A new generation of prefabs

A recent announcement by government has caused quite a stir. The suggestion is that we might build a new generation of ‘prefabs’ to help solve the housing crisis. A reasonable suggestion, after all it has the potential to cut through materials shortages, domination by volume house builders and provide houses more quickly and efficiently. The problem seems to be with the word ‘prefab’ as this evokes memories of the post-war building that took place, providing quick, cheap homes that were only ever meant to be temporary, but ended up housing people for decades in what later became unfit homes.

huf

So what is a modern day ‘prefab’ and why would we even contemplate it now? Prefabs are now more commonly called factory built, modular homes or kit houses. The idea of ‘kit housing’ has been around for some time and indeed is pretty standard in France and Germany where volume house builders do not rule the market. The beauty of kit housing is that it is factory built, it’s cheaper and can be erected on site pretty quickly. There are many companies out there providing this form of housing, from the original and more expensive Huf Haus, to relative newcomers to the arena like Apple Green Homes, and Snug Homes.

snug

The government is now proposing to use some of the £3bn house building fund to support small and medium sized builders to provide a new generation of prefabs. The advantage this type of building has is that it is generally constructed off site, in a factory building, so less constrained by weather. It uses different materials so is not subject to the same shortages and problems associated with traditional brick built dwellings and is often cheaper. Indeed many of the new model of prefabs are developed as small units, that are affordable, but which can be connected to form larger units. They also tend to be built to high environmental standards, with many of the designs modelled on Scandinavian, Dutch and German models, where energy efficiency and sustainability are central to the design approach.

feature-frillesas

At the moment we are not geared up to this type of development in the same way as many other European countries are, it’s not been a significant part of our housing model for over 60 years. But there are plenty of examples we can look at to see how it works, at a reasonable scale, as a core part of housing delivery. In Nijmegen, The Netherlands, where I worked for a while, they are now proposing to provide sites for people to build flat-packed affordable homes under a new initiative called ‘Ik bouw betaalbaar in Nijmegen’ (IbbN). These can be constructed on site within a few weeks. In Almere, near Amsterdam, the municipality set aside 100 hectares, with the aim of creating the opportunity for around 3,000 self build homes across the overall development, many of which are timber framed, modular builds.

zelfbouw-woningen-plantjevlag-nijmegen-b58

But could we do it here, to a big enough scale to make an impact – that’s the key question. With support from government and local councils, land provision and support from mortgage lenders, it’s possible. These should not be seen as temporary, low cost solutions, but as permanent, affordable solutions. It will be important to ensure the highest of environmental standards and quality are a core part of the approach, as they are elsewhere. It will be interesting to see what the White Paper, due out later this month, actually says in terms of funds and support. One thing we definitely need to do is get beyond the outdated perception we have of ‘prefabs’ and start to see the possibilities that modular homes can provide to help us solve the housing crisis.

 

Advertisements

What next for Bristol Housing?

IMG_1624You might wonder what there is left to say about housing in Bristol with all the debate that’s occurred over the last few months? We seem to have had all the main mayoral candidates talking about it, making promises and pledges in their manifestos and statements. We’ve also had it mentioned in media interviews and articles, as well as at hustings meetings across the board. But what about the housing hustings meeting itself, did anything different come up and were there any real solutions to our housing problems?

Overall there seemed to be a lot of common ground, with the five main candidates all agreeing that we need to build more homes and George Ferguson, the current Mayor, saying plans were in place to do just that. The Conservative candidate, Charles Lucas, constantly referred to the need to build more homes, whatever type or sector, just build, seemed to be his main answer to the housing crisis, alongside making it easier for developers to build by relaxing planning regulations – everyone agreed with the first part of this statement! There was also agreement over the need for some form of housing company to enable the council to build more homes, but quite what this looks like and how it will operate is less than clear at the moment.

IMG_1625George Ferguson expressed the view that we need to tear up the rulebook and be more creative. That’s why he’s set up the Bristol Homes Board, bringing partners from all sectors together to tackle Bristol’s housing problem. He also talked a lot about the Devolution Deal and how this would help to address housing issues. I have to say that I’ve read the deal and I still can’t quite see how it will make that much difference, assuming it’s finally approved by all our local councils, but apparently there’s something in there that will help deliver housing.

