Rewording housing

Rewording housing

In this article I suggest that we should stop talking about ‘housing and starting using ‘homeing’ to describe how people live.

Housing. A word everyone uses. A familiar word. An everyday word. So familiar that we rarely stop to think about what it means. We all know what ‘housing’ is. But do we? Is it the right word for the modern world? The world of twenty-first century Britain.

My definition of housing is: accommodation in which people live. That does it for me. People live in accommodation, of various kinds. For a lot of people that means living in houses; but for an increasing number of people it does not. We all live in homes; some of those homes we make in houses. From that point of view, the whole idea is very simple. The problem I have with the word ‘housing’ is that it implies houses; living in properties that we think of as being houses. In fact, people live in all kinds of residential structures and units. Blocks of flats, caravans, boats, converted windmills, mobile homes, prefabs… there is a wide variety of things in which people have made their homes.

The word housing, to me, also implies status, ownership and tenure. Let’s stop, and  think what is known:

The property market is splitting Britain into two classes: Those rich enough to own their own homes, often outright; and those under 35, who pay twice the percentage of their incomes to rent in the private market. The split is new. Ten years ago, a majority of people under 35 owned homes, according to government data. Now, a majority under 35 rent. In fact, half of all renters in the UK are under 35.

Those are the words of journalist Jim Edwards, writing in The Guardian on 7th May this year. He talks about the ‘property market’ which is understandable and I have used to same term myself; it’s the collective known for man-made structures. Interesting to see his choice of words – that people who own their own homes are ‘rich.’ Not my choice of word. Wealthy or better-off perhaps, but rich? Behind the figures he refers to is the belief that rent forms a very high percentage of disposable incomes – for a lot of people.

More people than ever before are renting apartments from private landlords. In England we often call these ‘flats.’ Tenants tend to pay for a flat to live in on a monthly basis. A key datum is the ratio between rent and income; for some people, their rent takes up a high percentage of their monthly income.

‘…the average rental cost across the UK taking up 41 per cent of take-home pay, according to online letting agent Rentify.’

Reports the website This is money, in September 2015. Regional variations across the UK shows that the proportion of income swallowed up by rent varies between a third and a half. The proportion varies according to age group and to type of property; single people living in one-bedroom flats can pay a higher percentage and have to foot the rent bill alone.

There are an estimated 4.3 million tenants in the private rental market. Added to that there are people who live in what is called the ‘social’ market where their accommodation is owned by either the local authority or by a housing association.

For a high proportion of people the private rented sector is the default choice. These are people who cannot afford to buy their own houses. Statistics such as these obscure the diversity of the populating renting homes. Some of them are students. Some of them are transient migrants. Some of them are contractors who know they will need to move on after a few months. Some of them are young people who need to leave home and set up in a place of their own. A growing number of retired people are leaving their family houses and down-sizing to smaller units of accommodation but cannot obtained a mortgage because of their age.

The groups that concern me the most are those aged 25 to 35 who cannot afford a mortgage and older people, over retirement age, who cannot afford to keep a family home going just for themselves.

Figures like these get to the crux of the issue. People don’t live in houses any more. What people live in is a mixed economy of residential properties. This economy includes what has blandly become known as ‘social housing.’ I rejected this phrase when I said “All housing is social housing.” What I meant by that is that providing people with homes to live in is always a social function; not merely a commercial one. The distinction between private and social sectors is as artificial as it is obfuscation. Having a home to live in a social right and a social need. We don’t need to differentiate between the status of the property – by distinguishing between types of owners. A home is a home – who ever owns it and however they provide it to its occupants. If people live in it, then it is their home.

Almost half the adult in Britain these days live in rented apartments. And yet the government and politicians keep on talking about housing. Journalists keeping writing about the ‘housing crisis.’ We like to use words with which we are familiar; we like to think that familiar words will be understood by everyone.

The problem with the familiar word ‘housing’ is that it fixes our ideas; it formats our thinking in a certain way. It inhibits policymakers from thinking outside the box of everyday speech. We need to think differently about residential accommodation. The problem is: what word do we use that is short enough for everyday speech which means what we current mean by ‘housing’ but which does not just mean houses? Even in 2017, the kind of professionals who should know better, still see the private rented sector and its supply of apartments, as catering for temporary need. Just like the legislators of the 1980s did. But it’s not about short-term tenancies and temporary arrangements; it’s about permanent homes.

According to the website of lpcliving, in 2017,  just over half (51%) of private renters are under 35 years of age and 54% have no dependents, and so are unlikely to get social housing. Newspapers continue to wax lyrical about the increase in house prices – as though it was actually a good thing! In fact rising house prices is a two-edged sword – good for some but a disaster for others.

If we are to change the way that policies are made – about living accommodation – then the words used in those policies will have to change. The people who most need to start changing their choice of words, are politicians. They need to stop talking about housing as though it means only houses.

People in government, who control our lives, either limit or expand the choices we have available to us, permit or deny access to the resources we need to live ordered lives; they need to talk differently, change their dialogue, revise their mantras, re-gear their codes – about living. What people want these days are choices. They want to be able to choose where they live, what kind of property they live in, how they get access to that property, what they have to pay for it and how long it remains theirs to live in. They want to choose; to decide for themselves. They do not want to have choices forced on them by market circumstances.

People in government, policymakers, builders, landlords, local authorities – everyone needs to change the way they think about residential accommodation. The world is changing and our minds have to change to keep up with reality. In 1988 people talked about renting as being temporary. How times have changed! In the twenty-first century a large proportion of the British population has abandoned any hope of ever getting on the ladder of housing ownership. Renting a residential property is now the default for a substantial proportion of adults. This is why the law now needs to be updated. Politicians will be better able to deal with the current crisis in the provision of homes if they stop talking about ‘housing.’

More importantly, we must stop seeing the solution to the current crisis as lying with building. We cannot build our way out of this problem. Increasing the supply of newly built houses is not the way; too many people who need better homes simply cannot afford to buy them.

The sooner we stop talking about housing the sooner will be able to see solutions to the present problems. So what word should be using? It might be a neologism but my suggestion is to use the word ‘homeing’ – the supply of residential accommodation for people to live in. That changes the emphasis away from the type of property to the one things that all types have in common – being a home.

What people want is homes to live in; if they cannot afford to live in houses then they have to accept alternatives. If we start talking about homeing people then we can begin to think freely about the crisis that confronts us.

Trevor Locke, 12th May 2017.

Innovation in housing

3rd March 2017

Innovation in housing supply

England is not good at dealing with its housing crisis. The government has lacked imagination when it comes to thinking about how to deal with the under-supply of houses and what stands out about the response that it has been making is an almost complete lack of imagination.

Let’s looks at some of the ideas that could help to bring a quicker solution to the problem of meeting housing needs. Firstly, using imaginative methods to create places to live in.

Manufacturing prefabricated units at considerably less cost than building with bricks on site. Companies are already making living units in factories. These are transported in a nearly-finished form, put in place and services connected and all this can be done at considerably less cost than building houses with bricks and in less than half the time. Using modern materials and up to date methods of fabrication, the production of such units has already started and is proving to be successful.

Several British companies are now offering modular homes for as little as £80,000. Units of this kind are constructed to a high standard of energy efficiency, thus reducing their running costs. Because modern techniques and materials are being used in their manufacture, they can be tailored the needs of the clients. The key factor is that they can transported to site and finished very quickly. Sales of these unites have been good and the house-buying public as shown a real appetite for these innovative units.

Many of the units currently available require land; that can be a problem for many local areas where inner urban building land is in short supply. However, some of these units, designed for urban life, are stackable, making better use of the smaller inner city areas that result from site clearances. In fact, in some cities (where space really is at a premium) units have been placed on top of existing buildings. They are lighter than conventionally built penthouses.

The units are ready to have electricity, drainage and water connected when they arrive on site. Inside one of these units the accommodation is very similar to modern apartments. If you were to walk into one of these units you would think you were in a flat in a newly built apartment block. That is enough to convince many prospective buyers that these are viable living spaces. The size of units ranges from one bedroom to four bedrooms. On the whole, stackable units tend to be low rise projects, if they are stacked on top of each other. Providing three or four tiers of units does not involve much infrastructure.

Pre-fabricated units are a real alternative to traditional buildings and offer a serious solution to the housing crisis. They are affordable in a way that conventional brick-built houses are not. Prices are considerably lower than for the equivalent amount of inside space provided by conventionally constructed houses. Being comparatively light, they can be built on piers allowing car parking space to be provided at ground level. They can thus be erected over existing ground-level car parks. Some units have been designed that employ solar panels to supply electricity. The materials used to make walls and roofs use eco-friendly materials and allow modern materials made from recycled plastics to be used.

Not just cheap

Many of the units currently available offer cheap solutions to meeting urgent housing need. They can also provide homes for other sectors of the housing market, in areas where land is more freely available. If we can provide housing stock for the higher ends of the market (I mean units from £100,000 to £300,00 or more) it would lead to purchasers freeing up existing accommodation. That would also relieve pressure on demand at the lower end of the market. Some of the prefabricated units are clearly intended for the wealthier end of the market; people who can afford the land required and can afford to put services and drainage in place. Providing more units at this end of the market will enable movement to take place that would, I would argue, reduce the pressure on the lower-priced sectors and free up opportunities. Thinking back to what I said before on the renewal of existing urban housing stock, these units could be very useful on sites where redundant properties need to be demolished. Instead of replacing properties with brick-built houses, these prefabricated units could be installed at much less cost and in a fraction of the time. In urban areas, the challenge is not to create new land but rather to use existing land more effectively.

