Rethinking approaches to housing
15th January 2019
Housing is the key to everything. That is what I wrote as a chapter heading in the last edition of my book Housing: approaches to policy. But, now, I think it has become, for me, more of a mantra. Something rather more than just a heading. It now has the status, in my mind, of a complete perspective.
Britain is in the depths of a housing crisis. It has been for at least a decade, if not more. That is not a controversial point of view. It is what everybody thinks. It is one of many crises, you might say, given what is happening, in this country, with leaving the EU, homelessness, knife-crime and quite a few other major national problems.
I believe that housing is the key to everything. It is the biggest social issue facing the nation. What do I mean by that? For the family, as much as for the single individual, having a home and how you feel about that home, determines pretty much everything else in your life. If you have a safe, secure home you will feel safe and secure as a family or as an individual. If you do not have a home, if your home is not safe, and it does not provide you with security, then you are going to feel pretty bad about the rest of your life. You will also have problems at work. Your job will be harder. You work all day but you still cannot use your wages to provide yourself with a decent home. Or you could well have no work. If like me, you live on an income provided by the state, you will get the best home your pension or benefits will provide for you, but you might not be completely happy with it, even if it is fairly comfortable. You will not feel that your future is safe. You will not feel that your old age is secure. At least, you should not. I say this because, given the current political climate, in this country, anything could happen.
I fear there are some people who simply do not agree with what I have just said. People who see housing as being an adjunct to employment. Who see the home as being a benefit that flows from other things, such as income or investment. There are people whose experience of housing has been so negative that they cannot imagine anything better. People who have lived, for so long, in damp, insecure, cramped and poorly maintained accommodation, that their house has never felt like home. For them, there are far more important aspects of survival. Living in a home is a luxury they can only dream of. Good housing enables people to get and keep a job. To secure a decent income from employment. It is housing that determines a sense of well being, not employment. People will good about the world and its future if they feel safe, secure, and comfortable in their homes.
Housing and existence
The population of England and Wales is living through a housing crisis. I do not know enough about Scotland or Northern Ireland so I cannot include them in this. That crisis affects a very large proportion of the population. Quite possibly the majority. Because people are so frustrated by the current housing market, they feel negative about most other things. Think back to June 2016. In the biggest vote in British history, more than half the country voted to leave the EU. So, what’s that got to do with housing? I see it like this. It’s an existential thing. If a majority of people feel bad about one very fundamental aspect of their existence (in this case, their housing situation) then that will colour many other aspects of their view of the world. Many of those who voted to leave the EU did so because they were pessimistic about the value of being in the EU and pessimistic about the future of the country as a member of the EU. Their view of the world was a negative one and this was influenced by them feeling unsettled and insecure about their homes both at the current time and in the future.
Having a home lies at the very heart of our existence. How we feel about our home colours so many other aspects of our lives. Being at home is at the core of our existence. The Labour Movement has always argued that work is the most important thing in life. If people have good jobs and a good income they can buy themselves a good home. Can they? No. Not at this stage in the twenty-first century. To get a mortgage these days, you would have to have a very well paid job that is secure. People who earn below the ‘very good’ level of income just can’t get a mortgage, so they can’t buy a house, so they have to live in rented accommodation or with their parents. A home is not always something that money can buy. Just finding the deposit is beyond the reach of most people. The cost of accommodation today takes up a disproportionate share of expenditure. Costs of accommodation are set the increase.
Where to live
People do not always have a choice about where they live. If you live in an area where jobs are hard to get, where well-paid jobs are few, or you have to live in a certain area because you want your kids to go to a certain school, or you need to live close to your elderly parents, you might not be able to get the best job you can get. You might have to compromise on employment because you cannot compromise on where you live.
People do not always live where they can get work. Sometimes, people have to live in a certain place and just do whatever work they can find in that area. Their life-options are limited. They might be able to get a better home somewhere else, but the other costs – schooling, care, travel – might make it impossible to work out a satisfactory solution. Having a well-paid job is not much of a compensation for other aspects of life failing to fall into place. Our vision of the future should be based on feeling good about life. Poor housing, inadequate homes and Dickensian renting procedures should be consigned to the dustbin of history. We can make this happen but it will take a lot of change to become a reality.
People are hungry for housing
Our nation is hungry for homes. Many people face housing starvation. Most people are hungry for better housing. A large proportion of the population work themselves to death but still, they cannot get a decent home for themselves and their families. For many families, work is not a solution to their own personal housing crisis. The ‘shops have empty shelves.’ To put it another way, the estate agents’ windows are offering an impoverished range of products and those they do have are way beyond the means of most ‘shoppers.’ That is my metaphor the current crisis in housing supply. The majority of people cannot buy the homes they would like to have. The building industry is simply not providing people with what they want, at a price they can afford to pay.
