20th April 2015

Housing policy

I have had a long interesting in housing – both from a historical perspective and from the point of view of policy.

This month I have published a series of four articles based on the theme of house bricks.  In four parts, this extended feature looks at the humble house brick – past, present and future – and moves on to considering the policy implications relating to house building and the supply of accommodation in England.

All four articles are now published on my magazine Arts in Leicester.  This writing project started when I watched a team of archaeologists investigating a trench at a dig; they discovered several bricks and were able to identify the period that they came from by their size, colour and shape. I thought this would make a suitable piece for a magazine that covers heritage, architecture and history alongside other topics related to the arts.

As I worked on the piece I found myself drawn into more and more areas to do with housing – not just the history of buildings for living but the present and future policies that might come to govern the use and manufacture of materials for building houses. Writing a piece like this was a challenge.  A good writer should be able to write about anything – particularly as both a writer and as a journalist.  I gave myself the challenge:  write about something very mundane and commonplace – the house brick – and see where that takes you. It took me a long way. It took me far beyond bricks into the subject of houses, housing-building and then into housing policy. I was able to draw on my academic experience as a student of town planning and urban policy.  I did not set out to write an academic article;  this was written for the average, lay reader who was interested in the subject, just as I am. I had to do quite a bit of research into a variety of topics within the subject.  Most journalists would do that as a matter of course, particularly when tackling subjects that are not part of their day-to-day work.

I have enjoyed doing this writing project; not only in getting into the subject matter but also in managing the length of the whole thing.  I was well aware, at many points, that I was skimming the surface of some issues but I wanted to avoid getting bogged down in certain topics at the expenses of keeping going the flow of the whole piece. Some experts in this subject would find it frustrating that I have touched on topics that could have been treated much more extensively. But then, this was not written for experts.

As we are now a short time away from the UK’s general election,  housing is a subject that has contemporary resonance.  I have found it interesting reading what the major parties have to say on the subject. Equally of interest has been looking at what the government has been doing – since 2010 – to tackle housing issues and policies. What bears most on my point of view is the future of house building, particularly as builders tackle a raft of issues that are affecting them and will come to affect their practice in the next couple of decades. Chief amongst these issues is climate change and the effect it will have on where people can live – as sea levels rise and as the climate in this country changes. The development of technologies is providing new ways of manufacturing building materials. The traditional clay house brick has been the standard for centuries but the demands of the present-day environment are pushing manufacturers to look for new materials. A crucial issue is the increasing use of plastic and the volume that it takes up in land-fill sites; I was pleased to find that work is under way to find uses for waste plastic in the production of building materials.

A series of recent television programmes has highlighted a trend towards innovative building construction. The growing interest in self-build is stimulating, as people become more concerned about having the types of homes that reflect their personal needs and aspirations. As I say in my article, English house builders are not noted for their ability to innovate or to think outside of the box. For them the box remains de rigueur. House builders and designers should, in my view, be more open to change, innovation and experimentation.