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.

 

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.

A Decent Home?

hufIn Bristol and the UK we have large numbers of people who can no longer afford a decent home. They are stuck living with parents, or in private rented accommodation that is overcrowded, expensive and in poor condition and they have been denied the opportunity of moving into social housing because the council stock has been sold off under the Right to Buy and council’s have been constrained in their ability to replace it with new housing. Yet housing still doesn’t feature as a top political priority – sure we hear the nice words about how they all want to build more, as long as it doesn’t cost anything and government doesn’t need to invest in it. Just what does it take to create the change we need?

We’ve had all the political talk at Party Conferences about how this is a critical moment for housing policy, we’ve had the Lyons Housing Review and we’ve had some policy commitments. But I’m not entirely sure anyone really believes that the politicians nationally and locally are truly committed to making housing a priority and that the initiatives and policy ideas they have come up with will actually solve the problem – I remain mostly unconvinced, although there are indeed some interesting and good policies and commitments, they’re just not comprehensive or radical enough. They’re not going to see large numbers of new homes built or enough empty homes brought back into use to meet existing or future need.

In Bristol we have had plans and strategies on affordable housing, we have had the report of the Homes Commission and we have seen some new social housing built for the first time in a long while. However, we are still no where near providing sufficient new homes for those that need them, I’ll talk about some of the reasons for this in a future blog. We’re failing a whole generation of young people and forcing others to live further and further away from where they work. Something has to change but how?

Back in 1975, nearly 40 years ago, the 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. To discuss some alternative solutions to housing provision instead of focusing on a system that clearly doesn’t work? To involve 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 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?

I’m not suggesting there are easy solutions by any means, but there are options that we seldom fully explore, that don’t fit with mainstream thinking, that appear on the surface to be for “others” and not for everyone. I’ll briefly raise just two of these to illustrate the point: conversion of offices and kit build housing.

Firstly, the idea of converting empty office buildings into affordable housing for those who cannot afford to buy or rent at the moment is something that is taking hold in Bristol. A group called ‘Abolish Empty Office Buildings‘ (AEOB) has just purchased their first building to prove that “ordinary people can refurbish office buildings, create social housing communities and produce a modest return for investors”. There are many empty office buildings throughout the city and in local neighbourhoods which could be brought back into use in this way, but there is currently little incentive for owners to do this. More usually they are left empty or converted into luxury apartments or student accommodation – none of which does anything to help those in need of affordable housing.

The idea of local communities raising the money for themselves to buy empty sites and property, convert and then maintain ownership has got to be a more sensible option than waiting for the volume house builders or government to sort the problem out. It brings control back to local people and communities, a principle I’m totally in favour of and where we have many excellent examples from the past. Perhaps the best 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. 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 where people come together in voluntary cooperation without the need for state intervention, authority and control. These types of examples in recent times are, however, all too infrequent and unsuccessful, often written off as the fringe activity of a radical few and stifled by regulation and enforcement action. I look forward to seeing how the AEOB group and campaign progresses in Bristol and beyond, it’s just the kind of activity we’re crying out for and I applaud the group for their vision and action.

The second example is a little more mainstream, but gaining support and acceptance appears to be just as difficult. 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. I’ll confess that I’ve always wanted to live in a Huf Haus but could never afford it, but the idea of a kit house appeals to me, maybe I’ll investigate my options further. But on a grander scale than my ambitions, imagine if Bristol could be one of the first in the country to develop this idea further, where the council were brave enough to provide the land and support such a development. It would certainly fit neatly with Bristol’s Green Capital programme – kit housing is energy efficient, they generate less waste in the building process and use more sustainable materials. What’s not to like – they’re also cheaper!

What this second example needs are identified sites which the council, or other landowner, are prepared to provide upfront but are willing to wait for a return on investment until the build is complete – it’s an investment programme with a guaranteed return, both in terms of money and affordable housing. The key question here is do council’s have the flexibility to broker this kind of deal and even if they can, will they? There’s a challenge there for Bristol and other cities 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.

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.

Pick ‘n’ mix housing policy?