Even if we had full employment and thriving industries that offered well-paid jobs to the majority of people, being able to fulfil one’s life aspirations is impossible if you simply cannot get the kind of home that suits you.
A recent report by Shelter³ said that our nation needs to provide around 300,000 new social housing units in order to satisfy demand. The report made a good point. It sang from the right hymn sheet. It was a hopelessly over-optimistic report because it missed the one crucial thing about the British housing crisis. That is that our building industry could not possibly meet that target. Even if the money was available, we could not build enough homes, quickly enough, to satisfy demand. The British building industry has been flat-lining for two decades or more. Britain has one of the poorest building industries in Europe. The whole industry is not geared up for the demands of the twenty-first century. I have argued many times that we cannot build our way out of the housing crisis. The politicians who argue that we need to build new homes to end the housing crisis have got it all wrong. Building new homes is not the answer. Better management of existing housing stock is a better solution to the problem but not necessarily the whole solution. I keep hearing politicians saying that we can end the housing crisis if we build enough new houses. Why? Why do they keep repeating that ridiculous mantra? How can they say that when they know that only a very small proportion of the population can afford to buy a new home?
I am not an expert in housing finance. From what I can see, being able to buy a newly built house requires a deposit and a pretty good level of income. That is why the majority of first-time buyers cannot get on to the property ladder. The median annual income in the UK, according to the most recent Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, is £28,677 for full-time employees. ²
Let’s look at it this way. Earnings would have to rise dramatically for the majority of people to save enough deposit and to be able to afford the repayments on a mortgage. Home-ownership, in the past, was based on full employment and relatively good levels of pay. If there is a policy of building new houses to meet demand, you have to be sure that the people who want to live in them can afford the level of mortgage that will be required. You also have to ensure that lenders will be willing to provide the funds.
Have the politicians actually done such calculations? If you listen to them droning on about the need to build more new houses, it would appear that they have not. Of course, there are always some politicians who say things for reasons other than that they want to appear to know what they are talking about. Say the right things to the right people in order to curry their favour, however ridiculous that makes you look.
Everyone has a specific level of money to spend on housing (securing a home to live in). Whether they rent, lease, buy, there is always a certain level of their income that must go on housing, as part of their living expenses. The problem is that, in this country, there are too many people who are paying over that limit and who are taking money from other expenses, like food, travel, clothing, in order to make ends meet and keep up with their regular housing payments.
This is why I argue that housing is the key to everything. People have to be able to have a spending budget that makes sense given their current level of income and future earning potential. Where that is not the case, people feel discontent. Insecure. They feel pessimistic about their future. They long for a better life in a country that will give them more prospects. Surely, that is why half the population wants to leave the EU? They believe that life outside of the EU offers everyone better prospects. A better life trading outside of Europe. Freedom from restraints imposed by Brussels. And so on. And so forth.
Building needs builders
But what about the consequences? One of those consequences is the supply of skilled builders. Bricklayers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters. Our country depends on being able to attract tradespeople from Europe. We cannot build houses without them. If we leave the EU, the chances are they will not come, or they will be unable to come here. That puts our building industry at a disadvantage. We do not have enough people with the right skills to build houses, not in today’s construction industry. It might not be the only reason why so many houses have been built, but it is one of the principal reasons. There has been a shortage of skilled labour for many years. As a result, wage levels in the construction industry have gone up. That is one reason why house prices are so high.
In its report on social housing, Shelter made a very good case. They argued that 300,000 more social homes are required to meet current needs. Where I felt the Shelter report was weak, was in its implied impression about the British housing industry. They seemed to think that it was perfectly possible to deliver the number of homes needed if only enough money was available.
I don’t believe that. I think there is a gross under-capacity in the housing building industry. Building firms are out-of-date. Using practices that might have been acceptable in the twentieth century, the capacity of the industry to build – in the twenty-first century – is hampered by the lack of a skilled workforce, methods of building that are out-dated, a commitment to using materials most of which have been superseded and a management that is not fit for purpose in the modern times.
Modern homes are being built in Europe and other countries in a way that is totally different from that we see in this country. The whole infrastructure of the British building industry is wrong. It is no use shouting about building new houses when we have a house-building industry that is not fit for purpose in the twentieth century. It is not possible to build our way out of the housing crisis. Not just because so few people could not afford to buy the houses that are being built, or would be built. But also, because the industry is failing to provide the right capacity to build them. The industry is still wedded to expensive brick-built houses built on greenfield land. That’s where it thinks the best profits are. How wrong it is.
My point of view is, that all these reports will gather dust on the shelves of social policy libraries and nothing will change until there is a wholesale reform of the house-building industry. Until we fundamentally reform the way that we approach housing construction, there is no point in thinking we have found a solution to the housing crisis. That is why I say we cannot build our way out of the housing crisis. Not with the house building industry the way it is now. Yes, Shelter said all the right things about social housing and how people should have better ways of paying for their homes. But that misses the point. Yes, Shelter made the case for saying that there must be a very substantial increase in the supply of affordable housing. But what they did not do, was to address the issue of how we are going to achieve that.
