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How do we ensure homes for all?

It's not just a London problem—it’s a national problem

By Prospect Team  

The story of the housing crisis can be told in numbers—and it can be told through the impact on those struggling to find a secure, affordable and permanent home.

The numbers, first. In London—from Lewisham to Wandsworth, and from Tower Hamlets to Ealing via Southwark—the problem of homeless is stark. Five years ago, 2,000 people were homeless in Tower Hamlets. Today it’s 2,600. In Southwark, where 3,000 children are growing up in temporary accommodation, the housing waiting list stands at 11,000. In Ealing—waiting list: 9,000—the council is only able to place 200 families in social housing each year. And in Lewisham—waiting list: 10,000—there are 2,204 people in temporary shelter. “Housing is not a luxury, it is a right for everybody,” notes Councillor Paul Bell, cabinet member for housing at Lewisham Council. Bell was taking part in a specially-convened Prospect roundtable, supported by EDAROTH a new subsidiary of Atkins in January.

This is not just a London problem—it’s a national problem. Across the country, the housing charity Shelter estimates that one in 200 people are homeless. A city like Bristol, for example, shares many of the issues described above: families on emergency housing lists and snaking social housing waiting lists. Nevertheless, the concentration of demand in London and the south east is particularly acute. Drawing on Shelter figures again, the homeless rate in London is one in every 50.

The figures alone can numb the senses. Consider instead what this insecurity does to individuals, especially the young. The vagaries of temporary accommodation mean many miss out on early years education and will have further to travel to primary and secondary school. And what happens when they transition to adulthood? “Just as the tide comes in daily so generation after generation, year after year there will be another wave of young people looking for accommodation,” says Paul Morrish, CEO, LandAid.

LandAid estimates that 4,000 young people sleep rough every year. “If you are a young student and you go to university or college there is a housing offer. There are companies making large amounts of profit providing high-quality, curated student accommodation. But if you are not a student, there is no housing offer. If you are an apprentice there is no housing offer,” says Morrish. “As a consequence, young people will stay at home for longer.” The result is economic and societal. Economic because these are the generations upon which the country’s future prosperity will rely. Societal because if they are excluded, they will disengage.

The causes of the housing shortage are many and varied. One of the most obvious is the sheer pressures caused by a London-centric economy. “This is a housing crisis, the symptoms of which are experienced by some of our most disadvantaged residents, caused by national economic problems to do with jobs being concentrated in London and the south east,” says Rachel Blake, deputy mayor of Tower Hamlets Council.

“Part of the predicament we find ourselves in is caused by an absence of an industrial strategy which concentrates a lot of the population pressure in London and the south east,” says Leo Pollak, Southwark Council cabinet member overseeing house building. He notes that the pressure for space is exacerbated by land compensation schemes created by large infrastructure projects such as Crossrail and HS2. Compensation invariably leads to speculation. “There’s land speculation on the Old Kent Road,” Pollak adds by example, pointing to one of the major thoroughfares in Southwark. “We’ve managed to nab a few of those sites in the nick of time to build council estates on but it skewers the viability of development.”

“London’s greatest strength is also our greatest weakness,” adds Peter Mason, cabinet member for housing and planning at Ealing Council. “We seem to imbibe the nation’s appetite for infrastructure investment. And while Crossrail is fantastic (it will take my residents into their city jobs in 15 minutes), it also means the land value around stations has rocketed. It means we’ve got speculative land purchasing.”

It’s not just the cost of land that is a problem, argues Robbie Erbmann, Head of Housing Strategy at Transport for London. The price of construction is an inhibitor, too. “We are never, never going to be able to build significant amounts of affordable housing when it costs £250-300,000 to build a two-bedroom flat. That kills everything.”

Frustration was expressed about other issues, too. Not least the planning system which is seen by some as overly bureaucratic and working against the interest of local housing strategy. Frustration, too, about the consequences (unintended or otherwise) of the private rented sector pushing up prices and creating uncertainty.

Others cited government austerity more generally as a major cause for today’s shortage. “Without austerity ending, we are limited in terms of what we can do and are only scratching the surface of homelessness,” says Lewisham Council’s Paul Bell. “To put it into context, our housing-building programme from 2018 to 2022 is worth £100m more than our controllable budget.”

All this, meanwhile, is making it impossible to properly categorise affordability. “Affordability goes so far up the income scale now, that it’s just not possible to come up with a sensible definition that can apply in all cases,” says James Clark, Head of Housing Strategy at the Greater London Authority (GLA). “It’s not possible to come up with a simple percentage of income definition that works for a very low-income household that’s on housing benefit and also an aspiring-to-home-ownership [main breadwinner] struggling to afford a deposit, who is on £50-60,000 but still can’t afford home ownership.”

Caroline Paradise, Associate Director, Atkins brought the discussion back around to social housing and what the community feels more generally about the products in the market. “There’s a huge amount of quality, but there is still this feeling that it’s a lesser property” and there seems to be an inability to deliver social housing into the communities.

If those are the causes of the housing problem, what are the solutions?

