OurDayOut

28th April 2016

Review: Our Day Out

Curve
A Curve & De Montfort University co-production
Lyrics by Willy Russell
Directed by Julia Thomas

Our rating: ***

A musical written by Willy Russell in 1977.

A delightful entertainment that brought the vitality of youth to the studio of Curve.

Tonight’s show brought together the huge artistic skills of Curve with the energy and enthusiasm of the students of DMU in what was the sixth annual co-production marking the established collaboration between Leicester’s flagship theatre and one of the city’s two internationally renown Universities. Tonight cast included first, second and final years students from DMU.

The story is set in a Leicester school. Teacher Mrs Kay’s take her ‘Progress Class’ (teenagers who have been excluded from mainstream classes) on a coach trip to Skegness. Deputy Head, Mr Briggs, joins them on the coach. Their destination is the castle at Lincoln but along the way they make various stops – at the café, the zoo, the beach and the funfair. The trip proves to be a succession of problems for the teaching stuff. At the cafe they steal all the sweets; at the zoo they try to steal the animals. At the seaside, one of the teenagers threatens to jump off a cliff. They get back to Leicester having had a marvellous day out but the trip opened up tensions within the teaching staff and laid bare the difficult lives that the group of disadvantaged children faced both at home and at school. Two of the girls in the group perform a routine several times in which they reprise what they feel about the whole thing: It’s boring. For teacher Mrs Kay it is a chance for the kids to get an experience they otherwise would never get; for  Deputy Head, Mr Briggs the errant group represents a constant threat as he constantly shouts at them to behave themselves. Like Blood Brothers the show highlights the lot of working class youth, its bleakness and hopelessness and the irrelevance of education to their lives. It does however have moments of poignancy and tenderness as well as flashes of humour that lighten the gloom. Willy Russell used to be a teacher and so had experiences of field trips. Russell is best-known for Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine, Blood Brothers and Our Day Out went to on become a firm favourite with audiences and with youth theatre groups.

The cast did an excellent job, singing, dancing and acting with real commitment and enthusiasm. It was interesting that the plot has been transposed to Leicester from its original setting in Liverpool and the stage set was decidedly simple. The young cast brought the production to life and gave a vibrant performance that captivated the audience.
Our Day Out runs at Curve from 28th to 30th April 2016.

 

Housing notes 2016

Notes about

Housing and housing policy

in 2016

Now that I have published the whole of my book on housing policy, I am keen to update the work with news and information that is coming in all the time.

Government housing: a scandal

15th August 2016

The Dispatches programme broadcast tonight by Channel 4 did a convincing job of highlighting the housing crisis and revealing the Government’s failure to achieve even its own targets in meeting the growing demand for affordable homes.

As the programme resume ‘explains Harry [Wollop] investigates the failure to build enough houses and questions the government’s commitment to solving the problem. He finds out what happened to a plan to sell off enough public land to build 100,000 new homes, and discovers deals with big developers at a potential loss to the taxpayer. He also finds large areas of sold-off land sitting empty, while millions of people cannot find an affordable home.’

The programme highlighted the sales of land by the Ministry of Defence where housing has not been built and where the price of the sale was well below what a property expert estimated was the market value of the land. The Cameron government make promises about the number of homes that would be built on land sold by the government and the Dispatches programme found that the target of 100,000 new homes has nowhere near been achieved.

I was incensed by the revelations made in the programme. So much  so, that I was moved to write here that a central agency should be created – a government department – through which all public land sales should go. That Department should be under the kind of scrutiny normally applied to the workings of central government.

The people working in this central agency should be experts in the field of land and property; their brief should be to get the best possible price for public assets and to ensure that land sales are sold to secure public benefits and not just sold to the highest bidder on the open market.

Prior to the changeover in power when May took office, the record of the Government on tackling the housing crisis has been abysmal – years of broken promises, years of failed targets, years of incompetence and mismanagement and we are now no better off as a result. if Theresa May really wants to do better she has to realise that building new homes is only part of the answer; it forms only a small part of the solution to the country’s housing crisis.  New build is a slow and expensive way to meet housing need; it will only succeed if planning consents are tightly controlled and enforced. Allowing the Ministry of Defence to do as it pleases when it sells off land is clearly a recipe for disaster and failure. A new land agency would help Ms May to achieve what she said she would do and make sure that Downing Street keeps control of what happens to land once it goes into private ownership.