The Liberal Democrat candidate, Kay Barnard, seemed to have a bit of an issue with council staff and their lack of expertise/experience in certain areas. In answer to several questions she suggested the need for training, as staff at the council simply don’t have the skills to deliver more homes. Other issues she seemed keen on were the idea of creating an arms length company to deliver homes as has been used in Liverpool, Manchester and Sutton (I’ve yet to check what these look like). She also expressed concern that many housing schemes that have been delivered in Bristol have had little affordable housing included as part of the deal, in her words “the planners need to be tougher”.

From Tony Dyer, the Green Party candidate, we had a thoughtful response to many of the issues, with social and affordable housing taking centre stage and the need to build social houses for rent expressed clearly as a priority. Using council owned land to deliver better quality affordable housing was also a key concern, holding onto land and maintaining control a clear way forward (also expressed by Marvin Rees). Tony also mentioned the impact of government policy and how this has made it even harder for council’s to build social housing, at the same time as encouraging loss of council housing through the right to buy. This is why he is in favour of developing a Bristol Housing Company, to protect new and existing stock from being sold off, as well as to help develop new council homes.

Charles Lucas added to his comment about building more homes by flying in the face of national Tory policy and agreeing that this should be across all sectors, including building social housing for rent and increasing the council housing stock in the city. He also made clear that he thought the planning department was under-resourced, and that in order to attract developers into Bristol we need to have a more efficient planning response that makes it easier for developers.

Marvin Rees , the Labour Party candidate, set out his priorities as building more homes, keeping hold of council land and using the increase in value from development to build more homes. Homes and communities are at the top of Marvin’s agenda and he believes this should be an absolute priority now. Marvin also raised the point about choices, with limited budgets choices have to be made about where resources are spent, there’s money  and land that could have been used to deliver more homes but other priorities were clearly more important. Marvin talked about meetings he’d had with organisations who want to invest and build in Bristol but have found it too difficult, so they have gone elsewhere, illustrating the need for a culture change at the council. This claim was refuted by George, who suggested that it used to be an issue, but is less so now. 

All candidates agreed that the council needed to make the best use of council and other publicly owned land to deliver affordable housing in the city. How this is done and how you can break down the very considerable barriers that seem to exist was less clear from the debate. The intention is there, but we also heard from people in the audience involved in community led housing initiatives who have witnessed those barriers first hand, who claim dealing with the council is impossible, slow and ponderous to the extreme. There are communities in Bristol that have identified space for housing through their neighbourhood planning processes, spaces communities are willing to see developed, but which have stalled because of issues over land ownership, planning, and council commitment. What they see instead is the council selling off public land in their areas for private developers to build on with limited input from the community. What they would prefer is community led development, on sites identified by the community, where they have a real say over the type of housing, what it looks like and what facilities are needed alongside it. All these communities want is a commitment from the council to support a different way of doing things. Surely there must be scope for Bristol to do so much more in working with communities to make this happen?

The debate actually started with a question about homelessness which brings us back to why we need to build more homes, particularly affordable and social housing. Tony made the point that it is a disgrace that people sleep on the streets in a city like Bristol and he issued an apology on behalf of all politicians that not enough was being done to prevent homelessness. All candidates agreed it was unacceptable to have rough sleepers, whilst Marvin added to this and made the point that the homeless are not invisible, they do exist and we need to acknowledge that and rethink the way we think about housing. There are places doing more innovative work on homelessness, Bristol could do well to look at other examples of how to tackle the problem.

There was also a discussion about how to make the private rented sector (PRS) work better for people. Most of the candidates agreed with the Ethical Lettings Charter promoted by Acorn as part of their campaign promoting a new more ethical approach to renting a home in Bristol. Marvin talked about the need for a different set of tools to manage this form of housing, tools which are not currently available but are needed in this changing housing market where private rental is becoming increasingly more common. The Acorn campaign was formed because people believed the politicians and decision makers were not doing their job properly, they were not seen to be protecting tenants or using the powers they already have very effectively. Most agreed this should change.

What the housing hustings did illustrate well was that housing is a big issue, it’s an issue lots of people care about and it’s a political issue. On a Friday evening, on a bank holiday weekend, lots of people turned up to listen, heckle and support the discussion on “what next for Bristol housing”. The issues are obvious, the solutions are available, but somehow we’re not quite doing enough to make enough of a difference. The question is who will make that change and make things happen differently? Hopefully, we’ll know more after the election!

Bristol Mayoral Election – What about housing?

