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.