Buy-to-Let impact on house prices

In April 2016 the press reported that house prices reached an all-time high even though there was strong demand in the market. Investors chased property deals as they sought to buy before the stamp duty tax increased on 1st April. Analysts saw the demand from buy-to-let investors pushing up prices. Following Brexit, house prices wavered by the longer-term picture shows prices holding steady despite the doom and gloom affecting other economic indicators. In August the Bank of England cut interest rates; good for borrowers such as mortgage payers and this might give a boost to the housing market. Wages are not seen to be keeping pace with house prices leading many of those hoping to get a foot on the property ladder to opt for rented accommodation.

Tenancies failure

Kate Webb writes for the Shelter policy blog about the government’s plan to remove security for social tenants (8th March 2016.)

New clauses to the housing and planning bill are proving to be controversial.

Web says

Shelter is concerned that constantly churning people through social housing will be hugely destabilising to families and communities. But new research also suggests that the reform will fail even on its own terms of ‘making best use of stock’.

She goes on to say that

Now new research shows that early adopters of fixed term tenancies in the UK have also become disillusioned with them because they have proven to have limited scope to free-up social lettings. The researchers concluded that landlords were also sceptical that short-term tenancies were effective in increasing social mobility or shaping household’s behaviour.

The research she refers to was undertaken by Heriot Watt University in February 2016. The researchers published their interim findings.

What stood out for me, reading through the report was security of tenure. One aspect of this is the way that successive governments have used social housing to influence the behaviour of tenants considered to be ‘anti-social’, ‘welfare dependent’ or ‘deviant.’ The report points to use of probationary periods in social housing from 1996 onwards. The Localism Act 2011 allowed landlords to introduce fixed-term tenancies, subject to a statutory minimum of two years. It all smacked of ‘deserving poor’ and the others who are poor but whose behaviour causes problems.

As Webb comments

The researchers concluded that landlords were also sceptical that short-term tenancies were effective in increasing social mobility or shaping household’s behaviour.

and she goes on to say

Research into early use of fixed term tenancies in England found that the majority of households were anxious or concerned about their lack of housing security. Families with children, older people or people with disabilities and long-term health problems tended be most anxious about their long-term prospects.

This throws a spotlight on a very important issue – tenant security. It’s an issue I discuss in my book. Those who shape security of tenure seem to be concerned about being locked into providing accommodation for people who are ‘problem tenants’ – those whose behaviour is troubled and troublesome. Anti-social behaviour orders were fashionable but there is little evidence that they worked all that well.

Researchers have looked at how local authorities and the government have used social housing as a weapon to attack anti-social behaviour and lack of civility in neighbourhoods. Welfare providing is viewed as being increasingly conditional on good behaviour. Now the economically deprived must be not only ‘deserving poor’ but well behaved poor.

Source: Shelter policy blog

Renting

More and more younger people who cannot get on to the property ladder are having to rent flats. The BBC news programme East Midlands Today ran a story about young renters (14th April 2016) in which they drew attention to the cost of new houses rising faster than average incomes. Renting is one of the few options open to younger people who cannot afford to put down a deposit for a house of their own. This is particularly the case in London but it also affects the East Midlands. The Government’s notion of creating a nation of homeowners is failing, partly due to the incoherency of its own policy as the Chancellor raises stamp duty on buy-to-let properties. People aged 20 to 39 are being locked out of the housing market, compared with previous generations. Unable to raise deposits and access mortgages, an increasing proportion of young adults have no alternative but to rent their homes. In the news item it was claimed that buy-to-let landlords rushed to purchase property before the increased stamp duty came in. This took away houses from first time buyers, it was suggested in the news piece. Average wages in the UK are failing to keep up with the rising cost of new homes. Even rents are rising faster than salaries in some areas.

I looked at the website for Generation Rent, the body that is developing a national network of private renters and local private tenants groups.

Housing Policy 5

Housing: approaches to policy

by Trevor Locke
Part 05

New approaches to house building

Do we have to live in homes made of bricks? Do all homes have to be three-bedroom semi-detached new builds? How important is it to provide housing for two adults with their 2.4 children? Must we live in identikit boxes? Britain is a very low-rise country by comparison to many European and Asiatic countries. British people love their little boxes set in a small piece of garden. Suburbia is the quintessence of the British way of life. Even if we have to stick to the box-like house, need we also have to stick to the brick? This section addresses these questions.