CcYfmnsWEAAKjbFWell, we’re almost there, the election is next week. It’s time to decide who will be the next directly elected Mayor of Bristol. With all 70 seats on the Council also up for election it looks set to be an interesting week. Hopefully this time the turnout will be higher and local people will be more engaged in having a say over who governs their city.

Over the last few months I’ve been looking closely at how housing policy has been discussed and debated publicly during the election process. At the beginning of this process it wasn’t clear quite what the political priorities would be and whether or not housing would feature as a key issue. But as time has progressed housing issues have certainly become a big part of the debate. Perhaps not surprising given the very real pressures people are feeling in relation to housing in Bristol.

The Bristol housing market looks something like this:

housing sectors

The statistics below will give you a feel for some of the housing problems Bristol faces:

  • house prices have increased by 29% over the last 10 years
  • private rents in the city increased by an average of 18% in 2015, the highest in the country (alongside Brighton)
  • 28% of privates homes fall beneath the decent homes standard
  • one of the highest increases in homelessness acceptances in the country
  • one of the highest rough sleepers figures in England
  • 2010-2015 only 1490 affordable homes built against need of at least 800/year
  • in the last few of years over 100 council houses per year lost to right to buy
  • in the 12 months prior to March 2014 just over 1200 new homes were delivered in Bristol but only 97 were affordable
  • between 2016-2036 Bristol needs 18,800 needs affordable homes, that’s 940/year

These figures make disturbing reading and really only provide a snapshot of the problem, but are nevertheless useful as background to the debate. I should point out here that the information for this blogpost is drawn solely from publicly available material produced in manifestos, action plans, websites, Facebook pages, hustings meetings and media interviews with the main candidates.

So with all this in mind, what are the mayoral candidates saying about housing? Well, I’ll break it down into 4 main policy areas and take these in turn: overall housing delivery, affordable/social housing, private rented sector, and homelessness, .

Firstly, on overall housing delivery, several of the candidates are making promises to build 8,000 new homes over the next 4 years, that’s 2,000 houses per year of which up to 2,800 will be affordable. This is broadly the commitment made by George Ferguson, Tony Dyer and Marvin Rees, with variations around the numbers of affordable homes (I’ll come back to that later). It is less clear what the Liberal Democrat and Conservative proposals are other than Charles Lucas identifying a priority to build more homes and Kay Barnard highlighting the need to ensure all brownfield sites are developed for new homes. So increasing the number of homes built is a priority for all of the main candidates, but what is missing from much of the discussion is just how they will achieve that. Detailed proposals on the policy changes needed are at this stage largely missing from the public documents. When challenged at some of the hustings meetings candidates have provided more information. In particular, there appears to be some agreement over the need to set up some form of arms length, council owned company to deliver affordable housing projects. Just what this means and how it would work is less clear, but examples are available from other cities where similar proposals have been made using different models, such as the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust. The point here is about changing the role local councils play in increasing the supply of housing, through partnership and enabling roles rather than as sole deliverers. This was an important recommendation in the Elphicke-House Report produced last year which identified the need for local authorities to take responsibility for making development happen in their area.

The delivery of social and affordable housing also appears to be a priority for all the main candidates, some more explicitly than others. Here the focus is on affordable housing, often with no clear definition of what is meant by affordable, but with some making the distinction between the government’s definition of affordable and what is actually affordable to people in Bristol. There’s a real debate to be had here about what local authorities can actually do to increase the amount of affordable housing delivered in their area. With government policy squarely aimed at encouraging home ownership, the public and social rented sectors have taken a bit of a battering. Add to that the proposed extension of Right to Buy to housing association homes, the relaxation of planning S.106 agreements on affordable housing and the curbs on the ability of councils to borrow money to build new social homes and you begin to see that any commitments here are made with one hand tied behind your back. Just what can local authorities do to make a difference? Some of the suggestions include looking at alternative forms of housing, like self-build and cooperative housing, modular build and pre-fabricated housing, as a means of delivering more affordable housing. There are definitely options for more work in this area. Bristol, once upon a time, led the way in self-build, but has sadly fallen behind many others places now as support from the council has reduced and development has become more competitive. I wrote a piece for the Bristol Cable on alternative housing as an option, you can read it here.

