Housing in Crisis

It’s hard to accept there should be a housing crisis in any of the UK nations, this simply should never have been allowed to happen, and the longer it persists the more challenging it will be to resolve. New investments in social housing are celebrated, but still the numbers are too low and even with the best intentions the solution is too simplistic to ensure the crisis is permanently ameliorated.

To achieve a lasting solution, firstly it’s important to look beyond the housing crisis itself, and instead acknowledge that housing itself is in crisis. This is a crisis that’s a culmination of years of seeing the simple fundamental provision of housing undermined by a range of factors that are exacerbating the situation. These include:

  • Large scale private house builders who prioritise returns for shareholders over building quality, liveable homes. They view homes as units, and focus on making them as cost effective as possible, as a result homes continue to get smaller and more expensive. They are reluctant to build at scale, and instead in the UK we have a situation where planning permission has been granted for 1,000,000 homes that have yet to be built. This, and the practice of land banking is choking the supply of new homes and helping to keep house prices inflated.
  • Housing has become a commodity for investors. At its most extreme luxury properties are being built and sold to international investors who have no intention of having the properties occupied. Their only interest is seeing the annual increase in value of the property. In addition, developers have perfected a model for two bedroom apartment complexes with singular appeal to buy-to-let investors.
  • Where people can afford the mortgage payments on a property, they are still excluded from buying a home as they can’t afford the deposit. As a result they don’t have a choice of renting or buying, the only choice is to rent.
  • The phrase Generation Rent, may make people feel that they are embracing a more European way of living where renting is more commonplace. However, there is a big difference. Many European countries have far better pension schemes than the UK and when our Generation Rent reaches retirement age it’s unlikely they will have sufficient pension income to continue paying rent. One of the major benefits of buying a home is that as soon as the mortgage is paid-off the cost of living decreases dramatically.
  • Housing associations will need to undertake a comprehensive programme of retrofit to ensure their properties meet or exceed environmental emission targets. Funding this should not be allowed to compromise their ability to build more homes.
  • All new homes will become more expensive to build as they will also need to meet carbon emission targets.
  • Homes aren’t always built on the right land, developers hunt down parcels of land that can be built on. This doesn’t mean they are in optimum locations and we continue to see developments in locations that are heavily car dependent.
  • Opportunities for urban regeneration continue to have less appeal to developers who want a clean site to facilitate a simpler, cheaper build.
  • Increasing numbers of people are living on their own, and people are living longer, yet new housing stock isn’t accommodating this demographic shift.
  • As a result of the pandemic demand for rural homes looks set to increase as people look to leave densely populated cities. In Wales this has the potential to further drive up house prices in our rural communities, making home ownership a distant dream for many local citizens.
  • In October 2019 the Welsh Assembly Government reported that there were a staggering 27,000 empty properties in Wales.

There have been initiatives that have aimed to overcome a number of these factors on an individual basis. However, there is little prospect of private builders changing their practices, the choice of sites for new developments hasn’t been optimised, the volume of homes being built is still far short of what’s needed, and if we continue as we are there seems little prospect of resolving the housing crisis.

History has shown that it is possible to build quality homes at scale, in particular there is a solid legacy of 1950s and ‘60s built council houses. Typically, these three bedroom semi-detached houses were spacious, with many including practical features such as a cloakroom where coats, shoes, vacuum cleaners, ironing boards, clothes airers and pushchairs could be stored. Is a small room where all the practical things of life can be stored such a luxury?

Well you’d struggle to find such a room in any new build three bedroom semi built in the last thirty years. Instead private builders continue to shrink homes, to the extent that Housing Minister Juile James highlighted her concerns by stating that we are “Building the slums of the future.” Whilst headline grabbing, this comment was highly accurate, houses are built for people to live in. To live in a home people need sufficient space, and for them to thrive the home needs to be in a setting that allows a neighbourhood to develop, whilst at the same time be in easy walking or cycling access to shops and facilities.

Much of this was the case with our postwar housing, and yes there are plenty of documented cases where highrise didn’t work, although that’s not the case of all high density developments, and as we move forward imaginative, well considered high density housing shouldn’t be ignored as part of the solution.

Picture by Nick Treharne

The National Housing Plan

The solution needs to be bigger than individual developments and piecemeal initiatives. It’s time to put in place a far reaching National Housing Plan. It’s easy to find reasons not to build homes at scale, and the private sector has had sufficient time yet little motivation to build more. So from the outset a National Housing Plan for Wales will need to set a date as to when the housing crisis will end. This should be its core mission, from which a plan can be developed that will ensure that the homes:

  • Are designed to enhance life for their occupants
  • Will exceed carbon emission targets
  • Are affordable to rent or buy
  • Will be built in the right locations to allow people access by foot, bike or rail travel to the facilities, services and places of work they need
  • Where part of developments, put wellbeing ahead of car parking to create intrinsically attractive locations to live in
  • Be built in a way that facilities new neighbourhoods to grow
  • Provide mixed tenure
  • Embrace efficient, environmentally sustainable construction methods
  • Create new employment opportunities, supported by training programmes
  • Facility the ability to build a high volume of quality homes at speed
  • Are part of imaginative regeneration programmes to redevelop urban centres.

Be in no doubt this is highly ambitious, however when you consider the fundamental benefits living in the right home in the right location has, and the follow on benefits this has to the lives of the people living in those homes it makes perfect sense to have this ambition. Housing has the potential to be the key element in transforming the lives of people across Wales, and to capitalise on this the National Housing Plan should be seen as part of a much needed seamless, integrated system in Wales.