Well, my take on these question is very clear: no. If we can persuade people that there are new ways of building homes that do not require bricks and mortar, then we begin to open up more solutions to increasing the supply of housing. New materials can be manufactured more quickly and cheaply than clay bricks. Wood does not need to be consumed in large quantities – new materials can replace it, that are more friendly to the environment. Wood is good for interior features and furnishings – where its natural beauty can be appreciated – but inside walls and roof spaces (where we cannot see), we do not have to use wood, if cheaper and more ecological materials can replace it. Bricks, likewise, provide a traditional facing for houses but inside walls are frequently made from breeze-blocks. There are new materials that can be used for unseen parts of buildings that cost less to produce than bricks and which can be manufactured with much lower levels of energy.

People have already begun to re-think the idea of a home and have started to construct houses, using radically new ideas about what to build with and how to create living spaces. Our problem is that, to ‘Mr & Mrs Average’, such ‘experiments’ are a bit cranky and certainly not for them. Understandable perhaps but new concepts of what constitutes a home lead to all sorts of beneficial spin-offs. Take heating, for example, as part of the overall use of energy in domestic accommodation. Some of these new, ‘experimental’ homes are seeing anything up to a fifty percent reduction in the cost of energy consumption. The less money required for energy bills, the more money is available to pay for the cost of the home and for its interior furnishings.

People who are on fixed incomes have to balance the cost of their mortgages, leases or rentals against estimated running costs. If they think they are going to be faced with high costs of energy, their calculations of affordability are going to fail to stack up, given all the other costs that are involved. There is still a dire need to provide energy-efficient homes and to reduce heating costs. If we must build new houses, then let us at least build them with new materials that can provide higher levels of insulation than convention clay-based bricks. Roofs can also utilise new materials that have better thermal properties than slates. As I argue above, it is better to replace aged houses with new ones, on the same site.

This suggests that the solution to the housing crisis would be the renewal of existing housing stock on existing land and not on the development of new-builds on green sites.

I would like to see the average family offered financial incentives to at least try something new, when it comes to homes. Today’s house-builders are focused on return on investment and profit margins. That explains why they all want green field sites on which to build profitable, standardised boxes. The supply of housing, particularly in the ‘affordable’ sector is dominated by building companies that have to make a healthy profit margin. Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to be in business to make a profit. What I am arguing for is an injection of policy that would make it possible to both build at a profit and to offer something that is different from standardised boxes employing traditional materials.

Knowing demographic trends is vital; we have to have a very firm grasp on how the population is changing, as it ages, as people migrate, as the labour market changes and how this will be reflected in demand for housing. If the supply of housing can be increased then that will reduce property values and rental rates – a trend that will further increase demand. Lower housing costs will mean that people will have more money in their pockets to purchase consumer goods and that, many would agree, is good for the economy.

To increase the supply of homes, building companies can adopt new methods of production of the materials they need and cheaper materials that would help them to achieve their profit targets and get the units up and running more quickly. For those with the time and inclination to get involved in building there are plenty of opportunities.

Television programmes have been stimulating interest in new approaches to house building. Amanda Lamb’s My Flat-Pack Home (Virgin, Sky, UK TV Home channel) follows families who opt for constructing their homes from pre-fabricated flat-packs. Companies are now offering pre-fabricated houses, and some of them are portable. A company called Dan Wood is offering a variety of dwelling houses that, it says, provide ‘customised, turn-key homes with the highest standards of energy efficiency.’ Their website goes on to claim that ‘building your own homes doesn’t have to be a dream.’ This is a company that, it seems, offers pre-designed buildings that can be constructed pretty quickly. [Dan Wood website, 2015] We can be much more flexible and imaginative when it comes to designing homes. Will people be prepared to change their preconceptions about what they can accept as being a home? Will they be impressed by the savings to be secured from increased energy efficiency and green products? Can house buyers be persuaded to accept new approaches to the design of homes? In my view many of the answers to these questions lie in thinking outside of the box.

Thinking outside of the box

Most house-buyers want a finished product that they can move into straight away. The average resident has a pattern of living and working that is based on a standardised approach to the home – one that fits comfortably with the life cycle of starting and bringing up a family. But there are alternatives. The problem is – will people who want homes be prepared to think about alternatives to the standardised box?

