An article from our Chief Executive, Bill Fullen.
If I was to tell you that I’ve got an idea to save lives, create jobs in communities up and down the country and get our economy moving again in this coronavirus weary country, you’d probably think I was being pretty revolutionary.
But I’m not.
It’s an idea that’s been around for more than a century. Which transformed our country during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and again in the tricky post-war years. It’s an idea that takes no massive structural changes and can be found in all of our towns and cities, and even most villages.
Affordable housing is as obvious as it is transformative. And the facts point to investing heavily in high-quality, low-cost homes once again as the country faces a series of massive challenges.
It’s probably not a surprise to learn that there’s evidence to show a direct correlation between coronavirus infection rates and overcrowded housing. And I don’t think it takes a genius to realise that types of accommodation such as houses of multiple occupation, which have skyrocketed in the last 25 years or so, are the least adaptable in the circumstance we all face in this new post Covid-19 world.
We’ve been presented with over-crowding contributing to the spread of disease in our past. The solution was to empower our towns and cities to build new affordable homes to help people create new lives, away from many of the risks. The slum clearances of the 1920s and 30s had an enormous impact on public health that was felt for decades.
It’d be a mistake to think that building affordable homes was linked to political parties of specific hues as well. When they won the 1951 general election the Conservative Party pledged to build 300,000 new homes a year, a large proportion of which were ‘council houses’.
But moving away from the history, it’s pertinent to look at a current example and perhaps it’s appropriate to consider something of a ‘start-up’ new-build programme in the one we’ve created at believe housing.
In 2017, the programme didn’t really exist. But by 2020, it’s delivering up to 250 new homes a year. In house-building terms, that’s not slow and compared to some of the other infrastructure investments we see being championed, HS2 for example, it’s lightning-quick.
And that’s not been done the easy way, that’s been done by spreading the benefit amongst as many communities as possible. Many of our sites have seen under 25 homes constructed, some have been as low as two.
Yes, we’ve built new homes in towns like Peterlee and Bishop Auckland, but we’ve also built homes in remote villages like Rookhope. The programme hasn’t just been about building typical housing either, we’ve focussed on things like wheelchair adaptable bungalows that the private sector is never going to meet the demand for. That commitment to such a diverse range of communities, and people, was a major part of why the scheme won a Guardian Public Service Award last year.
We estimate that the entire £90m, 700 home programme up to 2022 is supporting around 2,100 jobs and providing new apprenticeship opportunities on top of that. Those jobs are genuine local jobs available to people in the communities we serve too. Obviously, all building jobs see some local subcontractors brought in, but we’ve made a conscious decision to use local firms as much as we can. Long-established companies like T Manners & Sons that have been providing jobs in Bishop Auckland for generations are great examples. They’ve even built new homes for us in Bishop Auckland so virtually all the money we invested has stayed in the town. It’s not just a hypothetical impact on the local economy, this is as tangible as it gets.
Not all ideas from the past were bad ones. If we can take inspiration from the bold ideas of the 30s and 50s, couple it to the latest ideas on green energy and smarter homes, then just imagine what we can achieve.
And that’s why we need to bring affordable homes right back to the top of the agenda for every decision-maker; regardless of their politics. Few, if any, interventions can deliver the same level of positive change for people’s lives.
So that’s why we’re backing the National Housing Federation’s ‘Homes at the Heart’ campaign. We know we can do so much more … More great homes to transform lives, more for our communities, more for our economy. We’re ready to do all of that, with just a little extra support from the right places.