380451857_ce9bad11e3_zAs party conference season draws to a close are we any closer to knowing how to deal with the housing crisis? Housing has certainly featured on the agenda and been the subject of much discussion at many fringe meetings, but have any of the parties come close to a comprehensive policy approach? Sadly, my initial conclusion would be that once more politicians have failed to grasp the magnitude of the problem and have instead come up with a whole load of ‘initiatives’ that play at the edges of the issue rather than provide a strategic, co-ordinated and coherent plan. We continue along the lines of a “pick ‘n’ mix” approach to housing policy, where pet projects and short term ‘solutions’ are promoted for electoral gain – appealing to target groups rather than providing solutions for those most in need.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some decent proposals and some that will undoubtedly make a difference to a small number of people. But where’s the plan? From the Tories we got a promise that they would build 100,000 new homes for first-time buyers under 40 which they could buy at 20% below the market rate. An interesting idea perhaps but not one that is going to solve the problem for many! Labour’s announcements were on a grander scale but perhaps lacked a little detail. They talked about building 200,000 homes per year, halting land banking and diversifying the house building industry – all laudable aims but talk is cheap. Where were the policies that many would have expected? The ones that focus on social housing, enabling councils to borrow and build, limiting right to buy options and facing the affordability crisis head on – mostly not there I’m afraid. And so, what have the Liberal Democrats offered us so far on housing? Well perhaps a slightly more comprehensive approach that focuses on building 300,000 homes per year, with new towns and urban extensions as part of the package, more power to local councils to build affordable housing and the ability to suspend right to buy. To be honest they came up with more of what I was expecting from Labour!

We have a housing crisis that means too many people can’t afford to buy or rent decent homes. And on the basis of what we have seen so far from our politicians we can be relatively certain that the comprehensive plans and policies are not going to come from the political parties, so where will the answers come from? We are of course still waiting for the full report from the Lyons Housing Review instigated by Labour, which is due out later this year. But in the meantime there have been a couple of publications that caught my attention. The first, “Rebuilding Britain: Planning for a better future” written by Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson is an excellent attempt to hit back at all those who see planning as the problem and instead takes us back to the pioneers of the planning movement and reminds of what is actually possible when you have “passionate ambition”. The second, “Housing: where’s the plan?” written by Kate Barker is more direct in its criticism, describing our inability to build more housing as the UK’s biggest policy failure. Its focus is on analysing the problem and providing some policy recommendations. Both books are excellent in their own way, they raise some interesting questions, provide a more comprehensive assessment of the problems and suggest some practical solutions.

In Rebuilding Britain the authors talk about access to land and land reform as a critical ingredient of achieving utopia, with smart choices needed along the way. As with the original garden city concept, capturing and redistributing the increase in land values generated by development are seen as central to future large scale development. The characterisation of Britain as a divided nation, as a nation without a plan and  where people are disengaged from politics and planning will resonate with many as some of the major concerns we face as a nation. Their ‘solutions’, or practical steps as they are called in the book, focus on planning and take us through five main areas of change including a fair and efficient society; rebuilding trust; building the homes we need; providing a resilient and low carbon future; and paying for utopia.

Underpinning all of these areas is the need for a new kind of planner, a national plan for England, a new structure for planning and a new kind of government – big change indeed! Quite rightly Ellis & Henderson identify the housing challenge as moving beyond the question of whether we need to build more homes (of course we do), to the question of “where to build them, how we fund them, what the mix is and how do we ensure they are high quality”. Their answer is embedded in a new honesty about the problem, the opportunities and the constraints; about quality not just quantity; and through a varied housing offer including “high-quality social, affordable and market homes”. They do of course focus on ‘well planned new communities’ as a big part of the solution, based on Garden City principles which it is hard to disagree with. But as ever the big question is how you pay for the levels of social housing and infrastructure needed to make these places work. Of course the solution is there, it’s the same as it has always been – capturing the increase in land value for the benefit of the community. That’s the exact same principle as garden cities were based on and it remains the obvious solution now. Indeed it happens to an extent now, through S.106 agreements, Community Infrastructure Levy and planning conditions, but it is ad hoc and prone to difficulties and disagreements over viability. The political acceptability of extracting value from land for the benefit of the community has long been debated but perhaps it is time to revisit this issue with a new debate based on need?