If we can tempt house-buyers away from the standardised, magnolia-painted box, then it is much more likely that the housing shortage will be dealt with and dealt with more quickly. OK, it’s not such much about the magnolia. It’s much more to do with whether people need single family accommodation, how they are going to use their home when they get into it and where it is situated relative to shops, schools, surgeries, transport routes and all the other elements that are essential to daily life. Everyone wants a home that will be economical to run; getting the initial money to put down a deposit and move in is difficult enough. The on-going costs are what will either allow people to get started with a property or prevent them from going ahead. New homes in the UK are too expensive; they cost much more than they need to. Far too many people are prevented from getting into the property ladder by the high cost of houses. Those who do have a home of their own are paying far too much to heat it. New homes now have hugely better insulation than ever before but too little has been done to think about what kind of energy to use for heating and what kind of heating systems can be installed. In addition house designers are still stuck with the idea that the average house-buyer wants accommodation for four people. Period. End of story.

Encouraging the use of new materials, changing building regulations to reflect new trends in energy conservation and giving up our obsession with look-alike houses are some of the things, I would argue, that would lead to more people having their own homes in a shorter space of time.

But to make this work, designers and builders have to change their ideas about what constitutes a house for families to live in. Our concept of ‘the home’ has changed little in post-war England. We are beginning to move away from the one-family-one-house model towards multiple-occupancy structures which make far better use of land. In the urban setting, land is expensive but families want their own spaces in which children can play and family pets can run free. Flats are not considered to be an option for the bulk of people who want homes for themselves and their children. The desire for garden space is deeply ingrained in the British psyche. In the sixties, the builders of tower blocks wrongly imagined that children could take the lift down to the ground floor to play in communal areas. How wrong they were. Even childless couples often prefer properties that will provide them with a nice bit of garden.

A home is a place we call our own and most people want homes that are in communities they can relate to, in both urban and rural area. It is that sense of place that drives choice in the selection of where to live. Having a positive sense of place reinforces well being and health and, for many people, place is about having access to transport and employment. Supplying housing should not just be about providing units; it should be about providing communities and the kinds of housing that people want in an area that will give them that sense of place. People who feel at home are healthier than people who feel alienated from their surroundings. Those who design and build accommodation should study the data and see the trends taking place in our society both now and in the foreseeable future. Housing supply must be based on real needs and not comfortable assumptions about what people out to have.

Patterns of demand for housing will change in years to come. These changes will be driven by demography (the ageing population and migration from other cultures) and from rising sea levels. These are trends that planners should be addressing now. The number of people who want homes for more than four people will increase. Homes will be needed for people who will live independent lives for much longer – some up to a hundred years and the fixtures and fittings they will need will change over the decades. In my view, older people will be less likely to move into residential care, independent living will increase and new patterns of accommodation will be needed to meet the social requirements of older people and those on whom they depend. This all has to be planned for now. These are trends that will affect the UK but in other countries much more radical approaches are being tried.

Some architects have designed apartment blocks with gardens; in Sydney, Australia, a programme is underway to provide ‘green apartments.’ In Australia, green homes are being built that use less water and energy; at the Green Strata project ‘We focus solely on helping owners and occupiers of residential multi-unit properties improve the sustainability of their common property and their community of residents’ [Green Strata, 2015]. In Northern Italy, apartment blocks have been constructed that offer people gardens full of trees and shrubs right up to the 27th floor. The Bosco Verticale Towers offer apartments that come with pre-installed gardens on every floor. This project has become known as the ‘forest in the sky’ and represents a totally new concept in multi-layered accommodation. The array of trees and shrubs help to cool the building and provides its own micro-environment. The greenery provides oxygen and humidity, as well as absorbing carbon dioxide and dust particles. It is an exciting and visionary project. The downside is of course the cost; these apartments are much more expensive than those in conventional high-rises. That might change if more of them are built; they tend to be expensive because they are either unique or very rare. The more developers build such blocks the less expensive they will become to construct. Such projects are not the solution to the housing crisis but they can play a part in an overall strategy of accommodation in city areas.

