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.

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