The private rented sector as a provider of housing in Bristol has become ever more important over recent years, now providing 24% of homes in the city. This in itself brings with it a number of concerns and issues, such as security of tenure, affordability and quality of provision. All these are concerns in Bristol, as they are in many other cities and towns, where the need to find cheap, affordable housing drives individuals and families into renting unfit accommodation, living in overcrowded conditions, and living in fear of eviction. There is little control over the Private Rented Sector (PRS) and little the council can do to regulate price and quality, and what control they do have is often not fully implemented. As a result of concerns about PRS provision in certain areas of the city, a trial scheme was implemented in Easton and Lawrence Hill, where discretionary licensing was introduced for landlords. This scheme is being rolled out slowly into other areas of the city, enabling council inspections to ensure minimum standards are being met.

In response to issues highlighted by tenants, Acorn have established an Bristol Ethical Lettings Charter, which Bristol City Council have now supported, but this is still only voluntary. This Charter is a declaration of decency and a statement of intent, to help create a fair, professional and ethical private rental sector, it asks landlords and agents to commit to certain standards of security, cost and quality. George, Tony and Marvin all feature policies on improving the PRS, which include rolling out the Ethical Lettings Charter and introducing a landlord enforcement scheme. These priorities would certainly go some way to addressing the concerns of many tenants in the PRS. Giving voice to those tenants is also important, which is where Marks Out of Tenancy could help with their proposal for a website where you can rate your landlord or letting agent, a sort of TripAdvisor for the PRS.

The final issue for debate is homelessness, an increasing concern in Bristol, with more rough sleepers and declarations of homelessness than other cities outside of London. The response from candidates to the issue has been mixed, some don’t mention it, others identify it as an issue, but have few solutions. The ideas that have been mentioned include bringing empty homes back into use, increasing overall housing provision, providing more emergency shelters and providing more support for those who are homeless. Of course there are no easy solutions, people are homeless and sleeping rough for many different reasons and will need varying levels of support at different times to help them address their problems and issues. For those with complex needs there’s an interesting approach being used in the US and Canada which sees housing as a basic human right and seeks to provide immediate access to permanent housing for homeless people. Starting from that premise removes the need for those who are homeless/sleeping rough to go through support programmes and overcome addiction problems before they access decent housing, it starts with housing first, and has seen some significant success. There are different ways of addressing problems and there are some creative and successful approaches out there if only we would look beyond the norm.

Overall it is clear that housing features as a key priority for many of the mayoral candidates, but to date the level of debate has been disappointing, with few new or different solutions discussed. To some degree this is perhaps to be expected, with local government working within a difficult environment of cuts and central control. It’s also fair to say that most hustings meetings and debates have little time to get into the detail as they try to address a range of big topics with up to 13 candidates! I’m hoping the housing hustings taking place on Friday April 29th will provide a little more of that detailed discussion, where the ideas and solutions can be developed further.

Pioneering alternative housing models

DSCN1037

When we talk about solving the housing crisis we tend to talk about supply and demand, about affordability and about providing homes for people. We seldom talk about people being in control of providing their own home. The whole housing system has morphed into one of dependency, be it dependence on private landlords, house builders or the State, someone will provide it for us. When housing professionals get together they talk about mainstream housing issues, about rent prices, about how difficult it is to build council housing or social housing for rent, about problems of land supply and land-banking by private developers. Rarely do they talk about self-build, custom build or housing co-operatives. It seems, on the surface at least, that we’ve lost some of the creativity and innovation in our debates about housing.

When you dig beneath that surface though you will find all kinds of interesting projects, that take us back to a less dependent realm of provision, where self-help and mutual aid were the guiding principles for action. This type of approach can still be seen in self-build and custom build projects, co-operative housing schemes and community led housing developments. These are schemes that are shaped and controlled by residents, where people have taken back control.

Back in 1975, over 40 years ago, the then Director of Housing at Bristol City Council published a Green Paper on housing with the following title:

“A Decent Home!! (A paper to stimulate thought and encourage participation so that policies can be evolved to tackle effectively the Housing problems of this great city.)”

What a great idea. Perhaps it’s time to have that very debate again in Bristol and to encourage participation from neighbourhoods across our city with a discussion that includes some alternative solutions to housing provision instead of focusing on a system that clearly doesn’t work. Maybe it could be a debate that involves those seeking a decent home but who can’t afford what is on offer and who have given up on a social housing system that has been reduced to such a residual service. Maybe it’s also time to listen to those who have solutions but are marginalised, as their solutions don’t support the traditional mainstream approach to housing?