The forest in the sky, Bosco Verticale, in Northern Italy, has become widely celebrated as making a breakthrough in the way that high-rise apartment blocks can be made into ‘vertical forests’, having two 27 floor tower blocks that are home to 730 trees and thousands of shrubs and plants. The amazing amount of vegetation produces oxygen and creates a micro-climate that cools the apartments in summer and moderates heat loss in winter, as well as filtering smog and dust particles from the atmosphere. Each block has as many trees as could be planted in a hectare of forest. The buildings are creating a biological habitat for apartment-dwellers in Milan. ‘Grey water’ from the apartments is used to irrigate the vegetation. These projects are an example of combining architecture with live plants; trees have already been introduced into building design but nearly always inside buildings. These ideas might change the climate and ecology of cities and, providing the costs are within affordable standards, might well revolutionise the urban landscape. [Wikipedia, 2015]

In Nottingham, Professor Philip Oldfield co-ordinates a masters course in sustainable tall buildings. He has been active in researching the potential of high-rise buildings in urban areas and how they can be made more ecologically sustainable and energy efficient. One design envisages ‘gardens in the sky’, in which high-rise structures offer accommodation that comes with plenty of horticulture and leisure amenities not normally found in tall apartment blocks. In crowded cities, where land is at a premium and always in short supply, he sees the solution as building upwards but providing space that replicates the kind of environment usually associated with ground-level lifestyles.

A lot of lessons were learned from the housing disasters of the 1960s. Not that all public housing at that time was based on tower blocks. Councils developed large estates for working people. This was often in tandem with a programme of slum clearance. Outer urban land provided cheap space on which Councils could spread acres of social housing for the poor and needy. These housings estates also had to be supplied with schools, shopping centres, health services and good access to the national transport systems. There was a time when large private sector housing estates were constructed without any of these basic amenities of family life being provided. Planners in the 60s got it badly wrong and approved applications for large housing developments in which there was no planning gain in the form of social amenities, such as schools, shops or health services.

I hope we have got a better approach to planning these days. We got stuck in policy opportunism, that allowed developers to create housing estates rather than communities. I remember going to see large numbers of show-homes in Leicestershire in the 1980s. Although the new-build houses offered every latest comfort and amenity, the estates as a whole were just streets and cul-de-sacs of endless houses. Car-ownership was relatively cheap in those days and it was assumed that everyone, who would buy a new house, would have at least one car and would be able to drive to the shops or take the children to school no matter how far away these facilities were. The architects of these ‘soul-less’ rural or suburban estates were people who clearly lived in immaculate barn-conversions who had lost the notion of community and what constituted family life in villages and city-edge suburbs. These housing estates put profit before people. There were no schools, shops, doctors surgeries or any of the other essential elements of daily life. The estates were all about houses and more houses and that was it.

It took a lot of protest by lobby groups to bring about change to this situation. Hopefully planners, and the politicians who control them, are more enlightened these days. We were lucky – we ended up with a brand new house just five minutes away from a primary school and within easy walking distance of a doctors surgery and a small supermarket. It was a matter of luck – just being in the right place at the right time (in 1992.) Many other families were less fortunate and got themselves stuck in beautifully designed homes that were miles from the nearest shop or school.

The policies that govern urban development must take into account how people actually live and not be focused exclusively on the commercial demands of private sector building companies. We need to think about sustainable communities in which people can live comfortably and happily for several decades, able to adapt to changing economic circumstances. Short-termism is no way to plan urban growth.

The housing supply of the future must cater for people and communities as a whole and must join-up living, jobs and transport.

Where will the future of housing take us?

Governments, both national and local, must face the challenges of improving life in Britain by coming up with credible, joined-up policies that meet the basic living needs of the people who elected them and everyone else. People are slow to change and hard to convince that change to traditional ways of doing things can be better. We all need houses to live in; and most people want houses to live in that allow them to get to work easily and to the shops on which they depend for their groceries. But, do we need houses to be made from traditional clay bricks? We want them to be structurally sound for many years; we want them to be warm but not overly expensive to heat; we want them to be situated within easy access to roads, schools, healthcare centres and shops and we want our enjoyment of them to be secure. That is not something we can leave to the vagaries of private investment and to a free-marketism approach. We need to get to work in order to earn enough money to pay for our homes. We need our children to get to their schools without having to travel long distances. Older people need to have choices about where to live and they need to feel secure in their own homes; they need to be able to live near to their dependants and to the people on whom they depend.