First, innovation and the involvement of the private sector go hand in hand. Mark Powell, Managing Director of EDAROTH, offers one practical example. Set up by Atkins, EDAROTH seeks to utilise under-used land assets and modern methods of construction to deliver social and affordable housing within existing communities. Powell’s team has just completed a project in conjunction with Lambeth Council, creating housing near schools and hospitals on what was a site of derelict garages, that was giving the council all sorts of social problems.

This blighted brownfield site was costing the local authority money and this project is evidence of what can be done in partnership, says Powell. “Private sector house builders and private sector developers must continue doing what they are doing.”

For Paradise, it is proof, too, of the potential of brownfield. “We’re interested in looking at those areas that aren’t attractive to the developers, that don’t make economic sense to them but actually make absolute sense from a community’s perspective.”

Jez Sweetland, Project Director of the Bristol Housing Festival—a partnership of Bristol City Council looking at testing different methodologies and modern methods of construction and ways to engage the public—offers another example of brownfield construction. In this case, it’s 30 zero-carbon homes built above a carpark. Innovation is essential, says Sweetland, because a combination of the climate crisis, the construction skills crisis, and the housing crisis means that the “idea that the tools that we used in the past can help us in the future doesn’t add up.” Sweetland says local government and other stakeholders need the courage to experiment but he acknowledges that there is reluctance in some quarters to be the guinea pigs.

Powell adds a different dimension to Sweetland’s interpretation that the public might be resistant to being guinea pigs and try something new, “if you don’t have a home, you’re not so worried about that point…the fact of the matter is that we’re not building any [social homes].”

Tony Mulhall, Associate Director at RICS, mentioned that the government has to own the issue in a way it hasn’t since the 1990s, when it withdrew from directly delivering affordable housing. “We’ve had 30 years of the government enabling the private sector to deliver housing. The problem, of course, is that the people who need that housing can’t produce effective demand so it’s not amenable to an effective market solution. The only way we can address this is by direct intervention.”

“There are a couple of pointers to where that might come from and one is the large number of public housing bodies that have grown up in local authorities—Birmingham City Council is a very good example. The other is the deployment of the unbelievable resources of Homes England [the non-departmental public body that funds new affordable housing in England] which has been underused for as long as its existed. It’s a juggernaut in terms of its capability to deliver: huge amounts of money, huge amounts of land, planning powers. What developer wouldn’t like to have those.”

Others agreed that government must play a greater role. “There has never been a point when market forces have delivered secure, quality, affordable housing for all people across the income spectrum,” says Pollak, while Mason notes: “We regulate the market to produce healthy returns for capital speculation. We don’t do that in any other part of the economy.” The GLA’s James Clark suggests local authorities take control in the absence of help from elsewhere. “We need to empower them as strategic planning authorities again.”

“There’s a role for government to intervene,” says Fiona Howie, Chief Executive, Town and Country Planning Association. “We need leadership and we need direct funding for genuine affordable housing, but absolutely the planning system can’t fix everything and the current fixation on speed and numbers is not helping.”

Chris Wood, Assistant Director of Research, Policy and Public Affairs at Shelter is optimistic about a growing commitment from politicians. “We’ve done it before, we can do it again,” he says. “We need government commitment; we need to reform land … Crucially, we need investment. If we just play around the edges, we’re not going to get the mass of social housing we need.”

“We now have a government that has a substantial majority so it’s hopefully thinking a bit more long term.”

One area the government should be thinking about, says Jonathan Cook, Deputy Leader of Wandsworth Council, is local authority borrowing. Cook is proud of the regeneration efforts on his patch—notably around Battersea Power Station, Vauxhall and Nine Elms—and says they were made possible through partnerships with the private sector. But he asks: “Is there an additional role to allow local authorities to be more imaginative, a bit freer, about how we borrow, use capital from the private sector to generate things happening on the ground because we are still quite constrained?”

His message to central government: “Relax some of the controls on local authority borrowing and investment.”

For a housing strategy to succeed, politicians and developers will first have to take the public with them. In short, they will have to regain trust. “When we did this before, the political settlement was completely different,” says Blake.

Sweetland commented, “if we don’t start to think about these Brownfield Sites and try new ideas and have an element of experimentation of new ideas, we are going to be reliant on the existing models.”

Howie argued “we need to rebuild trust between communities and local authorities and between communities and developers… to make sure that communities feel that they have a voice but also that they understand they can’t have everything they want,” Paradise agreed and went further to say, “we need to make [social housing] more attractive to communities, to support it so there is a way of community input into this discussion and how putting [social housing] in places where it can support and grow that community rather than separating them.”

“The paradigm for housing has changed,” says LandAid’s Paul Morrish. “It isn’t just a number although it is. It isn’t just quality although it is. It isn’t just about sustainability but it is now in a way that it never has been before.”

So how do we get out of the current crisis? Return to first principles, say Morrish. Namely, the right to shelter as enshrined under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “The challenge follows from the principle. Start with the principle and be judged by it.”

“How do we ensure homes for all?”, a Prospect magazine roundtable in association with EDAROTH a new subsidiary of Atkins, took place in London on 30th January 2020

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