There are many small-scale examples to draw from that could be included in this debate but seldom are. Why don’t we talk about co-operative housing more frequently when we have such a great example here in Bristol that is currently on site and well on its way to developing a sustainable model for converting empty office buildings into homes. Proof if ever you needed it that, even now, ordinary people can refurbish old buildings, create social housing communities and produce a modest return for investors (AEOB Group).

Why don’t we talk more about ‘kit housing’ or custom build, which is factory made, using more sustainable materials, cheaper and quicker to erect on site than traditional bricks and mortar housing? There are many companies out there providing this form of housing, from the original and more expensive Huf Haus, to relative newcomers to the arena like Apple Green Homes and the local SNUG homes developed by Ecomotive. Whilst self-build might not be an option for many, custom build and co-operative housing may just be relevant to a wider audience. Together these models of provision could provide greater opportunities to those that have been failed by our current approach to housing.

Imagine if Bristol could be one of the first in the country to develop these custom build, co-operative models further, as part of the mainstream, using public land, property and resources to support individuals and communities to make things happen? Imagine if we could just find a way to support people to develop their own plans and models of future living? There’s a challenge here for Bristol to make this happen. And there’s a challenge to all of us to support these different initiatives to help effect the change that is needed. As Colin Ward put it so well:

”… if people are given the reins, get the right help and are committed, they can come up with a really excellent viable housing scheme that people want to live in”.

(Colin Ward, 1985:120, “When we build again, let’s have housing that works”)

The text of this blogpost was first written for The Bristol Cable and appeared there in April 2016.

The rise of co-housing in Bristol

IMG_1008

Batten’s Lane development, Bristol (AEOB)

There’s some interesting stuff going on around housing in Bristol. It’s community based and creative, using volunteers as well as paid labour, to make things happen on a small scale, working with communities to provide the housing that is needed. It started from a discussion, where people imagined what could be done rather than worried about what wasn’t happening. It led to a group of people getting together to create change by developing an idea to bring investment of money and skills into the delivery of housing for those who can’t afford to access secure housing any other way. It led to the creation of the Abolish Empty Office Buildings (AEOB) group in Bristol. Their aim is as follows:

“AEOB has a mission ­ to challenge the pattern of office and commercial buildings standing empty while there is a need for housing, and to promote their use as an efficient alternative to building new homes. These new housing projects will provide secure, affordable housing to people who struggle to find adequate housing through the private and commercial property rental market. This is a chance to build a new social housing model in a country that houses its own people.” from the AEOB website.

The group formed in 2012 and issued their community share offer in 2013 to raise money so they could buy their first property. The aim was to find an empty office or commercial building that was no longer used or needed for its original purpose. Once the share offer reached around £230k the search began in earnest and a prospective residents group was formed, with the criteria to join being ‘anyone in housing need’. The point being to include a range of people which would enable the creation of a diverse and supportive community living as a cooperative.

In September 2014 the group began the process of securing their first property, a recently vacated commercial building in Batten’s Lane, St George in Bristol. It took a while, but almost a year later work has started on site and is now well underway. It involves conversion of the existing building and the addition of a 2-storey extension to create 6 flats, a common room and laundry area with communal gardens. A key part of the development process is the re-use and recycling of materials, and ensuring sustainable construction is very much central to the process. The aim is to have high energy efficient appliances and build, cutting energy use and saving tenants money, as well as re-using existing materials on site.

It seems there is an appetite for this type of co-housing in Bristol. It’s undoubtedly a fascinating concept and one that has the potential to be scaled up, to create opportunities for more people to engage and benefit. It’s a model that operates on a not-for-profit basis, where rental income will be used to pay off loans and support the next project. It’s a model that engages and involves potential residents as well as the local community. It’s also a model that seeks to provide truly affordable housing, to meet an ever increasing need.

It’s not a new concept, in fact co-housing is more frequently seen in other areas of Western Europe than it is in the UK. I visited a scheme a few years ago in Vauban, Freiburg, where more than 50 co-housing schemes have been implemented across the development. The scheme I visited was a block of flats, with tenants sharing basement space, laundry space, common room and some shared cooking spaces as well as gardens. I talked to the people living there and was shown round some of the building. It worked well as a community and was affordable to those living there. It brought people together who wanted to live in a supportive community, sharing child-minding, spending time with older residents, and working together on new projects and initiatives. That’s exactly the concept I got from talking to Elinor at AEOB, that idea of a supportive community, separate but also together. Something that perhaps we are less good at in England, but which is clearly attractive to some.