The goal of housing policy should not be to do things on the cheap but to provide housing that is of good quality at prices that people can afford – people who are desperate to have homes but who cannot afford to climb the ladder of conventional housing. When we look at the units being offered by the prefabrication suppliers, we see a lot of architectural and engineering expertise has gone into the design. Much more intelligence has been used by designers in the prefabrication sector than we see in traditional housing building.

So why aren’t we doing it?

The housing crisis is not that difficult to solve. The bigger problem lies in our members of parliament – the people who make the decisions. They are like an old record that got stuck – endlessly repeating the same old formula about building housing with bricks. I have argued before that brick-built houses are not the most viable option for the situation we have in this country. Until our policy-makers move away from that antiquated mantra, we are unlikely to make progress.

We need people with imagination to head up future housing policy. Not just in the palace of Westminster. Local authorities could do a great deal more to provide housing in their areas but this will require both elected members and officers in housing departments to change their long-established, entrenched, attitudes about to how to do things.

The goal is simple: provide quality affordable housing cheaply and quickly. You cannot do that with bricks and mortar.

Learning from failure

The housing acts of the last twenty years are widely regarded as being failures. Successive governments have failed to respond effectively to the growing problem inadequate housing supply. Recent responses by the present government looked very much like knee-jerk reactions that had been poorly thought through.

The housing White Paper of February 2017 achieved one thing: it recognised that the housing market was broken and needs fixing. Little else of worth was contained in it. But then a white paper does what a white paper does; it opens the door to consultation. The white paper realised that there is a need to encourage diversity in the housing market. It said:

Action to help small independent builders enter the market given including through the £3 billion Home Building Fund. Currently around 60% of new homes are built by just 10 companies.

Those ten companies are brick builders and they are part of the problem – not part of the solution. If we want diversification in housing supply we have to break that monopoly. In my view that means providing incentives for non-brick fabricators to do a lot more. If the Home Building Fund is in fact to provide much-needed scope to enabling new methods of construction, then we will be well on the way to dealing with the crisis in the supply of affordable homes.

Another thing that Sajid Javid said the White Paper:

The proportion of people living in the expensive private rented sector has doubled since 2000 and that more than 2.2 million working households with below-average incomes spend a third or more of their disposable income on housing.

If there are more people in the renting sector then we need to find ways of supporting them. I very much doubt that we will see a significant decrease in the rental sector over the next ten years – what ever else happens to housing supply. What would help the rental sector is to provide a much more diverse range of options and an robust increase in the number of apartments that are available to rent. Building high rise apartment blocks in urban areas is one way of increasing supply but it is not the only one. Policy-makers need to be much more imaginative; that means letting go of traditional methods of building construction and focusing more on innovative contemporary techniques.

The government consultation on planning policy and legislation in relation to planning for housing, closes on 2nd May 2017. From the Government website we see that:

Many of the changes involve amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework. The Government intends to publish a revised Framework later this year, which will consolidate the outcome from the previous and current consultations. It will also incorporate changes to reflect changes made to national policy through Written Ministerial Statements since March 2012. These are:

Support for small scale developers, custom and self-builders (28 November 2014), etc.

The statement about support for small scale developers is one of nine topics. It might prove to be one of the most important. Interesting to see the word ‘custom’ in there.

Turning things around

The history of housing legislation – in the past twenty years or so – has been littered with outmoded, poorly thought-through measures that have failed to make an impact on housing supply and that is why we now have the crisis that we see today.

It is not just the reluctance of policy-makers to embrace new methods of construction that leads of failure. It is also their inability to devise new methods of finance. We have known for a very long time that there has been a shortage of traditional mortgage finance. Tackling this issue probably does not lie in reforming banks and building societies; some of it might be but what is more likely is that we have to devise new methods of providing finance to prospective home buyers. We might well have to replace the mortgage with a new way of financing home ownership.

Sajid Javis is an old-school thinker; he is still chanting the mantra of building new houses and his record is clearly stuck in the groove of bricks and mortar.

Two groups of people are at a severe disadvantage in the housing market: the young and old. Young people have not been working long enough to have saved up enough money for a deposit. They are dependent on the ‘bank of mum and dad’ – if they are fortunate enough to be born to relatively well off or wealthy parents. Older people can often find themselves unable to access mortgages because of their age; mortgage providers frequently view retired people as being bad risks when it comes to paying off housing loans.

These two groups stand to gain from the introduction of new methods of construction. Because these units cost a great deal less, they are more affordable and much less capital is required to buy them. If smaller loans are required, existing mortgage providers might be more willing to lend, over a shorter period of repayment. This in itself will not solve the problem. What we need is a totally new approach to financing access to housing – one that is not based on lending large sums of money over twenty five years. We should rely on only the private sector to provide home loans.

Think of it this way – people are financing cars costing between £20,000 and £50,000 without facing the up-hill struggles they experience when trying to finance a home to live in. Cars do not hold their value as much as homes over a period of years. The chance of a car being written off due to an accident is considerably higher than loosing a home due to, say, fire or natural disaster.

Housing is an issue of fundamental importance; many other aspects of our lives are pivoted on having a suitable and satisfactory home. If our country is to become a better place in which to live over the next twenty years or so, we must be able to deal with the housing crisis that we face today.

References

February 2017. YMCA response to housing white paper.

February 2017. The housing white paper.

Transport planning

11th October 2016

Transport and car use

by Trevor Locke

Going to the shops. Something that most adults need to do regularly; some on a daily basis. Back in the 80s there were two cars in our household and we did groceries shopping monthly. We drove to a supermarket and brought home enough produce to feed our family for about four weeks. The supermarket was about four miles away from the house. Petrol was cheap and I had a company car which was provided free of charge by my employer. How times have changed, Now I do not have a car. I take the bus into town to go to the big supermarket; if I need a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread I walk to the local shop. How we shop and where we go to do our shopping raises a number of key issues about how we plan our towns and our urban environments.

Going to the shops

Even when I do what I call a ‘main shop’ I walk around the supermarket with a basket rather than pushing a trolley. Because I have to carry it all home on the bus, I do not purchase more than I can carry – hence the basket. When the basket gets really heavy I stop buying. It’s simple but mainly because I have only myself to feed rather than getting in food for an entire family. And a cat. Apparently there are still many people who get into their car and drive to a shop they could perfectly easily walk to. So I have read. Why? Fear of being on the streets? Idleness? Habit? Who knows; have any surveys ever been done to uncover the facts about this? Which is more pressing as an issue: transport congestion or obesity? Are the British becoming a nation of fat, lazy people? If you agree with that, and many would not, we are lagging far behind the Americans on that score. Walking to the shops is good; it’s a healthy thing to do. It’s an economically healthy thing to do as well. Local shops sustain communities. Someone commented recently that ‘The corner shop has been replaced by the out of town hypermarket and a car became necessary to shop there.’ Prices are higher in local shops than in supermarkets. I know that; I have to take the bus into town to buy food because my local branch (of the same supermarket) charges more for the same products than does its city centre,  bigger branch of the same supermarket chain. Incidentally, I do not pay to use buses; I have a pass that gives me free travel so I do not have to factor in the cost of the bus fare (it would still save money to shop in town even if I did need to pay to get there.)

We all need to get around; whether this is for work, education, shopping, entertainment or visiting people, our choices of how to travel are based on time, money and convenience. Do town planners really see in that way?

What about trams?

In 2015 our local newspaper ran a story about trams. ‘The Big Question: Should Leicester have a tram system?’ reported on a design for a tram network for Leicester. Not the first time this idea has surfaced. As the article pointed out, Leicester had a tram network that closed in 1949. But then there are trams and trams. Today’s trams, like the ones that run in Nottingham, provide clean, comfortable, convenient transport. Great if your destination is near to a tram stop. A poll on the page of the same article indicated that 75% of those who voted said ‘yes’ to having a tram system. The article did not review the case in favour of trams – it just reported that a route map has been designed. Not that anyone was actually planning to start a tram network; it was all hypothetical. The response of the Leicester Mayor – Peter Soulsby – seemed to pour cold water in the idea. The bus service is Leicester is generally quite good; it depends on routes and what time you want to travel but by and large buses run almost everywhere and bus lanes play their part in keeping them moving. They do however burn diesel. That is not good. They can be expensive, in pence per mile compared to alternative forms of transport. Leicester does not suffer from the kind of inner city traffic congestion that we see in many other English cities. I can’t say how they achieve this but we do not see traffic jams much even during peak hours. There are some technical issues with fixed-line transport. Bus lanes and cycle lanes might well have something to do with the difficulty of trying to create the tracks for trams on roads that have for decades been designed for cars. Leicester’s arterial roads tend to be narrower than their equivalents in other cities. This might have something to do with the fact that traffic moves more freely. Single or two lane motorways might allow traffic to move more quickly than three or four lane motorways. It’s a strange thing about road traffic – it does not always work the way you think it would or should.

Centres and suburbs

Leicester is one of the country’s free-standing cities; as the capital of the county of Leicestershire, it is surrounded on all sides by green fields. Not even Nottingham can boast of that. Leicester is a city that sits inside a catchment area of about two million people. That is a statistic of immense importance to the economy of our city. As a key economic and social area within the East Midlands, Leicester depends on the transport infrastructure for the easy movement of people. Our city has various outlying estates and suburbs that house the majority of the resident population. People need access to the city for jobs, entertainment, sport, shopping and culture. They not only have to be able to get into the city but they have to be able to get home again after their visit. As someone who is dependent on buses, I am painfully aware of the importance of a good bus service to the prosperity of the city. With our ageing population, people are increasingly dependent on bus and train services. It’s not just the cost per mile of transport, it is also about the availability of the public transport services. The population of the UK is growing and the older segment of it is increasing, a fact that has important implications for local transport policies and provisions.

