Scaling Up – Community led housing

Sea Mills

There appears to be little to argue about when it comes to community-led housing. It’s a good idea, it puts local communities front and centre of the housing debate, helps to deliver what local people want and provides some great opportunities for us to de-commodify housing. There are some brilliant examples from across the country and elsewhere in Europe and Scandinavia. Yet somehow this approach to housing is still seen as small scale, pilot schemes and show schemes. It’s not considered as a key part of the mainstream delivery of housing in England. Most schemes have so far been small scale demonstrators of what is possible. Many of them use different approaches to building houses, with off-site manufacture, design and build schemes more prevalent than the bricks and mortar approach of the volume house builders. They could all be scaled up to help solve the housing crisis but we don’t appear to be geared up to embracing new models of delivery. The barriers are always there when it comes to doing something different.

We have some excellent examples and ideas being developed in Bristol, as I found out at a recent Festival of the Future City event where Melissa Mean talked about the concept of “we can make” which has been developed by the Knowle West Media Centre in collaboration with White Design. They have developed a housing modular unit that can be used to infill on large garden plots and micro sites across the Knowle West estate. This is an area I know quite well as I was the local councillor for Knowle for 7 years. A large part of the estate is made up of 3-bed semi-detached houses built around Garden City principles at very low density, with plenty of open space, large gardens and roads with wide grass verges. A large proportion of the estate is still in council ownership. There are significant opportunities to densify the estate, working with the local community to identify need and provide solutions that work. That’s what ‘we can make‘ is all about, it’s about putting people and communities at the heart of housing to develop the micro sites that exist but with the community as the developer and meeting local housing requirements at the point of need. In Bristol there are many other similar estates to Knowle West, so the potential across the city is immense. The particular housing unit designed so far, and on show locally, is a straw bale construction, that is flexible and adaptable to changing needs, that could be made in a factory locally, using local labour.

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This is just one example of what is possible if you look beyond the mainstream to provide the local housing required to reflect local community need.  The Bristol Community Land Trust is another organisation working with local people who need an alternative route onto the housing ladder. They have completed one scheme in Fishponds and are about to start a co-housing scheme in Lockleaze. Both schemes provide an opportunity for local people to access housing in a different way, through self-finish and cooperative housing, with shared space and shared living. But still these schemes are small scale and seen as outside of the norm.

There are other offers on the table too, using alternative construction methods to provide cheaper more affordable homes, that meet the highest of environmental standards. One example is the recently developed Snug Homes brought to you by Ecomotive, an organisation dedicated to promoting self-build as part of the solution to the housing crisis. There’s also the potential offered by Apple Green Homes, a fast build, affordable, sustainable wooden framed home, partially built in a factory. But all too often these innovative, affordable homes have difficulty competing with the larger volume house builders. They get squeezed out of the market and find it difficult to secure the land to provide much needed affordable homes. Council’s themselves are often the main stumbling block, with local bureaucracy never at ease with doing something different. The barriers are all too often insurmountable, even if the will is there, the ability to find a way through the red tape just takes too long, to the point that even the most committed social entrepreneur may well give up.

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What can council’s do to make things happen and make it easier for those with the solutions? It’s actually quite simple in concept but difficult in practice. All that is required is a change of attitude. Instead of constantly responding with “no that’s not possible” or “we’ve never done that before, so don’t know if we can”, we need politicians to respond positively with “ok, we’ll find a way“. That’s it! I remember only too well the conversations I used to have as a councillor with the legal team at the City Council, all too often their response was ‘sorry councillor we can’t do that’. My response was always the same – “yes we can I just need you to work out how!”

The other important thing to remember is that the council cannot solve this problem alone. Even with its plan to set up a housing company and build more council houses itself, more is still needed. Working in partnership and collaboration is a key theme of the current Mayor’s approach, and there’s no where we need it more than in ensuring the delivery of affordable housing.

If the commitment and desire is there, then it can be done. Bristol has some great examples already, as well as some brilliant social entrepreneurs willing to put time and effort into a new generation of community led housing. It’s about time the Council played a more positive enabling role to help make it happen. Otherwise we may find the people with ideas and creativity give up and/or go elsewhere and Bristol once more falls behind as a result of the ‘deadhead of the council’.