DSCN0305

At the moment we’re talking about one site in Bristol that is in the early stages of development. But it is at least a start and a pretty good one at that. The critical point from here will be to see how sustainable the model is, how it can be rolled out and if further properties can be identified and secured by the group.

How to solve the housing crisis?

2015-02-27 08.57.21This morning I went along to my first General Election 2015 debate. It was organised by a group of professional bodies representing planners, architects and surveyors, and focused on the built environment’ that is housing, planning and infrastructure. It had a good line up of candidates, from the 5 main parties, and was chaired by David Garmston from BBC Points West. Whilst I didn’t expect to hear lots of new ideas and policies, I was hoping for some key pointers on how we can improve our infrastructure, build more houses and make planning a more positive and engaged process that delivers quality places. To be fair, there were some interesting points, but mostly it was just the same old stuff, the same ideas and policies that are clearly not working very well at the moment and haven’t for some time. I was left feeling slightly less than inspired and struggling to really define the difference between the main parties (I’ll exclude the Greens and UKIP from that comment, as they did stand out as different, but not necessarily in a good way).

In relation to housing, one of the things that struck me from the debate was that, if you put to one side the argument about how many houses, the solutions to the housing crisis appear to be quite simple and the candidates appeared largely to be in agreement on both the problem and the solutions. The main thrust of the discussion was around the following issues:

  • It’s a problem of supply, we need to build more houses to keep up with demand
  • Housing affordability is a real issue in Bristol and the West of England
  • Need to focus on a mixture of tenures and types to meet the changing need
  • Need to reduce resistance to new housing development by working with and engaging communities in the debate
  • Need for a longer term view and vision for housing
  • Incentivise house building, ‘use it or lose’ in relation to land banking
  • Housebuilders not keeping up with the demand and Housing Associations not filling the gap left by local councils

Very little of this would come as a surprise to anyone involved in discussions about housing policy and development. So will anything really change after the election? Whoever is elected, there seems to be little by way of new policy ideas to help solve the housing crisis, just a restatement and reprioritising of existing policy. Where are the radical new policies that might actually make a difference? What about stopping the right to buy on all new council housing and allowing councils to borrow more so they can fund new social housing, that’s then available for all those that need it, without the fear of losing it in a few years to private landlords? What about prioritising public land and buildings for new housing developments, so the control of phasing, quality, design and planning rests with the public sector and communities rather than developers and house builders? What about changing the way we build houses, modernising our building methods to build more off site, using different skills and processes? Is it really that hard to extend our thinking beyond the very narrow confines of recent and current policy? Surely if it’s not working, it’s time for a rethink?

There was also a debate about the skills shortage and how this impacts upon the housing crisis and our ability to build new homes. The most entertaining element of the debate was definitely listening to the UKIP candidate tie himself in knots about the positives of immigration when we need people compared to the negatives they spin out most the time! Other than that there were some serious points about how the focus on encouraging people into a university education has actually been damaging to our skills base. The point being that we are losing the ‘vocational’ skills because these are somehow seen as inferior, when we should be promoting a parity of esteem for all vocational and university courses and skills.

The discussion about governance and devolution was quite encouraging and significantly different to what you would hear if you had five local councillors on the panel rather than five parliamentary candidates. Indeed, if there were any local councillors in the room I imagine they would have been somewhat annoyed and maybe a little embarrassed by the debate. The main point seemed to be that the history of the apparent inability of the four councils that make up the West of England to actually work together in any real and meaningful way has tarnished our ability to make the most of the opportunities available to us. Despite the best endeavours of the Local Enterprise Partnership, the Mayor and other council leaders, there is still clearly a very strong perception in Government that the Bristol city region has not yet got its act together. This means the potential benefits of more power, accountability, responsibility and resource are less likely to come our way and more likely to go to places like Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and others who seem to be able to put political differences to one side for the benefit of their city regions. We can’t even agree that we need a formal integrated transport authority for the Bristol city region, which to most people would seem obvious, but not to our local political leaders. Let alone agree that any other form of formal structures and agreements to cover strategic planning, housing and growth are needed or would provide any benefit to the area. There seemed to be general agreement from the panel that this leaves the city region in a position where it could well be left behind by other city regions, as they forge ahead with formal partnerships and arrangements. That’s not to say that we should just fall in line with central government dictat, but that we should be able to overcome local political differences, to do what is best for the city region – at the moment that doesn’t appear to be happening.