One area that has come in for much comment and debate in recent times is the availability of late night buses and trains. Like a lot of cites, Leicester depends on its night-time economy. As a city we have a very vibrant and pluralistic night-time offering, including music, entertainment, sport and culture.

The transport systems do not serve that economy well. As any bus user in this city will tell you, it is easy enough to get into the city during the day but getting home after a show or a festival or a gig is fraught with problems. Buses to outlying suburbs, villages and neighbourhoods often stop at ridiculously early times, making it impossible, for some people, to get into the city and back again. It is one thing to have a catchment area of two million people, it is quite another to make it possible for the majority of that population to make use of Leicester as a destination for entertainment or even for jobs.

Jobs and cars

As the pattern of employment changes, more and more people are becoming dependent on public transport to access employment. The jobs market is offering work but more and more of it is shift work, with the higher-paid jobs being in the evening and overnight. More will need to work beyond the current retirement age and this will increase demand for social transport. Older people may well find it increasingly difficult to run private cars and will become dependent on public transport. The rate of car ownership has been increasing with more families owning more than one car; this has been fuelled by the growth in employment for women and the need to have two cars to be able to cope with both journeys to work and to school.

Congestion is a disease

Trams might well prove to me a positive innovation for Leicester but I doubt we will see them again in my generation’s time. Meanwhile, we have to wrestle with the problem of increasing traffic on the roads for people trying to get into Leicester and those trying to get from it to other parts of the country. Road traffic in England is increasing; it has been going up over the past four years. This, according to the Government, reflects growth in the UK economy and possibly lower fuel prices. Car traffic has been going up. Light goods vehicle traffic has also been increasing; probably, I would guess, due to the increasing use of online purchasing and its consequential need for road delivery.

Over the last twenty years traffic has increased by 17/19% for all vehicle types and for cars has gone up by 12.6% and 70% for light goods vehicles, according to the Government website. Meanwhile, the use of bus services has been going down in the long trend; passenger kilometres have declined by 0.6% since it peaked in 2007. By comparison passenger journeys on light rail systems, such as trams, has reached its higher ever recorded level. The use of buses and coaches has been going down since 2010. In the same time period, the use of cars and taxis has varied by has begun to increase dramatically in recent years.

Living near transport

Access to public transport also affects housing; with the policy of demanding more and more housing in the green belt, provision of adequate transport is of considerable importance. Building housing in the green belt places more pressure on private transport if the provision of buses, trams and commuter trains is not planned to increase. Building houses and flats away from the main employment destinations, inhibits the ability of residents to either walk or cycle to work.

Where city centres have concentrations of work opportunities – particular in retail and hospitality – it make more sense to develop urban accommodation than to hope that people will be able to access affordable housing in the out-lying areas and be still able to get into the city centres to find work.

It is easy for planners and policy-makers to assume that everyone drives their own car and that public transport is just for the poor and disadvantaged. That is a widely held myth, in my experience. Policy-makers want to see a shift away from the car to other forms of transport such as walking and cycling, for environmental reasons. Leicester has pockets of poverty and one that is bound to ensure that they remain is transport poverty.

Transporting the public

Over the next decade and beyond, more people will become dependent on public transport. It is no use providing affordable housing if we fail to provide affordable transport to go with it. Car ownership is not only about being able to afford to buy and car and run it. The cost of owning a house often forces people to stop having their own transport. More and more younger aged people are continuing to live with their parents because it takes them so long to save enough money to afford the deposit for a mortgage. What limit’s their ability to save is owning a car and the costs of having to pay for a car in order to get to work or indeed to get out to do the shopping. So many supermarkets (where the best prices can be had) are situated where only car owners can get to them. Having a transport policy that meets the real needs of urban and outer-urban dwellers must be a key issue for governmental policy-makers and planners. Public transportation needs to address both the availability of buses, trams and taxis and also the fares that are charged. Short distance fares are often more expensive that long-distance ones even where flat-fare tickets are available. One reason why transport issues concerns me is the close connection between the importance of the late-night economy and the availability of transport. The strategy for developing buses services cannot pivot solely on the need for night-time travel but putting this specific issue in a broader context is, in my view, essential.

Planning Leicester

Much of what Leicester is grappling with at present, when it comes to planning and transport policies, is to do with the city centre and, to some extent, the balance of outer-urban and inner-city economics. Our city centre is fairly busy and has managed to avoid some of the problems seen in comparable cities with businesses closing down and high streets shop voids. The shopping area of our city centre is fairly small and compact; it is especially good for pedestrians with its traffic free streets. The distribution of car parking in the centre is probably fairly good – but I am not the best person to know about that because, as I say, I do not drive. If shopping in Leicester’s centre lacks anything it is variety; it is less than good when it comes to the mix of shops and range of goods that are available. Many shoppers, who are looking for something out of the ordinary, travel to other town, such as Nottingham, because they can not find what they are looking for in Leicester. The mix of retail outlets on High Streets is dwindling across the whole country. That goes some way to explaining why so many people are taking to on-line shopping to secure the items they want – small, specialist shops are just not available locally.

Homelessness

10th October 2016

Homelessness

We all need a place to call home

see below for updates

As series of shows under the moniker Musician Against Homelessness is making me think.

Making me think about what homelessness is. To my way of thinking it is just that: being without a home. Earlier this year I wrote extensively about housing, particularly about housing policy in my book Housing: Approaches to Policy. I also wrote a piece called What is a home? It is that aspect of the topic on which I want now to focus.

Tens of thousands of people are homeless in today’s Britain; and of course in the rest of the world as millions of migrants leave their homes fired by the hope of finding a new place to live in peace and perhaps also prosperity or at least well-being.

A home is a place that provides safety and security. Homes provide the substance of everyday living but above all they should give people a place that is safe, a place in which they can feel secure. Sadly our country neglects that aspect and provides only accommodation for millions of people who are forced to rent because they cannot afford to buy.

Safety and security are essential to an ordered and settled way of life; they are not secondary consequences of having a place in which to live; they are the bedrock of human existence. If accommodation is not safe and if it is not secure then it is not a home. It is simply temporary accommodation and that is what millions of our citizens are forced to accept because the Government has failed them. The UK government has failed to understand that housing is an a state of crisis – a crisis created by government and one which it shows no signs of being able to deal with.

Owning a home – usually the most secure form of living – is now a privilege of the few rather than a right of the many. More and more people in Britain are renting because they cannot get on to the property ladder. This is not good for our society; it is not good because the government has set the rules to favour landlords and has provided inadequate security of tenure for tenants. I won’t reiterate what I have already said about the government failure to create a satisfactory policy on housing.

What I do want to focus on is why having a home is so important to the lives of everyone. A home is what provides us with safety and security; it also provides us with the basic amenities of living – a place to cook food, somewhere to sleep undisturbed, a space in which parents can bring up children; a space in which people can keep their treasured possessions – the things that matter to them; a place that provides comforts that aid rest; a place in which to carry out the daily routines of human life. For some, it is also their place of work. A home is where people can entertain their friends and family; a place where some keep can keep their pets; listen to music; read books; pursue an education; enjoy entertainment… a home is essential to living a civilised life.

Why then is it that the Government treats rented accommodation with such scant regard? It is just because so few politicians live in rented property? Can they really be so unaware of how important rented tenancies are when so many thousands of their constituents must pay rent and bring to them a constant flow of problems arising from the problems they inevitably have with their landlords? Is it because politicians have an ideological obsession with council housing? Is it because politicians have had the concept of new build housing drilled into them as being the right solution to the housing crisis?

Yes all of these things are true. Too often politicians tend to base their policy beliefs on their own personal experiences and if that does not included renting in the private sector then they are only aware of it through what they find in their surgeries. That is not however what being a professional politician is about. Is it not the right to represent people.

The scale of homelessness in Britain has been underestimated because it has not been correctly defined it in the first place. Homelessness is not just having no where to live; it is also about not having the right standard and quality of housing. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in accommodation that does not provide them with a home – either because it is not safe, not secure, lacks basic amenities of living, is available to them only for a limited period of time; is unhealthy; fails to meet their needs where they are old or disabled; provides insufficient space to people who have children; is in a locality or neighbourhood which is not right for them; is not under their personal control because they have to share it other people (often their parents) owing to lack of opportunity to find somewhere better. A home is a space in which its occupants should be able to organise to their own requirements for living (within certain limits.) There are a lot of cultural differences in home-making but the principles are always the same. Most people live in family groups but there are special circumstances where people live alone, for what ever reason – whether through choice or through personal situations. I have already written about the substance of what a home is and should be. in my article What is a home.

In my previous article I touched on choice – asking ‘can we choose where to live?’ Choice of home depends on financial status and income to a large extent. It also depends on government policy and the extent to which law and practice allow choices to be made or not. The way government controls housing – if in fact it does – will either encourage choice or restrict it. It is the way that national and local governments implement their policies on housing that will enable people to have a choice or deny them opportunities. The poorer you are the less choice you have – both in housing and in most other areas of existence. That is due largely to the market; a market that the government is unwilling to regulate.

If we want to have a home that is suited to our circumstances; a home that provides us with the essential elements described above, particularly safety and security, then we must have choice; we cannot find the home that we want, the home that suits us, if our ability to choose is limited, if opportunities are denied that should be allowed. It takes government policy to expand and protect choice.

Housing policy in this country is in a state of crisis; successive governments have failed to make policies at both national and local levels – that can impact the current quantity, supply, quality and distribution of housing; homelessness is increasing; access to the right kinds of housing is diminishing; affordability of housing options is not increasing.