Creating this as a standout partnership, would ensure that the centrality of housing would bring together a raft of agendas and embrace new opportunities. This would help to secure a future where all aspects of our built environment were working together in an integrated way supportive of a common goal: the transformation of Wales into an agile, logic focussed nation, that embraces innovative ways to ensure the long term sustainability of the Nation and creates a more rewarding way of life for its citizens.

In this respect the National Housing Plan presents an unprecedented opportunity to:

  • Define what needs to be built and where it needs to be built. If needed it should be empowered to acquire the land itself.
  • Capitalise on the rail network transformation, particularly in South Wales by prioritising new sites in walking distance of the Valleys Lines to allow significant positive regeneration benefits for these communities. This isn’t new thinking, it’s an approach the Metropolitan Railway adopted in the early 20th century and resulted in the development of “Metroland” where purpose built suburbs north-west of London were created specifically to transport commuters into the city. Whilst we may see a decrease in the daily commute, the importance of living close to a train station shouldn’t be underestimated. It provides teenagers with independence and makes it more viable for people to live an environmentally friendly car free lifestyle.
  • Embrace the benefits of the Foundational Economy. Put simply building homes costs money, so it is logical to ensure that the money spent is spent in Wales and as close to the developments as possible. This itself would create opportunities to grow new businesses to provide the building materials, equipment and technology needed to build houses.
  • Homes built by Housing Associations and increasingly councils in Wales, create physical assets that generate income, built to higher standards Housing Association properties are highly regulated and are part of a well established housing sector in Wales, and they are in prime position to upscale the numbers of homes built. Social Housing is the “can-do” sector in Wales and it has the ability to ethically invest in communities across the country, providing not only the much needed housing but also a valuable and reliable injection of spend to support local businesses and communities. Alignment with the “Can Do Toolkit” would ensure the National Housing Plan delivered not just homes but wider economic benefits across Wales. It’s the logical way to spend money.
  • New council housing. In 1976 some 8,000 council houses were built, shrinking to a tiny annual average of just 15 since 2000. With councils now building again across Wales, we have the perfect opportunity as part of the National Housing Plan to learn from what didn’t work in the past. For example: the large single tenure estates in what were often isolated locations with limited facilities, shouldn’t be a part of the future. Yet at the same time being able to build at volume will be an essential requirement and this favours the wider adoption of Modern Methods of Construction.
  • It’s all too easy to overlook the most important aspect of housing provision – people. The people who make a house a home and could well be living in that home for many years. Community involvement and research needs to be embraced by The Plan to ensure the right types of properties are built, and also to explore with people different options to establish what a good home should be.
  • Linking with the education sector The Plan should facilitate new research and development into house building to give Wales the opportunity to be at the forefront of new construction methods. The Plan would also help to identify training needs across Wales.
  • Promote co-production, cooperative enterprise and self-build.
  • Work effectively with support groups to bring to end homelessness.
  • Be truly inclusive, welcome private housebuilders, but only on the basis of the principles The Plan is working too. This would resonate with some of the newer, smaller developers, and for the large house builders it would allow them to consider their business models and decide if they want to proactively be a part of The Plan.
  • Champion innovation, as optimised by the plan in Treherbert for the community to acquire land to grow trees and build affordable housing.
  • The overarching nature of the work being undertaken by the Future Generations Commission is a clear and desirable fit with The Plan, and would allow the multiple agendas that impact on housing to be taken into full consideration.

The 8 Pillars of National Housing Plan.

To end the housing crisis, the National Housing Plan would be established based on the following set of founding pillars.

  • Pillar 1: Vision. A vision to create a Wales where not one citizen is in housing need. This vision would be underpinned with a fixed date.
  • Pillar 2: Declaration. The immediate declaration of a Housing Emergency in Wales. We have gone beyond crisis and emergency status should empower the Government to take immediate actions to help alleviate the situation. Such measures may well be far reaching, for example: suspending the purchase properties as second homes.
  • Pillar 3: People. Make people the priority. Build homes that are fit to live in, and constructed in locations that are good to live in. Wales is a diverse nation, with a diverse population. Housing should play a pivotal role in creating positive inclusive environments for everyone to live in.
  • Pillar 4: Green. Demand new homes are built in ways that minimise their impact on the environment, and allow for occupants to live in a sustainable way.
  • Pillar 5: Ethical. Plan nationally, deliver locally. Work with communities to plan and deliver new housing in ways that embrace the Foundational Economy and the Can-Do Toolkit.
  • Pillar 6: Collaboration. Capitalise on the centrality of housing to bring together a seamless approach that includes agencies, support groups, housing associations, community groups, academia, local authorities, planning and Government in a focussed results orientated environment. There is little time for talking, and The Plan would focus on coordinated action.
  • Pillar 7: Future Focused. Invest in research and development in house design and retrofit. This will ensure Welsh housing will be fit for an ever changing future, where people are living longer with changing their needs changing over time.
  • Pillar 8: Skills. Training for the future. Building the new and retrofitting the existing will require new skills.

Overall, a National Housing Plan for Wales would bring together and fully utilise the thinking and actions that are already in place. It would build on this by being able to identify the bottlenecks and ideally be empowered to remove them. To end the housing crisis, The Plan needs to be based on logic, and focussed on ensuring we build the right homes in the right places. To achieve this will mean being innovative and at times radical. In a confident Wales that is truly determined to transform our Nation for the better should be welcomed with open arms.

Images: Nick Treharne

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://resetcymru.wordpress.com/2020/09/06/housing-in-crisis/