Kate Barker’s book is based on the premise that we need to build more homes at a faster rate but that our ability to do this is held back by competing and vested interests that are inherent in our society and by government failure to address the issues systematically. Instead what we get are short term policies and initiatives that satisfy a few. The dynamics of the housing market perfectly exemplify many of the divisions in our society – the widening gulf in wealth between those who own their home and those that don’t and the increasing inequality between generations that this serves to reinforce. Barker suggests that many would define success in housing terms as “everyone should have access to a decent home at a price they can afford”. Difficult to disagree, but as she explains, the terms are open to extensive interpretation – the difference between need and want for instance?

Barker also addresses the thorny issue of taxing housing when so many people have so much of their wealth already tied up in property. Her solution is a mix of proposals from reforming Stamp Duty, higher council tax bands, and a move to charge Capital Gains Tax on main residence – potentially a rather radical suggestion but one which would help to deliver fairer housing outcomes. In total Barker proposes 11 main policy recommendations, which include providing stronger incentives to local authorities to produce sound housing plans, so they take responsibility for increasing local provision, with greater borrowing powers encouraging them to play a bigger role in land assembly. She also calls for direct financial incentives to those affected by a new development, an attempt to reign in the influence of the Nimbys, which may work but is it the right approach? Barker backs the call for garden cities and urban extensions, with new forms of funding and land assembly, as well as the encouragement of self-build as potentially more acceptable in some areas. Above all what Barker is looking for is a steadier, coherent, long term view of how to manage housing supply to meet housing needs – something I’m sure we can all agree on?

The reasons for our housing crisis are undoubtedly complex and embedded in decades of policy failure. The solutions will also be complicated but need to be built on a coherent plan, that deals with a long term approach to immediate problems and resists the temptation to meddle in short term, pick and mix solutions that satisfy no one!

From benefits to bricks – IPPR report

After so many different pronouncements on housing and welfare in particular over the last few months, it was great to see a centre-left think tank produce a comprehensive view on a range of policy areas – IPPR’s report on ‘The Condition of Britain: Strategies for Social Renewal‘. Whilst this is by no means comprehensive, it is a good starting point for some policy discussions around the key issues of power devolution, encouraging engagement and joining up approaches to tackling complex social problems. I was encouraged by much of what is in the report, its focus and its conclusions – even if some appear somewhat random. Whilst the report covers six main areas: families; young people; working life; housing; crime and exclusion; and older people, my focus is on the housing ideas discussed and the recommendations that are drawn out. It is clear that with the endorsement of Ed Miliband and others in the Labour Party, the recommendations in this report may well form a key part of Labour policy for the next election, so may need to be taken seriously.

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Housing Crisis – Confusion Abounds!

DSCN0285Oh no, not another blog on the housing crisis! There seem to be so many at the moment and just as I think about writing one, someone gets there before me with many of the issues I was going to write about. So why am I bothering? Well over the last few weeks I’ve come across some interesting examples of good and bad policy and practice that impacts on housing and I’ve written about some of it briefly in different blogs or articles relating to different topics, but now seems like a good time to bring some of it together, as a contribution to this ongoing debate. So read on if you can bear to!

I’m certainly not suggesting I have the answers or solutions, but merely some thoughts on the type of issues that need addressing and some examples of just how much better they are addressed elsewhere. Also, my take on some of the solutions offered by others is that on their own they won’t work, but maybe together and combined with other things there are some answers out there that might just make a difference, we’re just not joining things up properly. And that’s about joining up locally as much as it is about joining up centrally at national policy level, not all the blame rests with central government, local councils can be just as much at fault for contributing to the problem.

What strikes me most about some of the debate is the serious lack of any strategic planning in the UK at the moment. Ever since the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and the Regional Spatial Strategies we have been left with a void of strategic planning, reinforced by the Localism Act and its emphasis on local councils taking control of decisions about the supply of housing. So we have a government that says it wants to build more homes but which refuses to set targets for local councils to meet. Local councils when agreeing their plans listen to the voices that shout loudest, those that want to preserve and protect. In cities that means all those that want to keep derelict or green spaces close to their houses just as they are and in more rural areas that means those intent on protecting every blade of grass from any form of development. The outcome is fewer homes planned for in Local Development Frameworks and fewer sites allocated for development and fewer houses built (a slightly simplistic overview, but you get the point?).

