Simple ‘solutions’ plague our thinking about housing

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 29. 

‘What makes the housing crisis so maddening is that there is a simple solution: Britain needs to get building.’

So ran a tweet a couple of weeks ago from The Economist about an article on How to Solve Britain’s Crisis. Unleash the market, build on the green belt and, hey presto, the housing crisis is over.

In fairness, the article’s proposition was a bit more complicated than the tweet implied – it also proposed reform of stamp duty and council tax – but it is still an illustration of the way that ‘simple solutions’ plague our thinking about housing.

What I mean by that is that there may well be good arguments that can be made for building on the green belt, or rent control, or building a million council houses, or prefabrication or any of the other quick fixes that are routinely trotted out.

It’s certainly hard to see a solution that does not involve more homes, better conditions for private renters, a greater role for local authorities and innovations in construction.

However, it’s quite different when one of them is proposed as the solution. Usually this is by one of the ‘unleash the market’ brigade who believe that the housing crisis is all down to planning.

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Edinburgh 2017

Even at 70, the Edinburgh Festival just seems to keep getting bigger. Every time I go I think surely the expansion cannot continue but it does.

One big reason for that is that I should have said festivals rather than festival: the Edinburgh International Festival began in 1947 and continues to offer a programme at the highbrow end of the spectrum; the Fringe was started the same year by eight acts who were not allowed to take part but is now far bigger than the main event; the Book Festival is a relative youngster at 34; and the Free Festival began in 2004 as an alternative to the Fringe’s market economy. That’s not including the Film Festival and the Politics Festival, which used to be in August as well but have now moved to different times in the year.*

A second reason is that there can be few other cities in the world that have so many buildings that can be transformed into good venues. On top of the full-time theatres and concert halls and back rooms of pubs, there are countless university buildings, churches, chapels and halls and university buildings that can be used.

The irony is that the legacy of centuries of Edinburgh’s devotion to learning and Protestantism is an endless selection of places to buy an over-priced pint while toasting a statue of John Knox.

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A system under strain

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 17.

Beneath the immediate crisis about a lack of new homes lies a long-running one about the homes that we have already built.

It’s hard to look much beyond the stat in a report published on Friday by the Local Government Association (LGA) that new homes built today will have to last 2,000 years at current rates of demolition and replacement.

Unless the output of the likes of Barratt and Taylor Wimpey is really going to stand for as long as some of the glories of Ancient Rome, something clearly does not add up. This graph shows the age of the stock broken down by tenure:

The report by Residential Analysts finds that large numbers of homes across all tenures are not of appropriate quality, with the private rented sector representing the biggest cause for concern, with problems such as damp and poor energy efficiency concentrated in the oldest stock.

The number of homes failing to meet the Decent Homes standard has been improving in recent years total cost of bringing them up to scratch is still estimated at £27 billion, of which just £2 billlion is for social housing.

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Film review: Dispossession

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on August 10.

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle is an important film that arrives at an even more important moment for social housing.

Even before the Grenfell Tower fire it would have posed vital questions about the speed at which we are running down the stock of social rented homes. In the wake of that awful night in June they have become existential ones about the way we house our poorest communities.

The documentary by Paul Sng tells the story of what’s happened to social housing since the introduction of the Right to Buy turned expansion into decline in the late 20th century and especially since regeneration of existing estates became a contentious issue in the early 21st century.

I finally caught up with it this week but there are plenty more screenings in cinemas and other venues around Britain over the next few months.

Narrated by Maxine Peake, it’s a story that will not be new to people who know housing but may well be to a more general audience

It’s about how we got from the Bevan and Macmillan building booms via the Thatcher property owning democracy and Tony Blair’s ‘no forgotten people’ speech on the Aylesbury estate to the demolition and diaspora of the Heygate.

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Crisis warns of surge in homelessness

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on August 10. 

If the true scale of homelessness revealed in a report for Crisis is shocking enough now, try looking at the projections for the future.

The report by Professor Glen Bramley of Heriot Watt University estimates that what it calls ‘core homelessness’ affected 160,000 households in 2016, an increase of a third since 2011.

That means that at any one time:

  • 9,100 people were sleeping rough
  • 68,300 households were sofa surfing
  • 19,300 households were living in unsuitable temporary accommodation
  • 37,200 households were living in hostels
  • 26,000 households were living in other circumstances, including:
    • 8,900 households sleeping in tents, cars or on public transport
    • 12,100 households living in squats
    • 5,000 households in women’s refuges or winter night shelters.

The report estimates that these include 57,000 families including 82,000 adults and 50,000 children, so that the total core homeless population is 236,000.

However, the total is forecast to rise by 76% in the next decade. After a steady rise to 167,000 households by 2021 the total is expected to accelerate over the to 238,000 by 2031 and 392,000 by 2041.

As the graph shows, the increases are expected to be especially sharp in unsuitable temporary accommodation, which includes bed and breakfast accommodation and out of area placements.

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The day Mrs Thatcher came for tea

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 3. 

If the Right to Buy has a birthplace it’s a terraced house at 39 Amersham Road in Harold Hill, near Romford in Essex.

True, the sale was the 12,000th rather than the first and 11 August, 1980 was not the actual birth date of the policy either.

However, both have come to symbolise the Right to Buy because this was the place and that was the day that Margaret Thatcher came for tea.

The former prime minister joined the Patterson family, who had bought their home for £8,315 after 18 years as tenants of the Greater London Council (GLC).

Two things came together to remind me of that photo opportunity this week: first, archive footage used in the film Dispossession (full review to follow soon); and second a good investigation by the local paper of hidden homelessness in the area.

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The state of private renting

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 2.

As home ownership and social renting continue to decline, the astonishing rise and rise of the private rented sector continues.

But who is the sector housing and what are the consequences for tenants? Here are a dozen key points that I picked out from the English Housing Survey for 2015/16.

1) Overall growth

One in five of us – 4.5 million households – now rent from a private landlord. That is 2.5 million more than in 2000.

2) Age

Growth continues to be fastest among young people as high house prices stop them buying and social housing is in short supply.

The proportion of 25 to 34 year olds renting from a private landlord has increased from 24% to 46% in the last ten years. As recently as 1991, just 12.9% of 25-34 year olds were private tenants.

That figure is for households, so it could well mask an even stronger growth in the number of individual young people renting as more of them share.

The average private renter household reference person (HRP – the oldest or highest-earning person in the households) is 40, making them much younger than social renters (52) and owner-occupiers (57).

However, since the financial crisis private renting has grown among all age groups, with sharp increases also seen among the 35-44s, 45-54s and 55-64s.

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