The housing crisis and the questions we still need to answer
If continuing to do what we’re already doing was going to solve the housing crisis, there wouldn’t be a crisis to solve.
Arguably, the new housing white paper fails to step up to the mark when it comes to vision and ambition. Here are some of the big challenges it doesn’t fully answer.
Where we build
Land availability is an inescapable issue. There’s a bigger problem than just shortening the time between outline planning permission and building starts. Many are talking more seriously about the green belt.
When 13% of English land was designated as green belt in the 1950s we didn’t envisage the current housing crisis. We didn’t imagine cities bursting at the seams or where ‘affordable’ housing was inaccessible for many.
Brownfield sites should be the ideal solution for redeveloping and reinvigorating but are not always easy to redevelop. They may have more community value as accessible open spaces. Some may question whether we want green spaces within the areas where people live or in more rural places that have less access?
Simply building on a patch of green belt land is not the solution; instead, the focus should be on how we redevelop the already available sites to make them more housing efficient and community centric. Local employment leads to viable local amenities and a strong sense of community and belonging. Local plans need to find solutions to the wider issues of how people will live, not just where they will live.
We also don’t want new developments isolated from urban hubs through lack of transport infrastructure. Maybe developing new communities along ‘fingers’ surrounding new or existing transport arteries, as they have done in Copenhagen, is the right approach.
What we build
We need to get over our national aversion to building up. The UK is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, yet it has the second lowest percentage of people living in flats. Over two-thirds of Spaniards live in flats (mostly extremely happily) compared to less than one-fifth of Britons. Private developments of relatively low density detached and semi-detached houses will remain out of reach for many.
With imagination, we can create mixed apartment developments that are pleasant to live in, affordable, aesthetically pleasing and with excellent long-term asset values. This design of development should also avoid people’s fears of falling prices of existing low-density housing. Vertical and rooftop gardens can be used to improve the environment and good architectural design will avoid the concrete jungles of the past. Critical masses provide an opportunity to include leisure and other facilities on site for residents.
How we build
The white paper made not much more than a passing reference to modular and offsite construction. Labour, material and simple build time constraints make it unlikely that traditional methods can provide the additional output. It’s like trying to make a boat go faster by paddling harder when what it really needs is an engine.
Who will build
We also need to be frank about who will create the homes we need. Basic supply and demand economics ensures that private house builders have no incentive to build houses more quickly if this would lead to a fall in prices.
Within the supply model, we need to look at existing housing estates. Could these be redeveloped to provide better quality homes and more diverse and sustainable local communities? If that’s a desirable goal, how do we make it possible for local authorities, housing associations and other partners to finance the development? And how do we ensure that existing residents help to drive the vision and don’t end up excluded from the benefits?
With so many questions still unanswered and so many options not yet investigated how can we view this housing crisis as unsolvable – what seems to be lacking is the joined up creative thinking.