Interestingly, a recent case in North Somerset may well be the catalyst to change some of this, although the final outcome is still awaited as the council have yet to respond in detail to the ruling (for more detail see an article I wrote for Bristol 24-7). Effectively, the council has just been told its plan is likely to be considered unsound and doesn’t comply with national policy because it doesn’t make enough provision for new homes, according to a Planning Inspectors report, brought about after a challenge from Bristol University. Previously, the councils immediate response to the removal of national targets was to take over 10,000 houses out of its plans. The council is now having to reconsider that approach and accept that their assessment of need doesn’t fit with that of the most recent planning inspectors view, which brings into question the whole underlying approach of ‘self-containment’ at the heart of their plan. It both baffles and bemuses me how a council that sits so close to Bristol and its boundary can draw up a plan that tries to ignore the relationship with the city, but that’s what they did!

The lesson to be drawn from this, in my view, is that some form of national target for house building is critical. The Regional Spatial Strategies were by no means perfect, were hated by many and perhaps weren’t in place long enough to judge quite whether or not they would have delivered, but something that takes an overall strategic view of growth and the need to plan for it over a longer period has got to be better than what we have at the moment. A proper process of negotiation and compromise to agree local targets to help meet national targets has got to be better than the current conflict based approach where councils do one thing, developers challenge and government inspectors then impose housing numbers and changes to plans that have already been agreed locally.

Another issue that struck me relates to this whole debate about taxing housing and/or land. This seems to be something that rears its head every now and then, and used to be something that changed with every change of government, post 1947 when the Planning Act was first introduced. For me the critical point is about land value increases secured as a result of planning permission, again something that has been long debated, and is pretty unlikely to hit the agenda under the current government. Now I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that landowners shouldn’t be able to benefit financially from securing planning permission on their land, but in my view there needs to be some control on this, to reduce speculative permissions and development and to enable more affordable developments to take place. Perhaps we could try something like the system used in Freiburg, where there are few if any volume house builders as land is bought up by the council and parcelled off in smaller plots to encourage small builders, self build, custom build and cooperative housing schemes, something we see very little of in the UK. Over there they have a system that freezes land prices, where the value of land pre and post planning permissions is set at a more sensible rate, so there is still profit to be had but not to the extent of the land market over here. Now surely that makes land for housing more affordable which in turn makes housing more affordable – doesn’t it?

Understanding cities and how they operate seems to me to be critical to this debate about housing, most of us now live in cities and urban areas and that trend looks set to continue. The notion that we can keep cramming our cities with higher and higher density housing, using up every last piece of green space, without thinking about the impact this has on the people living in those communities and neighbourhoods is just plain daft. But that seems to be what is happening, there are constant cries that there is plenty of brownfield land to be developed, we don’t need to expand our cities and encroach on that sacrosanct piece of land that is the great British greenbelt. Well, sorry, but I disagree. Many people don’t want to live in high density areas, they don’t want to live in apartments without gardens, and they don’t want to live in urban spaces with no greenery or green space to enjoy. So at some point, something has got to give and as a town planner myself, I would rather it gave in a planned and coordinated way than a speculative, unplanned manner that will only lead to development in all the wrong places. I think it is time to have a proper grown up debate about the green belt, about expanding our cities and their boundaries to encompass sustainable growth along transport corridors, where local facilities can be planned in to meet community needs, whilst at the same time preserving and protecting valuable green space within and outside cities and creating new ‘green belts’ where they are needed.

The problem with all this is it means some form of government intervention, which pretty much goes against the grain of recent and current thinking. The focus instead is on relaxing state intervention, particularly when it comes to our planning system, as there are constant calls for fewer regulations so developers can get on and build. Or intervention is focused on the individual, through schemes like Help to Buy, rather than on a collective need requiring wider intervention which might actually make a difference.

So the debate continues, as I am sure will the many housing blogs, as government, both local and national, fails to get to grips with the issues and fails to make the difference that is needed.