption, particularly if new developments reflect current settlement patterns.
For example, if 86% of the 300,000 new homes to be delivered each year were built as detached or semi-detached homes on plots of 200 sqm, it would mean 51.6 sq km or 20 sq miles of land changing use each year to make space for new residential uses - excluding the amenities and infrastructure needed to service them.
In this respect, the VNR may want to highlight positive examples of planning policy aimed at optimising sites and achieving increased density, such as Croydon Council's Suburban Design Guide .
In line with the focus placed on sustainable transport for all in the government's Agenda 2030 programmatic document, the ONS reports on the success of the 'Access for All' programme to provide step-free rail station access. This programme is very effectively addressing aspects of SDG indicator 11.2.1 with regard to access for people with disabilities. However, in order to address this wider goal, it is important also to review levels of accessibility by sustainable modes of transport (rail, bus, cycling, walking) across the built environment, the sustainability of residential land allocations, and the degree to which new development is delivered alongside the necessary public and active transport infrastructure such as railway and bus stations.
In this respect, it might be interesting for the purposes of the VNR to look at the findings of the RTPI research 'The Location of Development'. The project mapped the planning permissions for over 226,000 new homes granted between 2012 and 2017 in 12 fast-growing English city-regions. It measured the number of new units granted on each site, analysed whether they fall outside, within or in contiguity with an existing built-up area, and analysed their proximity to a railway station (within 800m, 2km or above) and to major employment clusters (within 10km, between 10 and 20km, over 20km). In the sample studied, over 50% of new developments were more than 2 km away from a train station .
 UN-Habitat and UNHCR 2014, Human Rights to Adequate Housing - Fact Sheet https://bit.ly/2Z37dmD
 Croydon Council 2018, Suburban Design Guide https://www.croydon.gov.uk/planningandregeneration/framework/localplan/spdandoapf
 Royal Town Planning Institute 2018, Settlement Patterns, Urban Form & Sustainability https://www.rtpi.org.uk/locationofdevelopment