The modern home is, as Le Corbusier famously said, “a machine for living.” Modern homes tend to look like that with all their fitted kitchens and ‘mod cons’ but they are also a reflection of our tastes and cultural values. My hope is that people will become more adventurous in what they will accept as suitable house-building materials; I also hope that people will be more inclined to accept new approaches to designing homes. Our society, as a whole needs to be more willing to experiment with new solutions to the need for living space.

In this book I have analysed current approaches to housing policy; I have also advocated what I believe to be credible solutions to the housing crisis. A lot of this depends on change – both of the attitudes of people who want somewhere to live and of the way policy makers approach the whole business of meeting housing need.

References

Contents of the entire work

Updates

Now this work has been published in its entirety I will update it with notes that following current developments in housing policy and practice. See Notes about housing and housing policy in 2016.

Housing Policy 4

Housing: approaches to policy

by Trevor Locke

Part 04

Providing better housing stock

I looked at the need for joined-up policies to improve the supply of housing and now move on to considering the factors that play a part in approaches to the supply and provision of housing. One issue stands out for me and that is whether this country is currently making the best use of its existing stock of housing.

Making better use of existing housing stock

It has often been said that the issue confronting policy-makers in housing is not the supply of new housing but making better use of existing housing stock. In April, The Guardian commented that ‘housing needs to be at the heart of economic policy’ [Guardian, 2015] This editorial argued that ‘The squeeze on new homes and the shortage of social housing has produced a runaway private rental market. That has driven up the overall cost of housing benefit and inflamed the shortage of homes as those who can invest in buy to let do so.’ The article refers to the work of Danny Dorling, who argued that ‘housing is the defining issue of our times. Tracing how we got to our current crisis and how housing has come to reflect class and wealth in Britain, All That Is Solid radically shows that the solution to our problems – rising homelessness, a generation priced out of home ownership – is not, as is widely assumed, building more homes. Inequality, he argues, is what we really need to overcome’ [Dorling, 2015] More refurbishment of existing housing stock is something supported by Dorling. The Guardian editorial thought that only the Green Party (in the 2015 election) provided ‘a thread that runs through almost every aspect of its policies’ and concluded by saying ‘housing needs rescuing from speculation and restoring to its rightful place, at the heart of economic and environmental policy.’ [ibid] Commentators maintain that the BTL measures in the 2015 summer budget will lead to sharp increases in rent levels as landlords pass cost increases on to their tenants [Dean, 2015]

One element of this debate is to do with property conversion in the cities. More and more buildings are being converted into apartments and one aspect of the solution to the housing crisis is to convert existing properties into affordable accommodation. In the city this has been met with a degree of success. There has been an increase in the supply of apartments created from buildings that have fallen into disuse. In Leicester, the city centre (in 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 choose to live in the inner city. Not the best homes for families, but more appropriate for young urban professionals, childless couples and older single people. That development creates a supply that frees up properties that would be more suitable for families, allowing younger single people and students to move out of houses that are suitable for families. In Leicester we have seen moves to transfer student accommodation away from using terraced houses, that are more suitable for families, to purpose-built student units. Many student houses have been built (or converted from existing stock) that are exclusively for students and this has enabled older stock, more suitable for family occupation, to be brought back into general use.

How credible is it to reuse existing housing stock? A team at University College London reviewed the evidence on this issue, looking in particular at the energy use of buildings as one factor in deciding whether to refurbish or demolish them. The team came to the conclusion that ‘There is a growing body of research suggesting that extending the life cycle of buildings by refurbishment is preferable to demolition in terms of improved environmental, social and economic impacts.’ [UCL, 2014]

Critics and commentators on housing have long pointed to the fact that many properties are unoccupied and have called for empty properties to be brought back into use. ‘Powers designed to help English councils bring empty homes back into use were used just 17 times in 2014, according to figures obtained by the Green party MEP Keith Taylor’, reports the Guardian. [Osborne, 2015] It was the Labour government that introduced empty dwelling management orders in an attempt to give local authorities powers to bring buildings back into use. In England, over half a million houses lie empty, buildings that could be brought back to house families. Empty dwelling management orders (Edmos) were introduced by the Labour government to make it easier for local councils to take possession of properties that had fallen into disuse. The orders allow a council to take temporary ownership of an empty home while it works with the owner to make it habitable and bring it back into use. There are of course a variety of means through which Councils can deal with the problem of houses lying empty and bringing them back into use. What is clear from the data is that there are lots of them.

