Pioneering alternative housing models


When we talk about solving the housing crisis we tend to talk about supply and demand, about affordability and about providing homes for people. We seldom talk about people being in control of providing their own home. The whole housing system has morphed into one of dependency, be it dependence on private landlords, house builders or the State, someone will provide it for us. When housing professionals get together they talk about mainstream housing issues, about rent prices, about how difficult it is to build council housing or social housing for rent, about problems of land supply and land-banking by private developers. Rarely do they talk about self-build, custom build or housing co-operatives. It seems, on the surface at least, that we’ve lost some of the creativity and innovation in our debates about housing.

When you dig beneath that surface though you will find all kinds of interesting projects, that take us back to a less dependent realm of provision, where self-help and mutual aid were the guiding principles for action. This type of approach can still be seen in self-build and custom build projects, co-operative housing schemes and community led housing developments. These are schemes that are shaped and controlled by residents, where people have taken back control.

Back in 1975, over 40 years ago, the then 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 with a discussion that includes some alternative solutions to housing provision instead of focusing on a system that clearly doesn’t work. Maybe it could be a debate that involves 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 such 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?

There are many small-scale examples to draw from that could be included in this debate but seldom are. Why don’t we talk about co-operative housing more frequently when we have such a great example here in Bristol that is currently on site and well on its way to developing a sustainable model for converting empty office buildings into homes. Proof if ever you needed it that, even now, ordinary people can refurbish old buildings, create social housing communities and produce a modest return for investors (AEOB Group).

Why don’t we talk more about ‘kit housing’ or custom build, which is factory made, using more sustainable materials, cheaper and quicker to erect on site than traditional bricks and mortar housing? 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 the local SNUG homes developed by Ecomotive. Whilst self-build might not be an option for many, custom build and co-operative housing may just be relevant to a wider audience. Together these models of provision could provide greater opportunities to those that have been failed by our current approach to housing.

Imagine if Bristol could be one of the first in the country to develop these custom build, co-operative models further, as part of the mainstream, using public land, property and resources to support individuals and communities to make things happen? Imagine if we could just find a way to support people to develop their own plans and models of future living? There’s a challenge here for Bristol 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. As Colin Ward put it so well:

”… if people are given the reins, get the right help and are committed, they can come up with a really excellent viable housing scheme that people want to live in”.

(Colin Ward, 1985:120, “When we build again, let’s have housing that works”)

The text of this blogpost was first written for The Bristol Cable and appeared there in April 2016.

What to do about housing?

DSC_1220Yesterday, I went to a Bristol Festival of Ideas debate about housing, with a panel of experts (Kate Barker, Julia Unwin, Prof Alex Marsh, Prof Michael Ball & Diane Coyle) and a pretty good number in the audience for a Saturday afternoon. As this was part of the ‘economics’ festival the focus was on what needs to happen to make the housing market work, with many ideas put forward. Most of the ideas are not new, we’ve heard them all before and discussed them before, but the one thing that seems to be stopping them happening is ‘politics’. No surprise there then? The solutions to the housing problem are not short term solutions, they take time, and few politicians are willing to invest in solutions that do not show benefits in the immediate term. So we end up with a stalemate that helps no one and certainly does nothing to support the idea that everyone has the right to a decent home, it’s not a luxury, it’s an absolute ‘right’. Our politicians have a duty to ensure people are adequately housed and at the moment they are failing.

The panel debate covered a range of issues at the macro level, from land taxation and the need to tax owner occupation; to releasing more public land for development and the decommodification of housing. There was a lot of talk of vested interests and why reducing house prices doesn’t benefit certain interests: house builders, home owners, landowners etc. A point that highlights the inequalities in our current housing system, where those that have decent, secure homes have so much more than those that don’t; and those that don’t are finding it increasingly difficult to secure affordable, decent housing. An issue that seems to be escaping our mainstream political parties, with the possible exception of the Green Party, who at least appear to believe in social and affordable housing!

But what does all this mean? If local and national politicians refuse to prioritise housing as a political issue, and/or refuse to put more resources into providing the affordable housing we need, what can be done to improve the situation locally and nationally? Whilst this is undoubtedly a huge debate, I want to focus on one aspect – localism and community buy-in, without which much development of new homes just will not happen, or at least not quickly enough.

This issue was raised as part of the panel debate, where consideration was given to the role of nimbyism and the extent to which local opposition to development was part of the problem of lack of supply. There seemed to be some disagreement over this matter, with some highlighting the role that local people play in opposing development, any development, on any land, be it green or brown, whilst others claimed the issue was marginal and that most brownfield development takes place unopposed. Well, my experience in the Bristol area would suggest that it is a massive problem, as most new development seems to receive opposition of some form, whether greenfield or brownfield. Which made me think about why – is it that the schemes proposed are all just so bad that no one would accept them (possibly); is it because they are all proposed on really important sites (every site is important to someone); or is it because communities don’t accept the need for more housing (quite likely)?

So taking us from the macro economic and housing markets discussion of the Festival of Ideas debate to a local discussion about community support for housing seems to be an important part of the process. We all accept there is an affordability problem in the UK when it comes to housing and that in some areas there are not enough homes for the people that want them. It is also true to say that new housing developments are frequently unpopular with local people and local politicians. And that where the problem just keeps getting worse, we all know there’s a problem but we don’t agree on how to solve it. To me, this raises a number of issues, not least how we go about engaging local communities in a sensible conversation about housing. This needs to be at a local enough level that it makes sense to those involved and in a way that identifies local need and local demand for housing – do local people need sheltered housing, larger family homes, starter homes, self build plots, more affordable housing or smaller homes? What are the local priorities and what is in short supply locally. We then need to engage the communities themselves in the process of properly assessing local land and buildings to see what local priorities are for open space, greenfield and brownfield land, under-utilised land and empty buildings, as well as what public land/buildings there are in the area that could be brought forward for development. We then need to talk solutions that are not just about selling to the highest bidder and ending up with volume build housing but provide different solutions, local solutions that meet local needs and which provide quality, sustainable, affordable homes for local people. We also need to think about ‘lifetime’ homes, places that are adaptable to changing needs, as families progress through their lifecycle – we provide homes now that are less adaptable for the future, without properly thinking about future needs.

It may be that these processes are partially happening as part of neighbourhood and community planning, but we need more and we need to see results, and the process needs to be very local, at a level that local people identify with. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get something going during 2015 as part of the Green Capital year, where communities in Bristol embrace the idea of local solutions to the housing problem? That develop a process and an approach that is truly community led, community supported and of benefit to the local community.

Of course on top of all this we also need national action at the macro level, but the signs are not good in terms of policies that will actually make the change we need. Our national politicians seem more focused on short term measures that don’t cost much rather than the longer term investment that is needed. So maybe the solutions we need can be found at the local level? The opportunities are there to be bold and many of those opportunities can be taken locally.