If the authorities that control the housing market in this country are to make any real impact on this crisis they must begin to work on the real world; the world in people actually live; disengage themselves from their own personal circumstances and work with the statistics that are in plentiful supply. They – the various levels of government that make policy and control its implementation – must grasp what it means to have a home and what a home is for the millions of their constituents and voters who are in need of one. They must have a clear sense of what a home is and what it means to have one.

What does the world say about homelessnesses?

Having written the above, I searched on the Internet for articles about ‘homelessness’.

I looked at the website of Shelter, the organisation that provides help, advice and support to people who are homeless. On a page headed ‘What is homelessness’, I read that

You may be homeless if you live in unsuitable housing, don’t have rights to stay where you are or you’re sleeping rough.

The page went on to advise:

Even if you have a roof over your head you can still be homeless, if you don’t have any rights to stay where you live or your home is unsuitable due to severe overcrowding or other reasons.
You might be entitled to help as a homeless person if you are temporarily staying with friends or family or staying in a hostel or night shelter. Even if you have a home, you could be considered homeless if you live in very overcrowded conditions or in poor conditions that affect your health, or you’re at risk of violence or abuse in your home.

As Shelter points out, people become homeless for a variety of reasons; they refer to young people leaving care, offenders leaving prison, women who are expecting a baby, those seeking asylum or who are refugees.

They are include people who are claiming benefits or living in a low income. I would say that having to depend on benefits and having an income that is lower than the average does not of itself create homelessness though of course is if frequently a contributory factor for many people. Having insufficient income to pay for the housing you are currently in, leads to eviction if rental payments are in arrears or, as I discovered recently, if the landlord decides to sell the property or increase the rent to an unaffordable level. Homelessness spirals out of control where governments fail to protect tenants and do not want to make public expenditure available to intervene in the housing market. Doing so has many unintended consequences – the cost of helping people faced with homelessness increases; housing benefit payments go up; dealing with other problems such as criminality, drug addiction and mental health leads to increased public spending which could have been avoided in the first place. Not spending sufficient money on affordable and suitable housing is a false economy and leads to increasing demand for public services.

As the Shelter website points out, you don’t have to be sleeping on the streets to be considered homeless. There situations in which people are homeless even thought they have somewhere to sleep but where that accommodation is inadequate, temporary, unsafe and in fact there are many complicated situations in which people find themselves that may lead local authorities to regarding you as being homeless or about to made homeless. A lot of this is however discretionary; it is up to the processes adopted by a council to decide whether a person is homeless and, if they are, whether they can be helped.

Practice varies widely throughout the country and national government largely leaves it up to the local authorities to make their own arrangements and set their own levels of provision for people who apply to them for housing or housing advice. In many ways that is best; local people know their own area and what is feasible and the conditions of housing supply that exist in their local area.

The problem that we have is that central government create the problem and then expects local government to provide the solutions. Without providing the resources to do the job properly.

Some of the documents I found in my search drew attention to work, to jobs, to enable people to have the money to meet their housing needs. Well, that would seem fairly obvious. When I looked at this issue I brought in transportation; in fact I argued that three things are inseparably linked: employment, transport and housing. They are all linked together and intertwined to the extent that it is impossible to make improvements in one without making connected improvements in the other two. That is true, in my view for the majority of people. For others there are added issues to do with mental health, disability, discrimination, domestic violence, vulnerability, age, literacy, many challenges and needs that are not being met that make their situation more difficult to copy with.

The statistics about housing and homeless in the UK are stark and are getting worse. Despite the blandishments of senior politicians, the government is not moving in the right direction. We see this right across the party political landscape. Politicians might say the right things but the problem is they do not do the right things; and as long as this continues our country will continue to suffer the consequences of the housing crisis.

updates

A news item on the BBC website reported on a statement released by the charity Shelter; among other things the item said:

More than four in 10 homes in Britain do not reach acceptable standards in areas such as cleanliness, safety and space, housing charity Shelter says.

Each of the five elements in the standard is measured according to certain criteria – for example, the essentials of “space” include having sufficient bedrooms for the household and space for the whole household to spend time together in the same room.
Other aspects included having outdoor space, and enough space for children to study and adults to work.

The five elements

Affordability: Factors cited included how much was left for essentials, savings and social activities after paying for rent or mortgage
Decent conditions: Words like “safe”, “warm” and “secure” were among the words used by the public to describe what makes a home meet this criterion
Space: Adequate space was felt to be crucial for wellbeing, especially mental and social wellbeing
Stability: Stability was often described as the extent to which people felt they could make the property they lived in a “home”
Neighbourhood: Living in an area where people felt safe and secure was considered particularly important. People also wanted to be close enough to work, family and friends and the services they need

Nearly one in five, or 18%, of homes failed the criteria for decent conditions, with renters twice as likely as homeowners to live in places which fail on this element of the standard.

On stability, one in four private renters felt they did not have enough control over how long they could stay in their home.
Shelter has called for stable rental contracts that last for five years and protect tenants against unaffordable rent increases.

[Source: BBC]

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

 

 

Housing Policy 3

Housing: approaches to policy

by Trevor Locke

Part 3

Housing, employment and transport: why we need joined-up policies

In the previous part of this series, I looked at bricks and other kinds of building materials, and asked if there can be viable alternatives to traditional construction materials. I considered how building design might change to take account of the rise of new materials. I move on, now,  to discuss the kind of policies that are increasingly playing a part in the supply of accommodation.
It is often said that Britain has a housing crisis. The Government hopes to supply a million new homes by 2020 [Guardian, September 2015]. But, over the past four years only 47% of the amount needed in England have been built [BBC news, September 2015]. It is the scale of the housing shortage that leads people to talk of a crisis. The National Housing Federation was quoted as saying that about 245,000 new homes were needed each year in England. Gill Payne, director of policy and external affairs, said: “In some areas, there is a drastic shortage causing prices to soar, putting homes out of the reach of many people” [BBC, September 2015] The BBC’s Inside Out programme on housing, drew attention to the shortfall in housing supply as matched against housing need between 2011 and 2014. The crash of 2008 is often blamed for this shortfall but it is not the only factor. According to the Inside Out programme ‘critics say the change has also made it easier for “inappropriate and unwanted” developments to progress.’ Politicians have criticised the National Planning Policy Framework of 2012, claiming that the said changes to the NPPF were required to ensure “the same weight is given to the environmental and social as to the economic dimension” with “due emphasis on the natural environment”. Clive Betts is quoted as saying “Councils must do more to protect their communities against the threat of undesirable development by moving quickly to get an adopted local plan in place.” Even The National Trust said the MPs’ report was another indication the NPPF had allowed “streetwise developers” to ignore the wishes of communities [BBC, 2014].
Housing is a minefield of conflicting policies and opinions. In order to navigate a path through this confusion, I set out my agenda of key policy issues: I begin by discussing the need for affordable housing before explaining why I think housing policy is the key to everything. I then look at the issue of renting before considering three interconnected policy areas – housing, employment, unemployment (economic status) and transport. I then discuss how better use can be made of existing housing stock. This agenda is about the need for joined-up policies.

The need for affordable homes

Are people ready to move away from standardisation and established traditions? If the media is to be believed, the average ‘Jess and Joe’ want to get married and start a family and as part of this, they want to own a home of their own. But does ‘Mr & Mrs Average’ want to live only in the traditional house? Through the medium of television, we have seen people who have abandoned the traditional notion of the house and built themselves a home from materials you would not find on the average housing estate – such as blocks of straw. Others have done away with the conventional idea of a slate roof and covered their structures with earth and grass.

Many recent television programmes have shown people restoring old buildings, converting them into family homes often by doing the work themselves. Flat roofs have not been popular but the development of new materials has now made them much more viable. The house-building industry is still providing large quantities of structures based on the traditional idea of two stories with individuals rooms for different purposes: lounge, kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms, etc. House designers have not moved on in their concept of what constitutes the kind of houses that people want to live in; but then, neither have house-buyers.

In post-war Britain there was a trend to build ‘pre-fabs’ – prefabricated houses built in bits in factories and then assembled on site. Prefabs were cheap, cheerful and provided a quick fix to the shortage of housing after the blitz. The decades of the 1940s through to the 1960s brought us the baby boom and, as those generations grew into adulthood, demand for housing increased. Recently, the lack of access to mortgages, following the financial crash of 2008, has led to an increase in rented properties. Couples and new families, not wanting to be stuck at home with their mums and dads, are going out to find rented accommodation, often because this is the only option open to them. In the urban areas this is fairly easy but in the countryside, it is much more of a problem. House-prices in rural areas are very widely beyond the reach of workers in villages and rural areas.

Today, the baby boomers of the 60s are down-sizing. Having brought up their families, couples find themselves living in houses that are bigger than they need. Couples, aged 60 and over, are moving into smaller properties. Whilst this should be releasing houses for occupation by younger people, the problem is that house prices have increased and the mortgages needed to buy these properties are hard to come by. Recent predictions show that ‘house prices are set to increase by more than previously expected in 2015. The CEBR now expects the price of the average home in the UK to rise by 4.7% – up from its March forecast of 1.5% growth. A chronic lack of properties being put up for sale has pushed up prices in recent months and is one of the reasons behind the upward revision to the forecast’ [Centre for Economics and Business Research, 2015].