In the rural areas the supply of affordable homes poses problems. The typical ‘barn-conversion’ is well outside 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 then new-build, to meet the growing demand for homes for working people. We see some hope here; the Government announced plans, in August 2015, that aim to increase the availability of housing in rural areas, whilst protecting the Green Belt. This comes in the Rural Productivity Plan which pledges to deliver of starter homes at a 20% discount for first time buyers under the age of 40 [DEFRA, 2015]. There is a shortage of starter homes for young, first-time buyers. Added to this the need for homes for last-time buyers (older people down-sizing from large family houses) which some companies are now meeting with retirement homes and villages. It is at the age ends of the housing demand spectrum that most pressure is felt and I return to these all important issues below.

Our housing stock is not well-managed. Much of it lies empty, derelict or neglected in the urban areas. Local authorities have not been keen enough to identify empty houses and bring them back into use or to enable developers to convert derelict properties into accommodation. 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 deliberately left empty. Somehow, the landed gentry, many of whom are members of rural councils, fail to see this. Those who lose out the most, due to the current short-fall in housing supply, are working 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 updated recently in the Policy paper: 2010 to 2015 government policy: rented housing sector [Department for Communities and Local Government, May 2015]. The government claimed that it was improving the quality and quantity of properties for rent, both in the private and social sector. Measures now 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 [DCLG, 2011]. 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. If a local housing market is controlled by landed gentry, then the full range of options are likely to be ignored. Policies geared to urban environments tend to fall short when applied to rural situations. 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. Several news reports this year have focussed on opposition to proposals to take land out of the the green belt for large-scale housing developments. Why is it that commercial developers like green field sites and new builds so much, when large quantities of buildings remain unused or poorly used in the urban areas?

Not all existing housing stock can be made better. It some cases it would be better to replace older housing with new; pre-war terraced housing can be improved but in many ways it would be better to replace it with new build constructions that have higher standards of insulation and energy use. With urban land being in short supply, we need new models of house building that replaces old stock with new units that use the same footprint of land but which can be constructed on site in much less time and at much less cost than units based on traditional methods of construction. This suggests the far greater use of components that are fabricated off site, the use of cheaper and environmentally better materials and constructions that can be erected with less labour. These days it is perfectly possible to design modular housing materials that can be put together very quickly with the resulting dwelling being a fraction of the cost of a traditional brick-built house. These cheaper homes could off-set the cost of demolition of old buildings. We do not need to buy up vast swathes of green land to solve the housing crisis; what we need to do instead is to replace old homes with new ones on the same sites. More and more people want to live in cities; they do not want to have to commute (into areas of higher employment) from green belt estates. City life offers many cost-saving advantages, principally in travel to work.

Make better use of land

In our small islands, land is in short supply. There are many conflicting demands on the use of land in Britain. 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 extensive 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, primarily because it is so unnecessary and reflects an obsession with new build that is unwarranted. Having green belts was a sound and sensible policy intended to enhance the quality of life of people living in their vicinity. There is no need to encroach on them in order to increase the supply of new-build housing. Other alternatives to poaching green belt land makes far more sense. Foremost among these, I argue, is making better use of urban land.

More should be done to rescue and recycle brown field sites, industrial areas that have fallen into disuse. There is enough land to meet the need for housing and business development, even in the finite limits of our group of islands. There is enough land if we take an objective approach to its use. The problem is that brown field sites can cost more to develop than green field ones. To put it another way – there is less profit from the development of brown field sites compared to the profits that can be made from exploiting virgin land. Land shortages however and the long time it takes to secure permission for greenfield developments, could well see an increasing interest in brownfield. 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. The kind of land I am thinking of, is where a change of use can be effected without inordinate costs of cleaning or repairing it. In urban areas, in particular, land use is not as good as it might be. Local authorities do not have sufficient powers to compulsorily purchase neglected and unused land that has been left vacant by speculators in the hope that land prices will rise. In the 2015 summer budget, plans were announced to grant automatic planning permission to build on deserted industrial sites. The government proposals also include improved powers of compulsory purchase that could increase the supply of such sites. Land that is already given over to housing does not require complex planning consents; it is a simple case of knocking down an old house and putting up a new one in its place. Huge amounts of money are being spent on applying for planning permissions for rural green land. That process is exacerbated by protesters who are opposed to developments in their rural back yards. All of this is unnecessary. We should not be building new housing in the countryside; we should be putting housing into our existing urban landscapes.

