20th April 2015
past, present and future
by Trevor Locke
Part 3 – Providing better housing stock.
In Part 2, I looked at the need for join-up policies to improve the supply of housing.
In part 3, I move on to considering the factors that we can see playing a part in approaches to the supply and provision of housing.
Making better use of existing housing stock
Making better use of existing housing stock
More and more buildings are being converted into apartments. One solution to the housing crisis is to convert properties into affordable accommodation. In the city this has met with a degree of success. There has been a big increase in the supply of apartments created from buildings that have fallen into disuse. In Leicester, the city centre (the area known as the Cultural Quarter) has many old factories that have been converted into flats. This has renewed an urban area that had fallen into neglect and disrepair. It is a pattern that has been repeated across many cities in the Midlands. These conversions were not new-builds; they involved re-generating properties that had become empty and disused, bringing them back to life to provide homes for people who like to live in the inner city. Not the best homes for families, but more appropriate for young urban professionals, childless couples and single people. That creates an alternative supply to students and young professionals occupying properties that would be more suitable for families.
In the rural areas the supply of affordable homes poses problems. The typical ‘barn-conversion’ is well outside of what young working people can afford. These are conversions for the wealthier sections of society or for people who can afford second homes. I would argue that change of use conversions could provide affordable housing in the countryside, more quickly and less expensively, to meet the growing demand for homes for working people.
Our housing stock is not well-managed. Much of it lies empty, derelict or neglected. Local authorities have not been keen enough to identify empty houses and bring them back into use. The land-owning shires are oriented to the supply of land for new build. Yet, a lot of rural properties are either disused, poorly used or are suitable for conversion but left empty. Somehow, the landed gentry, many of whom are members of rural councils, fail to see this. If this country had a stronger lobby for social housing, it is likely that we would also see a better management of our existing housing stock, instead of an obsession with new-build.
Those who loose out the most, due to the current short-fall in housing supply, are young people. Nearly half of all young people now rent accommodation, both flats and houses. In 2011 the Government published a statement on Providing Affordable Homes for Rent. The government claims that it is improving the quality and quantity of properties for rent, both in the private and social sector. Measures being taken include the of funding local authorities to refurbish their housing stock and encouraging more investment in the private rented sector through schemes like new loan guarantees and the Build to Rent Fund, among others. These actions stemmed from the publication, in November 2011, of the policy paper Laying the foundations: a housing strategy for England. It reflected the Government’s desire to get the housing market moving again and they admitted that they would not achieve this by attempting to control the housing market from Whitehall. There was a realisation that it is only at local level that housing management can properly be carried out. If the goal is to supply a balanced mix of housing options, then only local bodies can achieve that. As some have suggested there needs to be a radical overhaul of housing associations. Private sector supply is also needed but policies need to balance the rights and security of tenants with the incentives of property owners to continue to invest in the market or to enter it. If the balance swings to far in the direction of tenants, the supply could be jeopardized. Likewise, giving too much power to property owners leads to insecurity and poor standards for tenants.
Make better use of land.
In our small islands, land is in short supply. There are many conflicting demands on the use of land. Some of it has to be used for farming, some for sport and leisure and some forms part of our national heritage and natural assets and as such needs to be protected from any kind of development. Planners created the green belts as a way of ensuring that urban areas did not become conflated into concrete jungles. There is pressure now to relax local planning in the interests of housing development and green belts are under attack. In my view this is a grave error.
More should be done to rescue and recycle brown field sites. There is enough land to meet the need for housing and business development, even in our finite little group of islands. There is enough land if we take an objective approach to its usage. The problem is that brown field sites cost more to develop than do green field ones. To put it another way – there is less profit from the development of brown field sites. Really, it is not that simple. Some developers have had the foresight, imagination and resilience to both develop brown field land and to make a reasonable profit from doing so. I am not referring here to heavily contaminated land or land that is riddled with mining subsidence. This kind of land is where a change of use can be effected without in ordinate costs of cleaning or repairing it.
One of the big challenges to housing management over the next ten to twenty years will be the supply of land that is suitable for housing. The floods of 2013/14 highlighted the lack of planning and foresight of developers who have built on flood plains. English house builders have not been good at water management when developing new-build sites on land previously used for farming. As sea levels rise, many coastal areas will become uninhabitable and people will be forced to move inland to homes on higher ground. This movement of house owners to areas not prone to flooding or coastal erosion needs to be planned for now – not when it becomes a national crisis.
Dealing with the short-fall in housing supply.
It is good to see builders trying something new. The British building industry has never been good at innovation; bound to traditional ways of doing things, slow to change and reticent to innovate, British builders are not known around Europe for their leading edge practices. In Germany, Austria and other countries builders are more inclined to try new ways of tacking housing supply. OK, there are some notable exceptions to this in Britain.
Custom build, for example, represents one way of thinking outside of the box. Companies that have tackled new ways of designing and building housing are breaking the mould by following projects that have been a success on the continent. Governments have not however had any road to Damascus moments when formulating their housing policies. National and local governments must become more aware of the possibilities offered by new ways of doing things in the building sector.
In Manchester, the Great Places Housing Group is having a go at custom build. The Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Bill 2014-15 received royal assent as the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act. The government launched a loan fund (in June 2014) to enable building of self-build homes. The encouragement of self-build is now finding a place in the policies of political parties.
With an ageing population, demand for smaller accommodation types is changing as older people give up their large family homes and seek smaller units more suitable to two-person homes. The housing market now has to cater for the growing demand for retirement homes. Housing needs to be suitable for older people: not necessarily those who need care but retirement homes for active people who can look after themselves. Many older people move away from the large houses they had, after their children have grown up, seeking small accommodation. The problem with this is that more and more adult children are being forced to stay at home with their parents for longer periods. There is now more demand for housing extended families, where the younger generation must provide a home for their parents, grandparents and other family members. This is often ignored by house builders who are still focused on the nuclear family. Changes in the birth-rate have led to a decrease in household size. The ONS statistics of 2013 found that ‘The fastest growing household type was households containing two or more families, increasing by 39% from 206,000 households in 2003 to 286,000 households in 2013. However multi-family households still only represent 1% of all households.’ It is likely that there will be an increasing trend in people living alone. All of this enhances the need to create flexible housing supply based on needs and to provide options to people who have a variety of housing requirements.
Guy Standing (May 24, 2011). “The Precariat – The new dangerous class”. Policy Network.
Introductory article to the House Bricks series
House bricks part 1
House bricks part 2
House bricks part 3
House bricks part 4