The British are wedded to the idea of the single occupancy house as the basis for family life, unlike our continental neighbours, in Europe, for whom the apartment block is the standard form of housing. Single-occupancy houses are more expensive to build and require a lot more land, than is the case for multi-level apartments. House-builders and government policy makers see no need to attempt to change the public’s demands for the typical family unit; they are comfortable with the belief that families know what they want and there is no need to change anything. Political policy is wedded to freedom of choice and not much given to trying to change such choice. Politicians have made a big thing about new-build [Hope, 2016]. To them, housing supply is all about building new houses; it is hardly ever seen as being about the better use of existing housing stock. In order to get supply anywhere near the level of demand for houses, in England today, the solutions are always stated as being about building new homes. Only the more radical politicians give credence to the idea that the supply of housing might also include a wider set of options.
Our notion of affordability, in housing is important but it is strangled by our servitude to traditional ideas – more so now than it was in the previous century. If people really do want affordable housing, I would argue, then they should change their stereotypical ideas about what constitutes a home and the materials used in house-building. In any case ‘affordability’ is a relative concept; it is not just about the price at which houses are offered for sale – it is also about how much money people have to pay for them. Can people afford to buy new houses?

Well, certainly not in London. House prices vary considerably around the UK (as do incomes) and what is affordable in one region might well be too expensive in another. People cannot easily move from a high-price area to one where houses are cheaper, any more then they can easily chase after higher paid jobs in other parts of the country.  Newly elected Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has a policy on housing and in it he begins by saying ‘A secure home is the foundation of a happy life and decent housing for all is the foundation of the good society. For too many people their housing is not a source of security, but a cause for anxiety’ [Corbyn, 2015]. I pick this out, not because I am a fan of this politician, but because he has a neat way of saying things that I too happen to believe, such as, the above quotation. I go some of the way with him but when I read ‘The housing crisis cannot just be solved by building more homes, although this is a major issue that needs to be tackled. It is more complex than that: to tackle the housing crisis we also need to address problems of inequality, regional disparities of income and wealth, taxation policy, the labour market, our social security system and planning regulations’ I begin to part company with him. As I argue in this section, there is a need for joined-up policies but it is a matter for debate just how many policies need to be joined up to make a housing position that is credible and effective. It will take many decades to make an impact on inequality and disparities in wealth and income. These issues referred to by Corbyn are large-scale issues that are important but housing is something that people need today and demands immediate actions that cannot wait for a fairer society to develop. Corbyn goes on to set out a raft of practical measures that will, in his view, solve the housing crisis to which he refers. The challenge that confronts policy makers in housing is which policies can, and should, be joined together to create an effective approach (or strategy) to housing supply. Is it some of these issues that I now go on to discuss.

Housing is the key to everything

If you do not have a home, you cannot get a job. If you do not have a suitable home, you might find it difficult to marry and start a family. Most people who are homeless are also likely to be unemployed. It’s not just a question of being homeless. Often the problem is more about inappropriate housing and unsuitable accommodation and these can be pivoted on poor employment. Energy poverty rides on the back of inappropriate housing; people who live in accommodation that is not suitable are likely to suffer from high energy costs, which will lead either to inadequate heating or people failing to feed themselves properly, in order to keep up with the demands of energy suppliers. Poorly built houses are also likely to suffer from damp, drafts and lack of insulation. This is more likely to be typical of ageing housing stock. Modern housing has to conform to higher standards of building regulations.
Policy requires us to look at housing and employment in one single package; the two things are closely inter-related and you cannot deal with one without, at the same time, addressing the other. I will argue, below, that government policy makers are failing to do this. A population that achieves optimal levels of employment requires optimal levels of housing; that is my position but I fail to see this reflected in the manifestos of political parties or in the policies being issued by the government. Joined-up policies are not characteristic of today’s breed of politicians. This goes some way to explaining why the basis for home ownership or occupation is changing so much. When David Cameron said that he wanted to sweep away planning rules requiring the construction of affordable homes, in favour of first time buyers, did he stop to think what the employment requirements would be for that? The kind of jobs that would be needed to support loans for first-time buyers was not mentioned in his speech to the 2015 Conservative conference. It is pointless planning to build thousands of starter homes for a market that does not have the employment prospects needed for sustainable access to these markets. Coming up with a credible package would need alignments between employment and wages, mortgage lending and construction incentives. Meeting housing need targets does not depend on whether it is about buying or renting or any other form of tenure; it is all about how the employment economy either enables or hinders access to the finances needed for any kind of accommodation. We can only get to grips with the housing crisis once we have locked access to housing into access to jobs and have synchronised both of them. Part of this process involves working with income sectors, seeing how lower-income or middle-income families will fare as homes and jobs are brought together.

Renting a home

It is said that we need 250,000 new homes if we are to keep up with housing demand, [de Castella, 2015]. In that context what do we mean by ‘new?’ Do we mean new build or do we mean more supply of housing stock of all kinds. Around four million people are now renting their homes [Owen, 2014]. In many continental countries, renting is the standard tenancy. Now that house-ownership is so difficult to achieve in England, renting looks like it will become the most frequent approach to securing accommodation. For policy makers, the key issue is one of renting not being as secure, for tenants, as it ought to be.

New residential tenancies had increased 2.5% in the first month of 2015; ‘The figures show the highest growth occurring in the East Midlands, Scotland and East Anglia with rents rising 6.2%, 5.7% and 5% respectively.’ Furthermore, ‘the average rent in the UK is now £889, compared to £867 at the end of 2014, and £799 in January 2014’ [Property Wire, 2015]. This is still more than the equivalent monthly mortgage repayment. Lewis Dean said that ‘rental prices of homes in England and Wales have grown more than house prices for the first time in two years. Rents across England and Wales reached a new record high at £789 in June, 1.4% higher than the £778 recorded in May and up 5.6% since June 2014. The hike means last month was the first since July 2013 where rents rose more quickly than house prices for comparable properties, with this annual rate of house price growth standing at 4.5% over the 12 months ending June 2015.’ [Dean, 2015] Which is rather startling, given that economists are predicting that house prices will rise dramatically in the years ahead.

Since the crash of 2008, availability of residential mortgages has declined; the effect of this is that young people have either continued to live with their parents or have moved into rented accommodation. Added to this, a substantial number of older people have left large family homes and transferred to the rented sector. Renting a house or flat was no longer the preserve of students and people living in an area for a short while. A shortage of new housing has also fuelled this trend. The demand for rented accommodation has grown and this has led to an increase in prices, so much so, that the price of renting has increased faster than house prices. What dogs prospective renters is the requirement to provide a deposit. The majority of rents demand that a tenant must pay a deposit to cover fixtures and fittings. On top of this deposit (which is supposed to be refundable at the end of the tenancy) monthly rents must be paid in advance. It is common for landlords to ask for one months rent in advance. The law requires deposits to be lodged with a tenancy deposit scheme that is backed by the government [Government website, 2015].

If monthly rental payments are higher than for equivalent mortgage repayments, the impact on disposable income can be seen straight away. Disposable income for a large section of the population has been decreasing as accommodation overheads have gone up, both for rents, mortgage repayments and inflated energy costs. This has an impact on the economy as a whole; spending on retail products is lower than it might be, dampening demand and strangling the purchase of goods and services.
Following the general election of 2015, lending for housing purchase increased by nearly thirty percent. That sounds like good news, but the picture is far from optimistic. After declining for a long time, applications for mortgages have picked up. According to the Valuations Office Agency, ‘the median rent recorded between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 2015 in England was £600’ [Valuations Office Agency, 2015]; still more than the median mortgage repayment.

Predictions of the trends in renting suggest that it will continue to rise and to be a major method of securing accommodation for the foreseeable future. The main problem with this is that renting, in this country, is far from secure. The legal rights of tenants who rent their housing is complicated. If renting is to become the norm for a large sector of the housing market, something needs to be done about security of tenure. Linsey Hanley has argued that ‘There is nothing wrong with long-term renting per se: it’s the norm in most European countries, where the law tends to favour tenants. And so it should: a tenant’s need for secure shelter takes moral precedence over a landlord’s right to safeguard his income’ [Hanley, 2015]. This gets to the nub of the renting issue – that if the Government is to protect housing consumers then it must provide them with security of tenure and sort out the complex mess of legal rights that thwarts the ability of renters to stay in their homes.

As the Civitas report acknowledged, there are a lot of people who are denied access to other housing options, who are dependent on renting but their security of tenure is inadequate, under current law, and something needs to be done about this. The Civitas report argued that ‘A new regulatory framework should be considered that would curb future rent growth and improve security for tenants. This should include indefinite tenancies within which rents (freely negotiated at the outset between landlord and tenant) would only be allowed to rise in line with a measure of inflation’ [Civitas 2015].
The rented sector of housing is not just about private individuals renting out properties; in many large cities apartment blocks are owned by property developers and speculators, drawn into this area of investment by the strong demand for rents and the profits that can be achieved from renting. The tenants rent through local agents and have no relationship with these remote absentee landlords – most of which are anonymous companies often located far away from the properties they control. In the view of the Civitas report ‘In order to encourage investment in new housing, new-build properties would be exempt from this regulation, but landlords would be encouraged to enter voluntary longer-term arrangements with tenants where this is mutually attractive. Institutional investors might be particularly receptive to such a framework’ [Civitas 2015].

