Innovation in Housing

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Totally Modular

There’s undoubtedly a housing problem in Bristol, one which most of us recognise: high house prices, high rent costs, poor quality housing, lack of affordable homes, and long waiting lists for council homes. One or more of these issues is likely to affect all of us at some point, and for many of us it can act as a major barrier to achieving a decent, secure, affordable home close to where we work. There are things being done at a local level to overcome these problems, but local government is frequently hindered in its efforts by national policy. But the one thing the council can control is how their own land is used and what is built on that land.

In Bristol there is the beginning of a plan and strategy to enable new different forms of housing to be built on council owned land. There appears to be greater collaboration and engagement to deliver what is needed in different areas and a willingness to embrace innovative and creative solutions. Some examples are now being seen in Southmead, Lawrence Weston and Knowle, where communities, housing associations, developers and the council are working together to deliver housing that meets with local needs.

Another example of this approach is the Bristol Housing Festival, which launched a week ago. Its aim is to be a showcase and a catalyst for ideas around housing, and to ‘recapture the purpose of housing’ as part of creating healthy and resilient communities. What a brilliant idea. As a fan of modular build and offsite manufactured homes I had a happy couple of hours wondering around the Housing Festival site on Sunday. It was great to have the opportunity to see a number of different types of homes all in one place, with the people who make them there to tell you all about how they are made and constructed on site. As well as offsite manufacture, there were examples of temporary homes created using shipping containers, all looked super modern and fitted out to a pretty high quality and standard. For me, there wasn’t quite enough information in some of the homes, whilst it’s good to look round them to see the spaces and design, it was difficult to find out quite what they were constructed from and how. The other thing missing was any information about price. Now I know this is more difficult but to understand quite to what extent these modular homes provide a more sustainable solution I’d like to see costs compared to standard build, so I can make those comparisons for myself. But having said that, it was certainly informative to look round the examples and the exhibitions.

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I would like to have seen more of this type of information.

A special mention at this point goes to the Bristol Yimby group because I was so pleased to see people coming together to support housing development rather than oppose it, please do take a look at their site and join in. It’s important to have a proper, unemotional debate about housing and new development in and around the city.

I was particularly impressed by three of the main off site manufactured homes and concepts on show. Firstly, my favourite in terms of design and ability to scale up was Totally Modular, a two bedroomed house with plenty of space and a high quality finish. One of the main benefits is the fact that the house is 97% complete before delivery to site, so can then be finished on site in just a few days. Secondly, the best concept for saving space was the ZEDpod, designed to be built over existing carparks and hardstanding areas, making use of space that is otherwise redundant. I can think of several places in Bristol where this could really work (supermarket carparks being a favourite option of mine). Again these homes are built in a factory and placed on site providing homes for their target group of young people and key workers to much shorter timescales than the norm. Finally my overall favourite for concept, design and engagement is we can make‘, the TAM (transportable accommodation module) home being showcased in Knowle West as a part of a process of unlocking micro sites and providing houses at the point of need. These homes are creative and innovative and are rooted in the local community. They can be made locally, by local people and built in 12 weeks, providing flexible, energy efficient homes for local people. The module on site was an example of a unit to provide supported housing for young residential care leavers and had been built in 6 days.

Overall, the houses on display and the conversions of shipping containers for temporary homes provided some brilliant examples of what can be done if we stop assuming all housing has to be provided by volume house builders, to the same standard and build as usual. With offsite manufacture and modular build there is an opportunity to provide creative and innovative housing, of higher quality and environmental standards, in a much shorter space of time, using local factories, developing local skills and at a more affordable price. The Bristol Housing Festival, along with the Council and other partners, has generated a momentum that will hopefully see some new opportunities for these types of houses to be built across the city.

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Lyons Review – loud roar or polite meow?

lionAfter participating in some of the discussion on the Lyons Review of Housing, submitting some thoughts and seeing the interest generated by the review, I was keen to see what would come out of it. Would it be any different? Would it address the difficult issues? Would it be radical? Well the final report has now been published, so you can make up your own mind whether it delivers on its promise of “Mobilising across the nation to build the homes our children need“. For me it makes some clear statements, some interesting policy changes and does take a different approach, to some extent. It’s not as radical as some would have liked, it doesn’t say much about social housing and perhaps doesn’t go far enough on questions of affordability. But it is at least a clear statement of policy, a comprehensive attempt to address our housing crisis, the first such statement that we have had since the Barker Review. So it is to be applauded for that and is indeed a decent starting point, with clear targets.

The following paragraph is from the text of an email sent out by the Lyons Housing Review and neatly sums up the issues at the heart of the challenge that the report is attempting to address:

We face the biggest housing crisis in a generation, because for decades we have failed to build the homes we need. The consequences of this are widely felt with house prices now 8 times average incomes, rental affordability stretched, increased overcrowding and the impact of house price inflation on national economic management. We simply have to do better, not only because our children and grandchildren need the homes we should be providing now, but because greater house building will make a direct contribution to national economic growth. Housing must become a priority for the nation once again (Lyons housing Review).

The report itself is easy to read and presented in a clear and concise manner, with a useful summary for those that don’t wish to read the full 180 pages! The Roadmap for Delivery sets out the different steps needed to deliver within the timeframe and is a useful guide to what needs to be done and how quickly. Again, it comes across as a practical document, with clear indicators for politicians and civil servants to follow and clear targets against which progress can be measured. My initial thoughts on the report are set out below.

