The Housing White Paper – diversifying the market


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 Problem with Housing Policy: Part 2

DSCN0285What’s missing in UK housing policy and housing supply is clear and relatively simple – voice and choice. Those on the margins most affected by lack of delivery and supply rarely have a voice in decisions taken around housing policy and most of us have little choice in the form of supply available to us.

There are a whole host of statistics bandied around to illustrate the scale of the problem, but one that caught my attention was that the average time needed to save for a deposit is now 22 years compared to just 3 years back in 1997 – wow! now that is depressing!

Emma Reynolds, shadow Housing Minister, said in a recent speech that this is an “important moment for housing”, I would go further and argue that this is a critical moment for housing in the UK. Which, if we make the wrong choices now could see devastating long term social consequences for many. Now’s the time for politicians and policy makers to be bold, to plan long term and make those unpopular and difficult decisions – not something that comes naturally to many perhaps?

A good start, potentially, is the Labour Party decision to set up an Independent Housing Commission, chaired by Sir Michael Lyons. The remit of the Commission is to look at the changes needed to housing and planning policies and practice in order to deliver more homes, pretty wide ranging in many respects, but also quite narrow in others. What stops us building enough homes is not just about housing and planning policies; it’s about competition, land values and land markets, community resistance, lack of political will, inherent conservatism etc. the list goes on and at the heart of it maybe it’s also about deep-seated cultural and behavioural aspects. The need for housing has moved from a basic human need for shelter to one that sees housing as a commodity and an investment for the future. This in itself reinforces the need for house prices to rise or at least remain stable, so people can see a return on their investment, which in turn skews how we see the economics of the situation and the decisions we then make about housing policy.

So what’s the solution and what will come out of the Lyons Housing Commission? The questions/issues it sets out to address, do on the surface, to a non expert like  myself, seem pretty sensible and useful:

  • unlocking land for housing development
  • investment in housing and associated infrastructure
  • role of new towns and garden cities
  • the right to grow
  • share the benefits of development

For me, one of the biggest issues within this debate is the issue of the land value change created by the granting of planning permission – something successive governments have wrestled with ever since the introduction of the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act. I leave others far more qualified than I to talk about this in detail, but it seems to me that we never quite manage to get it right. We don’t seem capable of extracting enough value back to the community purse to enable us to provide appropriate and necessary infrastructure or to invest in enough affordable homes to meet demand, simple as that! So a state introduced form of regulation provides fantastic opportunities for private landowners to generate significant wealth for themselves, whilst putting little back into the communities and areas they are affecting, not exactly a philosophy I am comfortable with. But a massive issue for the Lyons Review to address if we are to crack this problem once and for all – although I’m not sure I’ll hold my breath on that one.

The issue of cities and their hinterlands is also an interesting one. The Lyons Review documentation talks about the relationship between neighbouring councils and a city’s right to grow, and how we provide the incentives for growth outside of tight city boundaries. This is a big issue, which plays out rather painfully in the Bristol area, with the city boundary currently drawn so that any space for real expansion to meet the growth demands of the city is only possible within neighbouring authorities who are consistently resistant to housing growth. There’s an obvious answer to this one, if cities are the centre of our growth strategy for the UK and play such an important role in producing GDP and GVA growth, then allow them the control over their own ability to grow. Redraw the boundaries and give places like Bristol space to grow, without the need to cajole, negotiate, liaise, discuss, persuade, and argue with other surrounding councils, who quite frankly are never going to agree! Give cities control over their own hinterland.

I like the idea of a new wave of garden cities and new towns, I’m a big fan of the concept personally. The issue here though, as with many aspects of the housing supply debate, is about location, location, location. As soon as you start talking about lines on maps, plots of land and possible locations, all the negatives start coming out, all the resistance begins. So we can talk about it in the abstract and many people will agree the concepts, politicians will sign up to the idea, as they are at the moment. But as soon as that first notion of where one might be built is in the public domain or even first mooted, everyone begins to have second thoughts, politicians get nervous, the anti-protest begins. If we rely on localism and community buy-in, we will never deliver a new town or garden city again, it just won’t happen. Politicians will need to be brave and risk upsetting a few people if they want to build bold new projects, HS2 is a prime example of that, if the need is there and there are clear benefits to more people then difficult and unpopular decisions will need to be taken.