The problem facing law-makers, and those who drive political policy, is that they have to achieve a balance between security of tenure for residents and enabling investment in the rented sector for landlords. Moving the balance of rights and responsibilities too far in favour of tenants could deter landlords from bringing new properties into the market or even invite them to move their investments away from housing to other sources of profit. Security of tenure (or lack of it) can be a problem for those who cannot afford to buy houses; in many cases people have no other choice than to rent accommodation simply because they do not have the funds for a deposit on a house or cannot secure a suitable loan for the purchase. The terms and conditions of rented tenancies are often set to deal with problems, such as people who fail to pay their rent or move out without giving adequate notice. In my view, this is a mistake and the terms of rental agreements should address the basic principles of letting to responsible customers and leave it up to the law to sort out situations that go wrong. Giving tenants security is important because flats and houses are not just property – they are homes. Having a secure home is important to people’s health and wellbeing. It is part of a family’s (or individual’s) general security and getting the balance right should be the goal of both landlords and government policy and legislation.
This issue is brought into focus by the measure, announced by The Chancellor, in his summer budget (of 2015), that taxation benefits on buy to let are to be changed. The aim of the measure was to make taxation fairer for individual residential home owners. George Osborne said that his aim was to create a more level playing field between those buying a home to let and those who are buying a place to live in. Be that as it may, analysts and commentators are saying that the disadvantages of this measure will outweigh any benefits that it might confer; some maintain that the effect of the measure will be to raise rental levels and reduce the supply of accommodation. I examine the impact of the measure in my blog [ibid]. The Chancellor had added three cent to stamp duty on buy to let and second homes. This does not apply to properties of up to £40,000 in value. Landlords also face higher taxes on their rental income [This is money, 12th January 2016].

De-regulation of the housing market damages the long-term prospects for tenants and this can have a knock-on effect on the economy generally. Policy makers need to grapple with the relationship between jobs and homes and ensure that people have access to accommodation that offers them security of tenure. Lenders, such as banks and credit companies, do not look favourably on people with multiple addresses, who have moved house many times. They prefer clients who have lived at their current address for four years or more – not always easy to achieve when security of tenure is inadequate. Renters tend to be more mobile than house holders and can clock up several addresses in a relatively short period of time (staying put in one place for an average of 3.5 years.) Even if we discount students (who rent homes whilst they are studying and then move on when they get a job elsewhere) renters move more frequently than house-owners.

Government policy-makers are faced with a variety of tenures; when it comes to forging policy to do with security of tenure, they have to fit it into social housing, council housing, some other less common forms of tenure, as well as the private rented sector. Such policies are subject to moral and ethnic debates that focus on the rights of individuals to security; there is nothing wrong with that but governments are more likely to be concerned with the financial and commercial consequences of the law. Even so, individuals are worried about their security rather than the profitability of property speculation.

For economists there are several issues in all this. The percentage of income that goes into providing somewhere to live (and energy to run it) is a factor determining the outcome of disposable income. The national economy relies on strong consumer demand for products, food and domestic retail consumption. Increasing housing costs are not good for the economy as whole. The strength of the economy has always seen employment rates as being a key factor. Economists are beginning to realise that the cost of housing is a key factor in determining the strength of consumer demand. Housing costs are nearly always the biggest single expense for families and individuals and rising accommodation costs hold down consumer demand for goods and services in the domestic sector. This is true both for mortgages and rents and for energy costs. Building a strong economy involves joining up policies that affect employment, housing and transport.

Housing and employment

Most people in this country need two things: somewhere to live and a job to pay for it. There is a reciprocal relationship between housing and employment. People need a home in order to get and hold down a job; people need jobs in order to be able to fund a home and meet their energy bills. People are locked into this ‘catch22’ cycle of needing two things at once. This works well when times are good but when people lose their job or their homes are put in jeopardy, they find themselves in trouble.

If we are to have policies that work, we must be able to make housing and employment work together in a way that reinforces them both. So, how does the housing market relate to employment? What proportion of the labour market can afford housing?

What people are being paid relates directly to the type of housing they can access. Those with well-paid jobs, that have long-term prospects, will be able to attract mortgages. Mortgage providers are less keen to fund those whose jobs are short-term or occasional – such as those on zero hours contracts. It is not always the level of pay that gives access to mortgages – it is more to do with the long-term prospects for continued employment that will fund a mortgage over its term (typically 25 years.) People who are on zero hour contracts are not good prospects for mortgage providers. Precarious employment arrangements are not good for home-ownership and access to mortgages and leases.

Despite the fact that the UK has a record level of employment – the best since 1971 – home ownership is as low as it was in the 1970s. Can government policies be synchronised so that there is both full employment and a strong supply of housing? Traditional home owners (in terms of their employment status) are becoming a smaller proportion of the labour market. It would be wrong however for policy makers to assume that they need only provide good employment to sort out home ownership and accommodation. You cannot buy security of tenure in the rented sector if it does not exist. You cannot get a mortgage if your income and job prospects are inadequate.

People who have to survive on precarious jobs are finding it more and more difficult to gain access to suitable housing. The Labour Party’s pre-election headlines (of 2015) placed emphasis on increasing the supply of new build housing; but if they do not have synchronised policies for employment, too few people who will be able to buy into that housing and the policy will fail. What people need, to access new-build housing, are jobs that offer long term stability and a predictable income. New build houses are more difficult to secure than rented properties or other forms of accommodation tenure. In some respects new building housing is not the answer – it is actually just part of the problem.

Around 15% of the labour force is now self-employed. There has been a huge increase in people gaining their primary income from a small business. ‘Nowadays, although it is not impossible for someone who is self-employed to secure a mortgage, it can certainly be a difficult process because lenders are far less willing to take what they see as a risk on those with a ‘non-standard’ income’, claims one website [Thisismoney, 2015]. Lenders want to see a history of business success and to be convinced that this will continue over the life of the loan. That immediately places people into age categories. With our ageing population, more and more older people are economically inactive and securing the best (most secure) accommodation is very difficult for people who do not have a secure income. Pensioners might be able to show that their income is secure but, if they are over 55, they will still find it difficult to get mortgages. Lenders are reluctant to provide housing-related loans over short periods.

In 1971, half the population was renting and the other half owned their homes. The number of people in work is now at its highest level since 1971. What proportion of employed people can afford access to housing? We hear a lot about the difficulties that people have in securing a mortgage, especially for those aged 20 to 25. These might be people who are in work but the kind of earnings they have, does not always give them access to housing. If we now have record numbers of people in housing, why are so many not able to get a mortgage or cannot afford to rent suitable homes?

Guy Standing has written about The Precariat, a social class formed by people suffering from ‘precarity’, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security [Standing, 2011]. Many of these are people whose income is precariously based on things like zero-hours contracts. These are casual workers who lack a long-term reliable income, the kind of income which would allow them to secure permanent housing. If your job cannot be relied on to provide you with enough money over a long enough period of time, then you are likely to have difficulties in accessing the kind of housing you desire. Housing requires permanent employment, a stable income over a long period and a level of income that will convince mortgage-providers and people who lease or rent apartments that you are a reasonably safe bet. Zero-hours contracts might offer a handy fix for some people, for some of the time, but in the long term they create disadvantage in terms of housing.

With the growth in unreliable employment and more risky self employment, gaining access to secure accommodation is presenting increasing difficulties. If the retirement age is increased beyond its current levels, this will also have a knock-on effect on housing. The Government’s commitment to increasing the level of the national wage, it is said, will result in large numbers of small businesses failing, including those that are self employed and micro-enterprises [Inman, 2015] That bodes badly for the housing market; mortgage defaults will increase dramatically and the overall level of personal debt will soar. The success of wage increases will be offset by the unintended consequences of failure to meet housing costs. We all thought that the national wage was a good thing; perhaps now we can see its unintended consequences we will have to think again.

Housing and unemployment

Older people are caught in traps with their existing mortgages and their inability to secure loans to fund a settled and secure old age. Older people are in the best position if they have equity locked up in an existing property that they own. However, many wish to pass on their homes to their children, who might find it either difficult or impossible to obtain a mortgage of their own. Where someone has substantial savings, they can offer a suitable level of deposit to secure a mortgage or a lease. Those aged over 60 are in particular trouble because they cannot provide the appropriate length of time needed to pay back a loan. ‘With less time to make the repayments than someone twenty or thirty years younger, the lender will need to know that you will have a sufficient income in retirement to be able to make the repayments and cover the term of the mortgage’ [Sosmart, 2015]. There is evidence that a variety of brokers are now setting out to cater for borrowers aged 55 or over, who do not wish to re-mortgage their existing properties [Eccles 2014] ‘Around 350,000 over 65s still have a home loan according to the Office for National Statistics – and over the next decade the Financial Conduct Authority says 40,000 retired people a year will see deals come to an end so they will have to re-mortgage or repay any remaining debt. With the average mortgage in retirement worth around £30,000 and some older people determined to trade up, not down, the challenges for borrowers are intense’ explains one website [Thisismoney 2015.] Older borrowers, aged 60 or more, find it difficult to secure loans for housing but it is not impossible, however difficult it might be. The additional problem they face is that their initial repayments might be higher than would the case with younger people, because older people have less time to clear the debt. Those aged 65 might be lucky enough to borrow over a 15 or 20 year term. There are few lenders willing to deal with people who are at or have passed retirement age. If the age of retirement is to go up, there will have to be changes to the way that funds are lent for house purchases or leases. This type of borrowing will be sensitive to the government’s long-term plans for state pensions. Even those with private pensions are by no means safe, given the uncertain future of their funds. Raising the retirement age purely for employment reasons will have unintended consequences for housing and hence the need for joined-up policies. Measures such as the national wage and raising of the retirement age need to followed through to see what will be their likely consequences for housing and consumer demand. These could prove to be deflationary measures.

Developing policy concerned with the housing needs of older people is not easy. For one thing, life-expectancy and health risks change, the older the age of the person. Where older people have an existing property, which they own or on which there is an outstanding debt, the options are there, however daunting they might be. But older people with no existing property ownership are in a dire position. Unless their circumstances can be catered for we will see the return of a level of poverty and homelessness in our ageing population that has not been witnessed since Victorian times.