Seeing the future
What do I see the future of housing as being like? If we can succeed in radically reforming the house-building industry, then this is how I think things will look like. New houses will be constructed in factories and erected on site¹. Houses will be built from prefabricated modules. They will be put together in factories using new materials. Not house bricks made from clay. But cheaper materials, most of which will be fabricated from recycled materials such as plastic aggregates. The people who put these modules together will not be skilled tradespeople. They will be general operatives, construction-line workers who perform specific procedures, just as they do in the car manufacturing plants. In fact, many of the tasks required to put these modules together will be done by robots. Even, bricklaying can now be done by robots in factories and that might well be one way of dealing with the problem of shortages of skilled labour. Anyone can work on building houses when it comes to putting together pre-fabricated modules in factories. Well, anyone with a basic set of manual skills.
There will be more multi-level apartment blocks. We simply do not have the land, in the urban areas, for traditional low-rise houses. More and more people want to live in towns and cities. It is the urban areas where land is in short supply. There will be better and more effective management of the existing housing stock. The average cost of accommodation will come down. People will be spending less of their income on accommodation. They will be able to purchase products for their homes because they will have a higher level of disposable income. People will adapt to the new lifestyles that will be required for urban living in totally new types of accommodation. Traditional notions of how people pay for housing will change. Tenure will become much more varied. Access to housing will be less dependent on levels of income. Having a home will be a right rather than a privilege. Overcrowding will become a thing of the past. There will be high-density living in many urban areas, but that is not the same as overcrowding. No one will live in insecure, or temporary accommodation. Residents will be safe from fire, damp, mould, and most of the other risks that blighted housing for centuries. They will be living in homes constructed from materials that are safer and better for the environment. Homes that can filter out pollution. Homes that cannot make them ill. Better housing stock will free up public space in surrounding areas. Offer better environments for children to play in. For older people to enjoy.
That view of the future sees a lesser role for architects. Modules for living in can be designed on computers by people with general design skills and engineers who can ensure those designs comply with regulations and health and safety requirements. That is a radically different approach to what we have now. Materials will have to change. Less clay and sand. More recycled plastics. Even mining of old landfill sites to extract the plastic waste of previous generations to make the bricks and planks and interior sheeting of the future. Drainpipes will be made only from recycled plastic. Waste pipes will be made from used water bottles. Grown timber will be used only for decoration. Bricks, as we currently know them, will be used for external wall decoration, but they will not be made from mud and sand. They will be made from recycled materials, plastic aggregates.
I talked about better management of the existing housing stock. Revitalising old properties that are no longer fit for purpose as residential units. I am sure that a lot more can be done to convert existing properties from their old role to a new one as residential units. There is an oversupply of office blocks. I foresee that many of these offices, that are impossible to let, will be converted into residential use. I see that happening already, here in the city where I live. With land values being at a premium, owners of office blocks, that are standing empty, cannot afford to go on paying for them indefinitely. Local Authorities will, I hope, use taxation to force the owners of empty buildings to bring them back into use for residential purposes. We cannot afford to have empty properties in the middle of the worse housing crisis in history.
That is how I see the future. A future that is not blighted by the current crisis in housing. It will have to happen. It is not a utopian dream. It is a practical and realistic necessity. It is the only way forward. You have to have a vision if you want to make a better world. As you can see, housing design and construction will cease to be the province of highly paid professionals. The procedures of designing and making houses will be increasing undertaken by people who are not professionals, in the traditional sense, but people with other skills and, increasingly, by robots as the whole thing becomes increasingly automated. That will be the key to reducing costs. The key to reforming the house building industry lies in innovation. In using new technology to make more things possible and to reduce costs. New skills, new materials, new concepts. Those that are fit for the twenty-first century.
¹ Building houses in factories is not a new idea. The Government claimed to be encouraging modern methods of construction (MMC) in a note issued by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. That was in 2003. According to the Designing Buildings Wiki, ‘A study by the NHBC Foundation, published in June 2016 found that 98% of the organisations had used or considered the use of an MMC approach on at least one of their developments in the previous three years. More than 75% cited a faster build programme and more than 50% suggested there was improved build quality. (Ref. Modern methods of construction: views from the industry (NF70).) However, the majority of organisations considered themselves ‘late adopters’ or ‘followers’ of the volumetric construction, pod and panelised forms of MMC, not ‘market leaders’.’ Quoted in https://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/Modern_methods_of_construction
² Godwin, Richard, 2018, Guardian, 12/5/18, How much do you earn? ‘It’s not something you want to talk about’. https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/may/12/salary-what-get-paid-talk-about-it-makes-brits-cringe
³ Shelter, 2018, Building for our future: A vision for social housing, The final report of Shelter’s commission on the future of social housing.