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My housing wish list for 2015

DSCN0159The start of a new year is a good time both to reflect and think ahead. It’s a good time to be visionary, to think longer term and to overcome the mistakes of the past. So it seemed to me like a pretty good time to consider where next for housing? What would I do if I had any influence or responsibility for housing in Bristol. What would I do differently? What would I change and how could the system work better? Now, of course, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and come up with ideas, because it isn’t actually my job to implement any of this, or make the changes, or take the difficult decisions. So I’ll start with that as a caveat, I know it’s harder than you think and local politicians, the Mayor and others face tough decisions over budget cuts, prioritisation and are lobbied from all sides. I also know lots is being done locally to make changes for the better. But I also know more could be done!

In terms of local housing provision now is the time to be bold, to take some tough decisions and to prioritise the delivery of new, affordable, sustainable housing in the numbers that are needed to meet demand. It’s no good playing around the edges of this any longer, it absolutely has to be a priority for funding, land, resources, time and energy from all involved. Forget the excuses and start delivering.

My wish list includes both local and national changes, and will undoubtedly miss out lots of things that could also be done, but these would be my priorities.

First and foremost I would take a local decision to scrap the Right to Buy (RtB) on any new build council homes and to reduce the discount available for existing homes. I would challenge the government on their policy, as Brighton Council are, and ask that this be controlled locally. It might only be a temporary decision, that can be revisited in a few years, but for now, we are losing more social homes every year than we are building – how does that make sense? Many of those sold under RtB end up with private landlords, renting them back to people at higher rents, subsidised through housing benefits – again, how can that be right? So come on George, Mark and others, be bold, push for local control.

Secondly, another ask of government, that is, to increase the limit on borrowing capacity so local councils can borrow more against existing housing revenue. Current limits are too low and greatly restrict the ability of councils to build new social housing, or to use the funds to support affordable housing through other providers. Subsidised housing requires a public subsidy, and this needs to be in the form of capital investment not through the benefits system as is currently the case. If greater powers and resources are available to cities, then this is one that we should shout loudest about. Give councils the ability to build/fund new social housing.

Thirdly, the council has a responsibility to use its land to support council priorities, so prioritise housing and find the land and buildings to enable more new homes to be built. This land needs to be available at the right price and in the right places, so new affordable houses can be provided, close to jobs and transport infrastructure, where people want to live. I’d like to see some pilot schemes to show what is possible, to bring new ideas, innovation and creativity to the housing market in Bristol. During 2015, the year Bristol is European Green Capital, why not showcase some custom and kit build houses, using more efficient construction processes and providing sustainable homes at affordable prices? Why not illustrate how conversion of empty office buildings can provide new affordable homes in local neighbourhoods, as well as focus on empty homes and bringing those back into use? Why not use land in public ownership to do something different, to move away from volume build new estates that could be anywhere, and choose local designers and builders with a bit more vision to provide quality homes at affordable prices? Above all, prioritise council land for housing and get on with it!

Fourthly, do something to toughen up our planning officers. All too frequently over the last couple of years we have seen planning agreements renegotiated on key sites so affordable housing provision is either totally removed or reduced to negligible numbers. All developers have to do is threaten to stall development and we roll over and do anything they want just to get things moving. We are also too slack when it comes to design and quality issues – Bristol is a fantastic city but we are slowly ruining it with poor, ill thought out design on many new developments. A plea to our planners to do more, challenge more and say NO! Otherwise we’ll end up with more institutional, brash architecture, where any notion of local design and quality is sadly lacking, and the end result is just horrible.

Finally, let’s have a comprehensive plan for housing. This ‘wish’ applies both locally and nationally, but here the focus is on Bristol. We need a plan that covers all sectors and opportunities, that is proactive, that shows leadership and commitment, above all we need a comprehensive, long term plan for addressing Bristol’s housing crisis. Only then can we see the solutions, the resources and the decisions that are needed to make a difference in the short and medium term. Elements of this plan exist but we need more – more decisions, more resources, and more affordable homes.