Employment, these days, is far more varied than it ever has been. Gone is the age of the life-time, permanent career. Getting a secure, full-time job with a good salary is increasingly difficult and the labour market is now geared to younger people; employment for people over 50 is a real challenge. Housing choices are dependent on income and if you can’t find paid work and self employment is not an option, then you might be in a precarious position. Jobs might well be available elsewhere but if you cannot afford to move to access those jobs, then you are stuck. Large numbers of people are commuting long distances in order to get jobs not available in their home localities. Older people find it difficult to move because they are tied to the localities in which their dependants live and the families on who they are dependent. Economic migration within the UK is not an easy option for those aged 60 and over.

Employment and transport

Employment is often dependent on transport. Some policy markers have added transport into the housing/employment equation. Some have gone on to put this into a regional context. We can look at England as a whole but when you regionalise the equation, there are areas of the country that need special attention. Some local authorities have developed policies that address the issue of the supply of land as being the key to dealing with meeting housing needs. Policy-making therefore has to balance two sets of supplies: jobs and homes. This approach also needs to consider travel to work areas – the ability of people with jobs to travel to work, to areas away from their homes. This is where transport comes in – if the supply of transport lags behind the supply of housing and the availability of jobs (within a travel-to-work area) then people are going find it difficult to get housing within a reasonable distance of where they want to work. The choice of where to live, for the majority of families, dictates where their work places can be. They have to take into account their relatives (particularly dependants and those on whom they depend) and access to schools and heath care, if they have specific needs in that respect.

Formulating housing policy is a non-starter if not related to employment and education and, I would argue, transport. Joined up policies are the most likely to be credible and effective because they pull together these variables that all depend on each other. If we want our housing policy to succeed we have to make sure that the labour market has a sufficient proportion of employed people who have the kind of income that is required for stable home ownership (whether via mortgages, leases or tenancies.) The more people whose jobs fall into the short-term, precarious, end of the labour market, the more difficult it is going to be to have a robust housing policy. Allowing employers to determine the market for jobs is bad for the economy; it is free-market-ism of the worst kind. Allowing more and more employers to indulge in short-term and zero-hours contracts is also harmful for the economy as a whole. Developing key policies in isolation from each other is a practice that cannot join up jobs, homes, education and transport and for that reason it does the country no good at all. Policies that join up employment, transport and housing supply and more likely to result in a strong economy, than those that are developed piecemeal.

I will now look at some of the issues that affect the supply of housing stock, how we can make better use of land and the possible options for addressing the short-fall in housing supply.

References

Contents of the entire work

Further reading

Bricks and motar as the basis of housing. Article in Arts in Leicester magazine, April 2015.

Part 1 of this series: Policy, practice and history

Part 2: Bricks and mortar

Housing Policy 2

Housing: approaches to policy

by Trevor Locke

Part 2

Bricks and mortar as the basis of housing

If you live in the United Kingdom, you are sure to have seen house bricks. You might live in a house that is made from them. But, have you ever stopped to think what bricks are made of? Most people in this country will have picked up and held a house brick at some point in their lives. Have you ever thought to ask – have bricks always been the same as this? We are all familiar with bricks – their size, shape, colour, texture and feel. But have you ever wondered whether they will always be the same, in the future, as they are now? The British have a characteristic love of brick-built houses, compared to say the wooden structures lived in by many Europeans and the residents of North America. It was not always true, however, in previous periods of history when in inhabitants of the British Isles lived in structures made of sticks and mud, blocks of stone or even holes in the ground in some cases.
If you think that a brick is a brick – you might be surprised to know just how varied they are. The common house brick is a solid block, usually 215 × 102.5 × 65 mm (about 8  5/8 × 4 1/8 × 2 5/8 inches). Some bricks are solid, others have 10 holes in them to decrease their weight; some are made in different sizes and and come in a variety of colours. Most are newly made but there is a big market for reclaimed bricks. I am referring to British bricks because the size of bricks varies from one country to another. Bricks are made from a mixture clay and sand that has been heated in a kiln, to harden it and make it strong. Although most bricks are coloured red (because they are made from clays that contain iron) many have other colours, having been made from clays to which additional materials have been added, such as chalk.
At the present time the production of bricks in 2014 -15 is expected to reach a value of £889.2 million [Allen, 2014]. Standard clay bricks that is. It is said that the recession of 2008 resulted in a shortage of bricks [Szu Ping Chan, 2015]. We can see that the construction industry went into sharp decline from 2008 onwards, not recovering until late 2009/10. This was due largely to the lack of finance for both building and the purchasing of new homes as the credit crunch bit into the availability of finance. It was not until 2014 that house building recovered to its pre-crash levels. We cannot attribute the slump in house building solely to shortages of materials (or the finance required to obtain them); the depressed economy also led to a shortage of skilled labour, as companies laid off construction workers.
How old is the brick? It’s an interesting question. Bricks have been around for a very long time. They are thought to have been used for six thousand years, being found in the city of Babylon for example. The ancient Egyptians made bricks from dried mud, some of which have survived to the present day. In China, millions of workers had to make tens of millions of bricks for the construction of the Great Wall. In the British Isles, the Romans made bricks, firing them in kilns close to the buildings they were constructing. Bricks were rarely used in the UK before the fourteenth century. Flemish refugees brought brick-making to East Anglia; in the fifteenth century, many craftsmen from Holland and Belgium settled in the UK. After the great fire of London in 1666, people began to build houses with brick walls to replace the wooden ones that were susceptible to fire. The Tudors were keen on building with bricks and fine examples of Elizabethan brick-built houses are still standing today. Henry VIII took over Wolsey’s home at Hampton Court Palace, in 1528. Much of Hampton Court is still standing today and visitors can see straight away that most of the facades are made from bricks, rather than stone blocks that would have been noticeable in many structures since Norman times. Between 1485 and 1603, brick-making and brick-laying emerged as a specialised craft. The times of the early Tudors and Elizabethans saw substantial increases in trade and prosperity. The rich and powerful no longer needed to build ‘castles’ that would withstand attack; in the relatively peaceful times of the the Renaissance, houses could be designed to look beautiful and to reflect the wealth of their owners. Stone continued to be used for things like windows, where carved ornamentation was required, but walls and chimneys would be made from bricks, which could be woven into patterns and decorative designs.
The way that house building materials are manufactured is beginning to change. Bricks are being produced from new materials as clay is replaced by plastic alternatives. Interior walls are now constructed from breeze-blocks; ceilings and walls use plasterboards; wall cavities use boards made of wood aggregates and roofing materials have moved away from slate to cheaper and longer-lasting alternatives. The next big change is likely to be the replacement of naturally grown timber with plastic materials that have the same properties and which can be worked in much the same way but which are more resistant to decay, insects and deterioration over time.
Houses having two or three bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and living rooms is a fairly new development in this country. In the middle ages domestic dwellings for poor people usually had only one room and in this the family cooked, ate and slept alongside their animals which were brought into the building for the night. In was not until later times, as the wealth of working people increased, that dwellings began to develop separate rooms for different functions, such as bedrooms and kitchens. It was not until the industrial revolution that houses began to feature separate rooms as standard for the majority of working people. The wealthy did of course have separate rooms and the very rich built large houses with a variety of rooms; often with a separation between those where the family lived and those where their servants lived and worked.

Today,  social status is indicated by the number of bedrooms a home has as well as by the number of cars that can be accommodated in the garage space. There was a trend, the 1980s, for the professional classes to move out of urban areas into rural villages as a way of increasing their quality of life. Estates of new build houses sprung up in villages and green fields all over England in response to this demand.

