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.

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.

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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.

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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.