Yesterday I attended a housing conference organised by Bristol City Council, with Homes4Bristol and the Bristol Housing Partnership. The aim of the event was to discuss ideas for the next housing strategy and to think about how different partner organisations could come together to address Bristol’s housing problems. The focus was on what we can all do locally to make the most difference to our success as a city and to narrow the equality gap. For me it was an opportunity to meet up with old friends and colleagues with an interest in housing, always something I look forward to. It was also an opportunity to feed ideas into the next housing strategy and to debate those ideas with others.
Overall, I’d say it was a good event, with some good introductory speakers and excellent discussion in the workshops. The introduction from Louise Swain, Chair of Homes4Bristol, gave a quick tour of the existing housing strategy and some of the achievements of the last few years. Louise also talked about the State of the Bristol Housing Market 2013 report, which I’d recommend to anyone who wants to see the statistics for themselves, it’s an excellent summary. Louise and our second speaker, Grainia Long, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Housing, both made the point that housing has been pushed to the forefront of the policy and political agenda. This is undoubtedly true but I’m not sure that the policies are necessarily addressing the core issues or that it will remain at the forefront of the political agenda going into the general election next year – it’s still not a big issue with voters.
One of the points made by Grainia in her presentation was about not treating England as one housing market and the need for more research to achieve better data on the different housing markets that exist. I would totally agree with this and indeed also believe that the same is true within cities – there isn’t just one housing market in Bristol, people’s experience of housing is very different in different parts of the city, something we shouldn’t forget when planning for housing.
One thing we were all agreed on and raised by Grainia was the need for a housing system that works for everyone, and that we are no where near that at the moment. Whilst we may now be clearer about party political priorities in terms of housing we are no clearer about what the next election will bring in terms of outcome. This political uncertainty makes planning ahead more difficult but also leaves opportunities to push particular agendas – there’s a role there for everyone in housing to keep housing at the forefront of people’s minds and to push for new and creative means of addressing problems.
The workshop discussions were focused on identifying issues and ideas. The group I facilitated were from different types of organisations with a diverse interest in housing, so the discussion was quite wide ranging. From the brief feedback given at the event, I’d say the other tables had just as wide ranging a debate, but that the same old issues kept coming up:
- land supply and release – public and private sector
- place making not just housing
- role of the Local Enterprise Partnership & opportunities from devolution
- early intervention and advice
- private rented sector – engagement, standards and access
- South Bristol – a divided city
There wasn’t really enough time to draw out and develop the themes and issues at the conference, which is a shame, but each workshop had a someone noting down all the key points so these could be fed back into the partnership process for developing the strategy. It’ll be interesting to see what makes the grade when those discussions continue.
For me overall the discussion seemed a bit ‘safe’ with few reporting back on anything that hadn’t been discussed before or anything that wasn’t generally mainstream thinking. There didn’t seem, from what was reported back, to be anything innovative or creative about the debate. That’s not to say those discussions didn’t happen, just that they weren’t reported back during the conference. Also, I thought there were a couple of critical issues missing from the discussion – alternative approaches to housing and housing an elderly population. So a brief comment from me on each of these, to feed into the discussion as strategy development continues.
Alternative approaches to housing – what do I mean by this? Well no one mentioned self build, custom build or conversions, well we did in our workshop, but it didn’t seem to feature elsewhere. This is unfortunately a pretty common problem when you get housing professionals together, they talk about mainstream housing issues, rather than alternatives. In Bristol I keep hearing about us being a test bed for new ideas, a creative and innovative place, that’ll try out different things. So let’s do that in housing? We have some great examples of groups and individuals pushing these agendas with little or no support from the council, how much further would they get with some extra help and how big a difference could we make? Can the council engage with the private sector to manage a process of bringing empty office buildings back into use as residential where they are most needed? Can the council support self and custom build by releasing public land with no up front cost, as an investment opportunity that brings returns further down the line? Can the council develop and showcase factory built homes, more affordable and more sustainable than most housing, illustrating to people just what is possible other than volume house building? The possibilities are endless but are we taking up those opportunities?
Housing an elderly population – a massive issue for most cities and towns that is only going to get more difficult and not really an issue I know much about. There are nearly 60,000 people over the age of 65 in Bristol and 190,000 in the West of England; nearly half of those are over 75 and 9,000 over 85, many are coping perfectly well with the housing they have, but many are not. I recently had the pleasure of meeting up with Malachy McReynolds who showed me round the Waterloo Home Independence Centre in Old Market and introduced me to the work of Care & Repair in the West of England. The biggest issue, apart from the increasing numbers of elderly people who need support in their own homes, is the fact that much of the problem is hidden. We just don’t notice the level of need or the day-to-day difficulties many older people are coping with. The issue is certainly exacerbated by the fact that 2/3 of those over 65 are now owner occupiers, often stuck in homes that are not easily adapted and where homes are frequently in poor condition. One of the hidden results of the Right to Buy policy, where people spend what little they have on acquiring their own home and are left with little resource to carry out improvements or ongoing maintenance. We’re also not building enough purpose built accommodation, sheltered housing, for those that need it and it’s certainly not affordable to many. This is a problem that isn’t going to go away and needs to be a central part of any future housing strategy.