Some would argue that actually what we need to solve the crisis is more of a bottom up approach rather than greater controls and imposition by government. That is, the people and communities most disadvantaged by the lack of affordable housing need to be encouraged and enabled to find solutions for themselves. They need to understand the full range of choices that could be available with the right encouragement and the right financial, land and legislative framework. That includes self build, custom build, co-housing schemes and  community land trusts as very real options for increasing our housing supply. We seem a world away from this at the moment.

It will be interesting to see just how much comment and feedback the Lyons Review gets from non-vested interests, people outside of the housing and planning professions or building industries. At the moment I’d be surprised if many people had actually heard about it, let alone considered responding to it.

I’d like to see both a top down and bottom up approach combined, that brings together the best of what’s happening elsewhere in Europe and the world, that provides both voice and choice to people in their housing decisions. Interesting times indeed for housing policy, but will we rise to the challenge?

The Problem with Housing Policy

The problem with housing policy is we are all just too passive, we don’t take control. We know there is a problem, even if some deny it. We know volume house builders and housing associations seem incapable, unable or unwilling to solve the problem – that is they are not building enough homes each year to house all the people that desire a home at a price they can afford. Yet for some reason we just sit back passively waiting for someone else to sort it all out. Perhaps we could learn a lesson or two from history?

In UK housing history there are some fantastic examples of people taking control for themselves, of claiming areas of land and building their own home. Perhaps the best example is that of the ‘plotlanders’ of South East England in the early 20th Century, where areas of disused agricultural land were sold off in small plots to people wanting to build their own holiday home or small holding, these were then gradually improved and extended into permanent homes. This was all pretty much unregulated (before the introduction of the 1947 Planning Act) and led to quite strange areas of ad hoc layouts and designs around the Essex coast. But whatever they looked like, these were fiercely independent communities, who had built their own homes, without help from those in power, they’d done it through self help and mutual aid – an interesting concept often mentioned by Colin Ward in his writings on housing and planning – borne out of anarchist philosophy where people come together in voluntary cooperation without the need for state intervention, authority and control. There are many examples of squatters and others who have reclaimed the land, taking over derelict or empty properties to turn these into much needed homes, or travellers who have purchased land and tried to settle on it.These examples in recent times are, however, all to infrequent and unsuccessful, often written off as the fringe activity of a radical few and stifled by regulation and enforcement action.

Given the large numbers of people who can no longer afford a decent home to live in you have to wonder why it is that more direct action or self help has not been the order of the day. What is that would generate this tipping point where people seek to take control for themselves? Or have we really become a nation of passive people happy to rely on the private market or state to provide for our basic needs? It’ll be interesting to see just how bad things have to get before we see real change in this area.

One of the things that does appear to be happening at the moment is a slight shift of attention away from mass build towards self build or custom build as an option for housing supply. In the UK this is but a tiny proportion of current build (7-10%) compared to other European Countries where the figure is more likely to be over 50%. Recent reports by Alex Morton of the Policy Exchange and the Self Build Government Industry Working Group both refer to the potential of  self build to make a much greater contribution to housing provision. Both also refer to the planning system as a major barrier to this happening at the moment, as well as land values, difficulties of financing schemes, mortgage lenders etc. So it seems there could be a solution, based on the idea of self help, that is gathering some interest at last.It remains to be seen whether or not anything will happen as a result of these various reports and to what extent the Lyons Housing Review recently set up by the Labour Party will even consider this as part of the solution, or whether it will focus instead on typical mass scale solutions like new towns and garden cities?

Alex Marsh in a recent blog on housing talks about the need to go back to first principles and suggests that 2014 could just be the year where we see the housing policy debate get serious – couldn’t agree more and let’s hope he is right. But to do that could involve some quite radical thinking and radical change in not just housing policy, but also planning policy and other areas too.

One things for sure, something needs to change or we might just reach that tipping point where people do begin to take control for themselves!