Our country cannot afford land speculation given the crisis in housing supply and the growing needs of industry and commerce as the economy grows. Speculation in property did find a voice in Cameron’s conference speech this year and proposals are already in place to deal with the problems created by those who want to invest, speculatively, in the housing market. This is not the same as encouraging investment in housing; we do want to encourage capital to flow into housing but it must be geared to long-term housing need. Cameron talked about providing housing that could not be sold on quickly to make a quick profit. Buy To Sell is not a good way of managing housing supply and he seemed to have grasped that. The challenge to policy makers is to encourage investment in bringing new homes on to the market and ensuring that they stay available to those who buy them for a reasonable period of time. Providing homes for families who want to settle in them for five years seems very reasonable.

One of the big challenges for 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 by developers who built on flood plains. The Government wants local planners to ‘take full account of flood risk, coastal change and water supply and demand considerations’ [DCLG, 2015] 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 in the future. As thousands of houses are destroyed by rising seas levels, demand for new homes will put even more pressure on housing demand. Is the Government and local authorities planning for this? They seem to be but concerns are many that the Right To Buy proposals will create shortages of affordable social housing, where stock is not replaced when it is sold. The government is reforming the planning system, moving decision making to the local level as part of the National Policy Planning Framework, published in 2012 [DCLG, 2012] Getting local planners to take account of flood risks and drainage is a stated goal of the government. So far, so good. But the inability of property developers to manage water, both by building in the wrong place and through inept attention to water table levels, is something that policy makers will have to get to grips with. This cannot be done without national co-ordination. Part of that involves giving local authorities the powers to enforce standards of local water management.

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 tackling 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. Government must be prepared to encourage innovation in house building. Mention has been made above of modular units constructed off site that can be assembled quickly and that use less labour to finish a construction. Materials that are cheaper and more environmentally beneficial offer advantages for this approach to building. It is these new materials that are likely to see a decline in the use of the standard clay house brick.

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 many political parties. We also see the emergence of new kinds of dwelling units, such as the micro-apartments aimed at young people. There has been a trend in students and young professionals taking over property that traditionally served the needs of families. By clubbing together, they took over houses, forming multiple occupancy tenancies and in doing so gentrified neighbourhoods, raising rental and house prices, that forced families out of the area. Better neighbourhood management would have seen the creation of a mixture of tenancies, allowing young people to live alongside established families, but in properties better suited to the lifestyles of tenants aged between 18 and 35.

With an ageing population, demand for smaller accommodation types will increase, as older people give up their large family homes and seek units more suitable to two-person occupiers. 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, and move into smaller types of accommodation. The problem with this is that more and more adult youngsters are being forced to stay at home with their parents for longer periods. This prolongs the time at which parents can sell their large family homes. They depend on their children being able to secure their homes before they can sell up and move out.

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 needs of the nuclear family. Changes in the birth-rate have led to changes 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 [ONS, 2014]. Multi-family households still only represent 1% of all households.’ [ONS, 2013] Weighed against this is the increasing demand for larger homes from people in ethnic communities where providing for extended family groups is usual; if this country sees an influx of migrants from the far east this will add to the demand for housing that can accommodate larger groups of people. That 1% is likely to rise as accommodation for extended family accommodation increases.

Weighed against this trend towards extended family units, it is likely that there will be an increasing trend in people living alone. Given the divorce rate, more and more older single people will choose to live alone or with one other person. Young adults often choose to live alone until they marry and need to move into their first family home; but this period of life is extended by the difficulty in obtaining a first-time mortgage. It is in the private rented sector that demand for single-person units is likely to be most strong. All of this enhances the need to create flexible housing supplies based on demonstrable needs and to provide options for people who have a variety of housing requirements. We cannot depend on the concept of the nuclear family any more to represent the most prevalent model of housing. Demographic trends and changes to age-related lifestyles are likely to result in an increasingly complex pattern of accommodation demand.

I have so far considered the factors that we can see playing a part in approaches to the supply and provision of housing, including making better use of existing housing stock and more effective use of land. In the next chapter, I return to the brick as a central material in the construction of housing. Looking to the future of house design and supply, I move on to considering ways in which we can think outside of the box, focusing on where the future of housing might take us.

References

Contents of the entire work