The Housing White Paper – diversifying the market

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BCLT and United Communities Scheme, Lockleaze, Bristol

The long awaited Housing White Paper hit the headlines recently, with its promise of ‘fixing our broken housing market’. There’s was a lot of fanfare and a lot of promises but my overall impression was one of ‘so what’s new?’. The White Paper covered four main themes and it would be difficult to argue against any of these:

  • Planning for the right homes in the right places
  • Building homes faster
  • Diversifying the market
  • Helping people now

But will they really make any difference? The White Paper is a mixture of blame and bland. The blame is clearly apportioned to local councils and the planning system (again), whilst the solutions are more of the same kind of things we have been trying for decades, which it would be fair to say don’t really work.

The idea of planning for the right homes in the right places might make you think that things are about to change, that we will get more affordable and social housing in places where house price increases outstrip wage increases and where demand is highest. But what does the White Paper actually say about this? Well once more a lot of the focus is on the planning system, getting the right plans in place, simplifying processes to make it easier for both developers and communities to follow these new plans whilst at the same time protecting the green belt and building at higher densities on brownfield land. I think we may have heard most of this before, and to be honest it doesn’t really work or make much of a difference.

Building homes faster is clearly something we need to improve on but I’m not entirely sure focusing on the planning system once more is really going to help, or that yet another exploration of how developers contribute to infrastructure is needed. Where I do find myself agreeing is with the points about growing the construction workforce and encouraging modern methods of construction, something that is much needed to change the way we view house building (I’ll return to this later).

Diversifying the market is the next step in this debate, where support and encouragement for smaller building companies, small sites and custom build are a welcome addition, as is the notion that the government might actually encourage more building by councils. Although I fear that the extension of right to buy to homes built via arms-length housing companies set up by councils may well fly in the face of this making any difference at all.

Helping people now is clearly a necessity and whilst there is something in the White Paper about homelessness I would have expected to see more given the increasing problem of rough sleeping and those at risk of homelessness. Sadly some of the focus still seems to be on helping people to buy their own homes, a policy that hardly seems to have helped in the areas where access to affordable housing is most difficult. There is at least some acknowledgement that not everyone can own their own home and that the private rented sector is increasing, bringing with it associated problems of rising rents and insecurity of tenure. In response to this the government have announced plans to change the definition of ‘affordable housing’ to include affordable private rented housing and to introduce longer-term tenancies, although quite what this means is less clear. What we need alongside these changes is more support for new social housing, something that is sadly missing from the White Paper. What remains clear to many, but seems not to be accepted by this current government, is that without truly affordable, social rented housing being provided to replace that lost through right to buy we are unlikely to solve our housing crisis.

In addition, one of the biggest problems we have in the UK is that commercial developers dominate our housing market. The ten largest house building firms build about 60% of all new private homes in the UK. So how do we change this? How do we get more smaller builders involved, more community led schemes, self build, co-housing, what’s holding this back? The answer is mostly about access to land and finance. The government response in the White Paper is set out below:

Step 3: Diversifying the market
  • Backing small and medium-sized builders to grow, including through the Home Building Fund;
  • Supporting custom-build homes with greater access to land and finance, giving more people more choice over the design of their home;
  • Bringing in new contractors through our Accelerated Construction programme that can build homes more quickly than traditional builders;
  • Encouraging more institutional investors into housing, including for building more homes for private rent, and encouraging family- friendly tenancies;
  • Supporting housing associations and local authorities to build more homes; and
  • Boosting productivity and innovation by encouraging modern methods of construction in house building.

There’s a lot to be applauded here but there’s still a long way to go before small builders, custom build and modular build will make a significant contribution to building the homes that are needed. But the examples are there for us to learn from. Across the country co-housing projects are being developed, small sites taken on by community land trusts and self builders, as well as innovative new ideas about factory based construction. What we need is a steady build up of this type of activity, supported by local and national government, by increasing the availability of public land specially designated for affordable and community housing and a steady flow of small sites attractive to smaller building companies.

The modular construction factory due to be opened in Basildon by Swann Housing Association is an excellent example of this new thinking, where 500 new affordable homes will be factory built using new technology. A scheme by Bristol Community Land Trust in Lockleaze is a great example of a new type of co-housing development, with the CLT working in partnership with a local Housing Association to develop 49 new homes, including shared facilities, consisting of affordable rented accommodation and low cost home ownership. In terms of modular construction locally, then look no further than Ecomotive’s proposals for the SNUG Home, enabling people to custom build their own affordable, sustainable home using a simple timber framed module.

The challenge with all of these things is to bring them out of the ‘project’ realm to the mainstream of house building. With support in terms of land and finance, council commitment and the creativity of local people, this may just be possible.

The rise of co-housing in Bristol

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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.

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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.