Rethinking social housing

Originally posted on June 26 on my blog for Inside Housing.

As we prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS an older part of the welfare state is at a crossroads.

The road already taken reaches back to the birth of council housing at the end of the 19th century and its rise and fall through the 20th century.

While other parts of the UK have sought to protect the role of social housing, until recently in England only one direction seemed possible.  This offered a motorway towards fixed-term tenancies, the housing association right to buy, forced sales of council houses, with social housing seen as a way station rather than a destination for the most vulnerable.

But the events of 2017 have reconfigured the road signs to leave other options for the way ahead. Grenfell means it is no longer possible for governments of any party to ignore social housing and social tenants, the rhetoric of the Conservative prime minister has changed, the Labour party has put forward a coherent plan for ‘genuinely affordable’ housing and any number of different projects is underway to rethink the role and purpose of social housing.

Today it’s the turn of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), which marks its 2018 conference with publication of the final report from its Rethinking Social Housing project.

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Variety the key to faster build out, says Letwin

Originally published on June 25 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

For all the headlines about Spitfire production and the wartime spirit, Sir Oliver Letwin’s draft analysis of build-out rates on large housebuilding sites focuses on one key factor above all others – and it’s one that could have huge implications for housing as a whole.

After visits to 15 different sites and discussions with people throughout the industry, he focuses forensically on the ‘absorption rate’ – the rate at which housebuilders can sell newly built homes in a local market without reducing the local market price.

This is not a surprise – it was also his focus in the interim update he produced in March – but he seems even more convinced of its importance now.

In his draft analysis, this is what underpins everything from the valuation model used in the RICS red book to the residual land value model that housebuilders use to calculate how much they will pay for land.

As he puts it:

‘We have heard from everyone we have talked to in the industry about these processes that, in all of these forms of land sale, the starting point of all participants is the residual value calculation. And that residual value calculation always starts with the assumed open market value of new homes in the local area – which is always fundamentally driven by the prices of comparable second-hand homes in the local area, and hence by the assumption that the number of new homes built in any given year in that area will not be large enough to put downward pressure on the price of second-hand homes in the area.’

In other words, anyone hoping that an increase in housebuilding for sale on large sites will reduce house prices will come away disappointed since the entire model is designed to ensure that this does not happen.

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A plan to end homelessness

Originally published on June 12 on my blog for Inside Housing.

At times in the last year it’s seemed that all a politician has to do to end homelessness is say ‘Housing First’ three times, take a trip to Finland and announce a new initiative.

All three do feature in the plan published by Crisis this morning but alongside a 10-year strategy that challenges the politicians to take a harder road to a real destination – if they choose.

Everybody In: How to end homelessness in Great Britain was developed following an international evidence review of what works here and abroad, a consultation with over 1,000 people across Britain and newly-commissioned research to fill gaps in the evidence.

Crisis, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, warns that there are currently 160,000 people facing the worst forms of homelessness in Britain but that if we continue as we are this number will double over the next 25 years.

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Grenfell’s ‘culture of non-compliance’

Originally published on my blog for Inside Housing on June 5.

Yes it was the cladding but expert reports for the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire find multiple fire safety failures in the building and its refurbishment and management and in the wider regulatory system and construction industry.

The first thing that leaps out of the report by fire engineer Dr Barbara Lane is a timeline that shows that the conditions for ‘Stay Put’ advice to residents had ‘substantially failed’ by 01:26 on the morning of the fire.

This was within half an hour of the fire breaking out in Flat 16 and the London Fire Brigade did not abandon Stay Put until 02:47.

Those conclusions have already made some of the headlines but Dr Lane makes clear that there is a deeper context for them.

The way that high-rise buildings are designed and the way that fires in them are fought in them rely on the fact that multi-storey external envelope fires are not meant to happen.

So the fire at Grenfell rendered invalid all of the basic assumptions about fighting fires from the inside and telling residents of other flats to stay inside them because they will be protected by compartmentation.

That meant there had to be an improvised approach to fighting the fire from the outside on the night but most of the building was always going to out of reach even for aerial appliances – the whole reason why the risk of external fires should be designed out in the first place.

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