It was an interesting debate around some really important issues, but I can’t help but feel the confines of the debate are too narrow and we’re missing out on some of the solutions and ideas that might come from wider debate and more innovative, creative thinking.

My housing wish list for 2015

DSCN0159The start of a new year is a good time both to reflect and think ahead. It’s a good time to be visionary, to think longer term and to overcome the mistakes of the past. So it seemed to me like a pretty good time to consider where next for housing? What would I do if I had any influence or responsibility for housing in Bristol. What would I do differently? What would I change and how could the system work better? Now, of course, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and come up with ideas, because it isn’t actually my job to implement any of this, or make the changes, or take the difficult decisions. So I’ll start with that as a caveat, I know it’s harder than you think and local politicians, the Mayor and others face tough decisions over budget cuts, prioritisation and are lobbied from all sides. I also know lots is being done locally to make changes for the better. But I also know more could be done!

In terms of local housing provision now is the time to be bold, to take some tough decisions and to prioritise the delivery of new, affordable, sustainable housing in the numbers that are needed to meet demand. It’s no good playing around the edges of this any longer, it absolutely has to be a priority for funding, land, resources, time and energy from all involved. Forget the excuses and start delivering.

My wish list includes both local and national changes, and will undoubtedly miss out lots of things that could also be done, but these would be my priorities.

First and foremost I would take a local decision to scrap the Right to Buy (RtB) on any new build council homes and to reduce the discount available for existing homes. I would challenge the government on their policy, as Brighton Council are, and ask that this be controlled locally. It might only be a temporary decision, that can be revisited in a few years, but for now, we are losing more social homes every year than we are building – how does that make sense? Many of those sold under RtB end up with private landlords, renting them back to people at higher rents, subsidised through housing benefits – again, how can that be right? So come on George, Mark and others, be bold, push for local control.

Secondly, another ask of government, that is, to increase the limit on borrowing capacity so local councils can borrow more against existing housing revenue. Current limits are too low and greatly restrict the ability of councils to build new social housing, or to use the funds to support affordable housing through other providers. Subsidised housing requires a public subsidy, and this needs to be in the form of capital investment not through the benefits system as is currently the case. If greater powers and resources are available to cities, then this is one that we should shout loudest about. Give councils the ability to build/fund new social housing.

Thirdly, the council has a responsibility to use its land to support council priorities, so prioritise housing and find the land and buildings to enable more new homes to be built. This land needs to be available at the right price and in the right places, so new affordable houses can be provided, close to jobs and transport infrastructure, where people want to live. I’d like to see some pilot schemes to show what is possible, to bring new ideas, innovation and creativity to the housing market in Bristol. During 2015, the year Bristol is European Green Capital, why not showcase some custom and kit build houses, using more efficient construction processes and providing sustainable homes at affordable prices? Why not illustrate how conversion of empty office buildings can provide new affordable homes in local neighbourhoods, as well as focus on empty homes and bringing those back into use? Why not use land in public ownership to do something different, to move away from volume build new estates that could be anywhere, and choose local designers and builders with a bit more vision to provide quality homes at affordable prices? Above all, prioritise council land for housing and get on with it!

Fourthly, do something to toughen up our planning officers. All too frequently over the last couple of years we have seen planning agreements renegotiated on key sites so affordable housing provision is either totally removed or reduced to negligible numbers. All developers have to do is threaten to stall development and we roll over and do anything they want just to get things moving. We are also too slack when it comes to design and quality issues – Bristol is a fantastic city but we are slowly ruining it with poor, ill thought out design on many new developments. A plea to our planners to do more, challenge more and say NO! Otherwise we’ll end up with more institutional, brash architecture, where any notion of local design and quality is sadly lacking, and the end result is just horrible.

Finally, let’s have a comprehensive plan for housing. This ‘wish’ applies both locally and nationally, but here the focus is on Bristol. We need a plan that covers all sectors and opportunities, that is proactive, that shows leadership and commitment, above all we need a comprehensive, long term plan for addressing Bristol’s housing crisis. Only then can we see the solutions, the resources and the decisions that are needed to make a difference in the short and medium term. Elements of this plan exist but we need more – more decisions, more resources, and more affordable homes.