On page 15 the report identifies what for me is one of the biggest contradictions of housing policy and that is the lack of political energy given to an issue where there is general consensus about the existence of a problem and even a crisis. According to the report housing has not been seriously addressed in party manifestos since the 1960s and 1970s – how can that be the case when we have known for years that we are not building enough homes, that housing affordability is getting worse and that young people in particular are finding it harder to access decent housing? The rest of Chapter 1 provides a pretty good summary of the problems we face and why – basically we don’t prioritise housing politically, don’t build enough homes, don’t release enough land for housing, don’t provide enough choice, don’t provide the support infrastructure needed and what we do provide is unaffordable and lacking in quality – I think that about sums it up!

The issue of leadership is top of the agenda – doing something about the housing crisis requires strong leadership at national and local level, it means government and councils will need to prioritise the issue, alongside education, crime, immigration and health, something we haven’t seen for many years. But that’s what it will take and the report looks to government to be strong and to provide councils and communities with the powers and funding they need to deliver the homes required in their area. It also delivers yet another attack on our planning system, identifying it as one of the reasons we don’t build enough homes. Now this may be true, but only because successive governments have constantly tinkered with the system without any real understanding of what the problem is!

Anyway, back to the key points of the report, and there are many. I’m not going to try to cover everything or be comprehensive here, but will pick out some of the more interesting ideas, or the ones that leave me slightly confused.

Firstly, this idea that that councils should be responsible for identifying sufficient land for housing to meet need in their area. I thought this was exactly what the current system of strategic housing market assessments and local development frameworks was supposed to deliver on? Admittedly it has failed in areas of greatest need, but still it’s a system that exists. As far as I can tell, from an initial read of the report, the proposal is to tighten this up, giving councils greater controls over land assembly and site preparation, along with the threat of intervention from the planning inspectorate if they fail to plan properly to meet housing need. A welcome proposal, with many councils stalling and failing at the moment, this may just give them the kick up the backside they deserve. Not quite a return to the regional and national targets we need, but a step in the right direction. Of course the devil is in the detail of identifying need and agreeing targets.

The idea of Housing Growth Areas and New Homes Corporations is another interesting approach, which mirrors some of the national approach to jobs growth, through designated growth areas where councils can seek power, resources and funding to deliver homes at the scale that is needed. A new form of Development Corporation but with a focus on housing – it will be interesting to see if local councils opt for this idea should they have the opportunity in the future and what incentives they would be given to make it worthwhile.

The return of sub regional planning is most welcome, otherwise how else will cities like Bristol meet the demand for housing? The notion of local councils working together to put together a Strategic Housing Market Plan for the sub region is to be welcomed but I do wonder whether or not it will happen where it is most needed. The report makes particular mention of ‘badly constrained’ cities like Bristol, where the time spent negotiating with neighbouring authorities could be significantly reduced. A potentially important change in approach which could benefit Bristol in the future if introduced.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment, but entirely expected, is the lack of any policy to increase the ability of councils to borrow more against housing revenue accounts, enabling more council homes to be built. At the moment, nationally there are plans to build 5-6,000 new council homes per year over the next 5 years, compared to 200,000 per year at the peak in 1968 – pathetic but clearly no longer the answer as far as politicians are concerned. Many have asked for the borrowing cap on local authorities to be increased so they can build more, but the proposal in the report does not quite go that far, they suggest there is scope for councils to bid for more flexibility upon delivery of a decent business case. Alternatively they can propose to share borrowing ability not being used by another council. For me, this just doesn’t go far enough, it continues the perception that councils can’t be trusted to be financially sensible. Again it also doesn’t go far enough on Right to Buy – with proposals for a review of whether or not it is meeting its objectives rather than any real acknowledgement of the constraints this puts on the ability of councils to provide social housing for those most in need when the spectre of Right to Buy is always there, hanging over them and reducing the stock they have available.

The need to invest in homes for social rent is raised by the report but it puts off any solutions until austerity measures and the constraints on public spending are a thing of the past or for later review – not good enough, public housing requires public subsidy – housing associations and the private sector cannot be relied upon to fill this gap, and nor should they!

The backing of garden cities and garden suburbs is to be welcomed, using new powers to deliver and provide community benefit, with local councils expected to come forward with proposals. It will be interesting to see if this happens in the areas where housing growth is most needed. Issues of quality and choice are also raised in the report, important considerations often forgotten in the rush to provide numbers.

There are many other recommendations around the role of the volume housebuilding industry, the support and encouragement for more small house builders, the role of housing associations and the role of self and custom build. All important elements of the equation for delivering more housing at an affordable rate where it is most needed.

Having read the report, albeit relatively quickly, my initial thoughts are that it does indeed meet the brief. It provides a good overview of the issues and the challenge we are faced with, it provides clear steps on how we might address those issue and it comes up with some interesting ideas and plans for the future. I was left with the feeling that this was a great piece of work but would only ever make a difference if our politicians are brave enough to tackle the issues head on, make it a priority and provide the leadership on housing that has been sadly lacking for many years. There is a plan there that could work, that needs a bit more radical thinking on some issues but does show a decent amount of ambition. So more of a roar than a meow, let’s just hope our politicians, of whatever party, are willing to show the leadership and ambition we now need to make it happen.