Building more houses won’t solve much unless it increases the social and environmental value of occupants’ lives.
Housing (or the lack of it) has finally made its way up the political agenda to the point where the government has had to listen, and act. The Lyons Housing Commission thinks that public concern about housing has now reached its highest point since the mid-1970’s. The Redfern Review blames the problem on financial conditions that have increased house prices by 150% over the past 20 years while salaries have only gone up by 25% thus walling off younger buyers from the market.
So when the Chancellor announced new billions for the National Productivity Investment Fund to deliver an additional 40,000 housing starts and to speed up house building on public sector land in England it should be welcomed, shouldn’t it? The announcement is not going get us over the required 200,000 units per year but it’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?
But history tells us that in order to improve lives and life chances, you need more than a new wave of bricks and mortar. Without the accompanying social and environmental conditions, those on and around the poverty line, and those who are ‘just about managing’ are simply going to decant their struggles into more modern surroundings. To make matters worse, the 2016 Autumn statement contained no new or exciting proposals or funding for social care.
Many parts of UK cities have been the subject of piecemeal regeneration over decades with very little impact on the social, economic or environmental conditions of the residents. Some districts have suffered multiple demolition and building cycles leading to the break-up and displacement of communities.
The Chancellor had the opportunity to break this cycle by applying a simple condition to companies bidding for their slice of the available funding; show, with evidence, how your housing development is going to add to the social and environmental value of the areas around your development. If you don’t you will not have access to the new money. Specifically, the criteria for the billions on offer should be a clear link between the features of the development and the reduction of crime, better health outcomes, access to additional skills and jobs, higher levels of wellbeing (including increased confidence and freedom from fear), and enhanced green spaces with well-designed public realms.Design standards are relatively easy to deliver and there has been significant progress in this area.
But for the sector’s policy makers and providers – there is still much work to be done. Ensuring better social conditions is a more difficult problem to solve, particularly if the government continues to serve the public from its Whitehall ministry silos.
Area-based approaches to policing, social and health care and environmental enhancement have come and gone over recent decades. The old “fast and cheap” approach to affordable housing development has often overlooked common meeting areas, safe and welcoming public realms and supportive accessibility and mobility features. This has contributed to the isolating nature of many of residential areas.
NHS England’s ‘Realising the Value’ programme argues that levels of health, particularly for those who live in areas of deprivation will not improve until person and community-centred approaches to health and wellbeing are implemented. The programme recommends five approaches with significant potential to enhance the quality of life of people living with long-term physical and mental conditions. One of these, asset-based approaches, relies on finding the social value in communities, and putting people and agencies with skills and support capacities in touch with each other and those in need to improve self-reliance and resilience in the face of the shrinking ability of the State to offer these services. The Chancellor could insist that house-building partnerships include an asset-based project to support the new tenants in the houses that they are building.
The Government and local planning authorities could also require that new housing incorporates better standards to reduce the potential of crimes against property and the person. They could set conditions on commercial areas adjacent to new housing that incentivises social enterprises to employ and train tenants that have problems entering the job market. They could set new rules for landlords that ensure their rights are protected and impose new rent controls which restricts the ability to increase rents above a capped level. They could also heed the Lyons Review finding that housing for an ageing population must be a priority, allowing an attractive choice to downsize thus freeing up larger homes for families. Lyons also called for more homes for social and affordable rent to ensure that those on the lowest incomes and the most vulnerable have a secure and decent home.
Is this a mythical goal; to be able to build houses and communities that facilitate peoples’ lives beyond keeping them warm and dry?
This is exactly what happened in the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil over 10 years ago. The PIEC developments sought to move slum-dwellers out of squalid and dangerous conditions and into new homes. But the City Council knew that this alone would not transform their lives. The programme included dedicated social care services, new health clinics, better roads and drainage, open and green spaces and community meeting halls where residents could take advantage of training courses to learn new skills. When the social and environmental value was added up in a recent report, this scheme showed a 1:26 return on investment. This was created by both the reduction of costs associated with policing and treating the health problems, and the addition of taxes that residents paid now that they lived in better surroundings. For every £1 invested in the scheme, the local economy gained £26 in return.
Of course we need more homes, but we need sustainable communities even more, for both residents and the wider economy. If this government thinks wider than the assembly of bricks and mortar, we might just get it.