My brief canter through the history of building materials serves to underscore three things: that society’s notion of ‘the home’ has changed over time; that how houses were built was (and still is) a consequence of industrial and commercial change and development and that today’s world brings a range of new pressures to bear on choices about which materials to build with, that we never saw before. The future of building will also depend on the emergence of new concerns and industrial influences, such as climate change, energy efficiency, the speed and pace at which housing building needs to takes place and the relative cost of traditional materials compared to those that are newly emerging. Today, people are changing, as our society ages and as new people come to live in this country, and these demographic trends will shape what people regard as being a home. Housing policy needs to take account of these trends, as we will see in the parts that follow. [For a complete list of contents of this book see link below]
Is the house brick here to stay? It’s a question that policy makers should be asking. In contemporary Britain the house brick is still the icon of construction, where homes are concerned. Developers still tend to regard brick-built houses as the norm for new constructions. What we see in the current preoccupation with building new houses is a predilection for traditional designs but, within that, pressures to change the materials that are being used and to making houses that meet increasingly complex environmental requirements are increasingly coming into play. The houses being built today might look similar to those built after the second world war but they have many new features designed into them that our grandparents and parents never knew. Energy efficiency, for example, is now designed into the choice of materials for housing building in a way that was unknown to previous generations of builders. New concerns about carbon footprints and climate change are pushing builders to construct houses in a way never seen before. I look at how these new materials and new methods of construction are challenging the supremacy of the brick in the world of house building.
Here are a few examples of the house brick is changing. Wienerberger, a leading supplier of wall, roof and landscaping innovations, has launched its brand new e4 brick house™ concept. Using over 200 years of expertise and innovation, the company has analysed economic and social trends to unveil a unique archetype that directly addresses the UK market need. Wienerberger’s leading clay brick and wall technology provides, its claims, the blueprint for the house of tomorrow – ‘an aspirational living space that is practical, sustainable and innovative’ [Wienerberger, 2015]. What these claims indicate is that manufacturers have begun to think again about the brick and to update the idea of it for present day concerns with environment and profit.
Graduate Henry Miller has devised a way to reuse waste plastic as an aggregate in cement, circumventing the energy-intensive process of plastic recycling. By grinding up landfill-bound plastic and mixing it with Portland cement, Miller was able to create a material just as strong as traditional concrete made with mined aggregate. The construction company that made the EcoArk Pavilion in Taipei demonstrates the imaginative use of recycled materials. The walls of the building were made solely of plastic bottles that fitted together like Lego pieces. [Leggett, 2010] The polygonal bottles, called Polli-Bricks, were made of plastic, recycled from items such as water bottles and make the building structurally sound enough to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, are environmentally friendly, and are relatively cheap to make. The bricks can be blow-moulded out of shredded PETÂ bits at a construction site. They are then stacked into rectangular panels. Workers cover the bricks with a film, similar to the coating found on smartphone screens. The coating makes the panels resistant to fire and water.
Peter Lewis has created an innovative machine that can transform discarded plastic – such as bottles and bags – into building blocks. The rock-hard bricks could be used for garden retaining landscaping walls or other interesting features such as shock absorbers behind crash barriers [Byfusion, 2015] [Geiger, 2011]
The traditional clay house brick is relatively expensive to produce, is heavy to transport and can deteriorate over time. The new bricks that are being made from waste products have many of the properties of traditional bricks – they are robust enough for building – but weigh a lot less; their production is ecologically beneficial in a number of ways and they cost much less to manufacture.
Builders are increasingly willing to try new materials, especially if that gives them a cost advantage. Many of these new materials will be used in houses but will never seen by most of their residents because they are hidden inside the walls and roofs. In Europe, builders appear to be far more willing to change over to these new materials, more willing than they are in this country. British builders have always been slow to change, compared with their European counterparts. Having said this, the present economics of housing building are pushing builders into adopting new methods of of construction and new materials. There is a severe shortage of brick/block layers in the UK. ‘What’s more, housebuilders don’t just need bricks – they also need people to lay them. And here again the laws of supply and demand are working against housebuilders. The price of bricks had reached an all-time high. What’s more, ‘according to one senior executive, the day rate demanded by brickies, at least in London, has almost doubled in the last three months from £140 to £240’ [Branson, 2013]. So what to do? asks Adam Branson. He argues: ‘The choice is clear cut. Housebuilders must either stop expanding, absorb the extra costs and take a hit on their profit margins, or they must seek alternative materials and construction techniques. And evidence is emerging they are increasingly plumping for this last option.’
The traditional brick built house current suffers from two serious shortcomings: bricks are expensive and so too are the people required to lay them. Some builders are responding to this by looking for new designs and try to get round this problem. One alternative is to use more timber in house design and to cut down on the number of bricks used. Changing to newer methods of wall construction can save money and speed the time it takes to complete a building. Where bigger masonry blocks are used, the walls can erected more quickly and with wage rates being so high, time means money. Arguments are seen about whether brick manufacturers can cope with rising levels of demand and whether the timber industry can supply sufficient volume of products.
There are, however, some residents who are willing to abandon traditional materials in favour of a range of new ones, where they can achieve ecological goals alongside aesthetic concerns. Whilst such approaches might be the preserve of the well-off middle classes, those who can afford to be individualistic about home building, there is evidence that avant-guard methods will become the leading edge of a broader change in the construction industry.

Changing patterns of house construction

Given the development of technologies for the production of new building materials and the increasing demand for environmentally friendly products, it is likely that traditional materials will change in the future as house builders move away from the kind of natural materials that have been used for thousands of years. Several aspects of house construction are now subject to revision.
From pre-history to relatively recent times, wood was the standard building material. England was once covered in trees and forests. As the climate changed, so did the landscape; more and more forests were cut down as demand for timber increased. Naturally-occurring woodlands diminished, so much so, that the government began to plant new forests on an industrial scale. In fact, wood had to be imported to make up for the shortages in British-sourced timber. As with the brick, new products are being invented that can do the same work as timber but which are constructed from materials that are cheaper and which confer environmental benefits.
If we go back to medieval times, we see walls being constructed of wattle and daub, mud mixed with manure being used to seal the gaps in the wooden lattices made from branches and twigs. It was not until brick manufacture developed (as the road infrastructure allowed for their transportation) that we saw bricks being used as a common material for the construction of walls in the fourteenth century. Houses were originally single room structures and in them animals spent the night with the human occupants. It was only later in history that residential houses were divided into separate rooms. As wealth grew, more storeys were added. The materials used for house building remained virtually unchanged for many centuries. There were some experiments, in the 20th century, in the use of other kinds of materials for making walls (remember the ‘prefabs’?) but contemporary house building is widely oriented to the use of bricks because of their aesthetic appeal for external walls. Some examples have been televised recently in which walls have been made from blocks of straw over which a plaster was coated, giving an acceptable, if rustic, appearance and allowing for a high degree of heat insulation.
Medieval houses were roofed with thatch made from reeds, the most common form of material used to create a waterproof top to a building. It would be several hundred years before clay tiles or slates were widely used as roofing materials in many parts of the UK. Some roofs were made from wood shingles but the frequency of fires led to the wider use of clay tiles. The use of steel sheets, such as corrugated iron, in roofing has not had much appeal in this country. Roofs were angled to let rain run off.
In medieval stone-built castles, windows were small and often no more than holes in the wall. Only in the very wealthiest of buildings, would glass have been used to keep out the cold and wet. It would be a long time before glass would become a way of creating weatherproof windows in more modest buildings. In modern times, we saw the introduction of PVC plastics to replace the traditional wood frames of windows. More glass is used in houses these days than was ever the case in historical times. Glass consumption rose when windows were produced to provide double or secondary glazing. Windows in domestic houses, these days, are bigger than they have ever been. Window glazing now frequently includes some kind of coating to reduce glare. Today’s houses provide much more light than the rather gloomy, dark houses in which our ancestors lived. In modern houses, window frames are frequently made from plastic rather than wood although some builders prefer to use wood frames for their aesthetic appeal.
In the middle ages houses were built largely without any plans; their construction was based on know-how handed down from one generation of builders to another. Houses gradually became more elaborate in the way they were constructed and builders began to work from drawn architectural plans. During the Victorian era there was a vast increase in the number of houses being built; as people began to live and work in cities they needed to live within walking distance of factories. The design of homes gradually became more and more standardised, driven by the requirements of commercial house-building and the kind of prosperity that led to home-owning classes. People, who wanted to own houses, became used to traditional designs. As prosperity increased, there was a demand for separate kitchens, indoor toilets, bathrooms and separate bedrooms for adults and children. Apart from kitchens, these features rarely appeared in medieval domestic constructions. The increasing sophistication of buildings led to the establishment of the specialised professions of architecture and building design. Today’s commercially-built housing estates use variations in the design of houses, rather than the uniformity that characterised building designs from Victorian times onwards. But the styling of estate houses is based on consistency of look, in this country. Some builders give prospective buyers a say in which materials can be used for finishings, in kitchens and bathrooms for example. The British are very old-fashioned and conservative in their approach to house design, compared to say, their counterparts in Germany. [Jenkins, 2015]

Future trends in house building

When we think of housing, we inevitably think of bricks and mortar. I will go on to argue that many other factors come into play when we begin to discuss modern housing practice – factors such as changing demography, patterns of employment, the need to integrate housing with community facilities and the options we want to make available for increasing the supply of housing. In fact, there are several factors which might see changes being made to the kind of building materials that we have been familiar with over many generations. There will also be changes in house design, moving away from the traditional concept that has dominated our idea of what a home should be like, towards the kind of modern approaches that attracted today’s younger generation of house-buyers. When older people sell their large family homes to downsize to smaller ones they can come into conflict with first-time buyers. One solution to this is to encourage the provision of retirement homes, reserved for people aged 50 and over. There are moves to provide housing that meets the needs of older people – retirement homes that allow the over 60s to free up their larger family homes for occupation by younger people who want to start families. Freeing up accommodation in houses that have an estimated 80 million spare bedrooms, in the private sector, would go a long way to solving the crisis in housing. Many older people, whose families have left home, have two or three empty rooms which could be let out – a point that has not been lost of those trying to deal with the contemporary migration problem. In the social sector, the Government made a big mistake, I would argue, by imposing a ‘bedroom tax’, a measure that has achieved nothing but a welter of unintended consequences. If there is a lot of unused capacity in social housing, it would have been better to find a way of bringing spare rooms into use rather than forcing occupants into smaller flats. As we will see, house building is being offered more alternatives, including the provision of pre-fabricated kits that can be assembled very quickly. ‘Vertical villages’ and ‘gardens in the sky’ could offer solutions to the problem of space shortages in urban areas, which now attract more and more residents. There are plenty of potential solutions to the housing problems faced in the UK and we will be looking at these later on.
In the next instalment, I will look at key policy considerations in the organisation and supply of housing and argue the need for better, more integrated policy solutions for dealing with the nation’s current housing crisis.

Part 1 – Policy, practice and history
References
Contents of the entire work

Further reading

Bricks and motar as the basis of housing. Article in Arts in Leicester magazine, April 2015.

Housing Policy contents

Housing: approaches to policy

by Trevor Locke

Contents

Part 1 – Policy, practice, planning and history

Part 2 – Bricks and mortar as the basis of housing

Changing patterns of house construction

Future trends in house building

Part 3 – Housing, employment and transport: why we need joined-up policies

The need for affordable homes

Housing is the key to everything

Renting a home

Housing and employment

Housing and unemployment

Employment and transport

Part 4 – Providing better housing stock

Making better use of existing housing stock

Make better use of land

Dealing with the short-fall in housing supply

Part 5 – New approaches to house building

Thinking outside of the box

Where will the future of housing take us?

References

See also my post about Notes on housing and housing policy in 2016