For once all major political parties, all sections of the mainstream media, and pretty much everyone you speak to on the street agree on one thing – Britain is in the midst of a housing crisis. But we need to be very careful in how we tackle it … or we could end up accidentally creating another predicament.
The calls for a speedy resolution to the housing crisis grow stronger by the day, quite understandably too. Barely a week goes by without another story of how the limited supply of good quality and affordable homes is ruining lives. You’ll struggle to find anyone who doesn’t have an opinion on the housing crisis and virtually everyone agrees that something must now be done. But what?
We have to accept that it’s human nature to look for a single ‘solution’ to any crises that dominate our discourse so massively. But history tells us that such solutions rarely exist. The answer is almost always a bewildering range of solutions. Each alone will not provide a resolution, but brought together as a suite of options and tailored to individual circumstances they can.
Such solutions might not make for the best headlines, for the catchiest soundbite or the easiest answer to give to those suffering the most. But they are the only long term solution to avoid a return to the cyclical house building that is at least partly to blame for the situation we find ourselves in today. For much of the last century, Britain has been subjected to these peaks and troughs.
In the 1920s and 30s the groundswell of public and political opinion created a vast programme of social house building. Housing conditions for millions of ordinary working people were laid bare in books like The Road to Wigan Pier, and the speed of slum clearances was accelerated. Huge estates were built on the edge of towns by the corporations of the day.
At the end of World War Two, Britain demanded homes to replace those destroyed during the conflict as the least form of recompense due to those who had given so much for their country. More vast estates sprung up; street after street of semi-detached homes.
In the 1960s as the rush to rid Britain of more sub-standard homes continued, the high-rise became almost the default solution. In the clamour for modernity these new and untried building types quickly spread and thousands upon thousands of families found themselves in what was basically a huge experiment in vertical living.
All of these surges in house building were born of noble intentions and they created some good homes … but most of them created plenty of bad homes too.
We need to build more new homes and once again step things up in terms of speed. But we also need to be careful not to fall into the same traps again, as many of the attempts to do so in the past have contributed to what we face today.
Having to pull down homes within 30 or 40 years of them being built surely creates more problems than it solves as it produces the need for yet more housing replacement en masse. Creating vast enclaves of the same type of house means that families have to leave the area if their circumstances change, perhaps meaning they have to leave their friends and support network. If your entire neighbourhood can only offer flats and you’re looking to start a family, the desire to move out of the area is almost inevitable.
This time we should not be looking for a single new building technique to solve all problems, a radical reimagining of how we could live, or even some exciting new material. They would all be a distraction. Yes we should always look for gradual improvement and value, but essentially we should be looking to continue with current best practice.
To truly tackle the housing crisis needs a balanced response. A development of two bungalows in a tiny village in rural Weardale, here in County Durham, may not on the face of it do much to tackle the vast issue we see in front of us. But it does. It provides the right homes in the right places for two families. If we could continue the same ethos with developments like that right across the country we would contribute towards tackling the crisis. A development does not have to number hundreds of units to be worthwhile. Infill developments can transform communities and make best use of available land.
A traditionally built three bedroom house close to an existing town centre, work and good transport links is unlikely to leave all and sundry claiming to have seen the future either. But it will provide a good home for a family, probably for generations of families. It’s most likely to find a tenant or a buyer in the future and it’s unlikely to be subjected to obsolescence of materials or techniques, which should allow repairs to continue almost indefinitely.
We need one, two, three and four bedroom houses; and with an ageing population we need accessible properties too. While the current state of the private housebuilding market does nothing in particular to encourage such a philosophy, the social housing sector can really demonstrate its importance here.
It’s also easy to say that we need more social housing, and I’m definitely not going to argue with that … but they need to be the right mix of tenure. Rent to buy is absolutely the right model for some tenants, just as social rent is undoubtedly the best option for others, and affordable rent has its place too. It’s no different from the private sector where the answer isn’t just homes for first time buyers that attract a good proportion of media attention but also for expanding families. What’s important is to give options for all tenants and residents.
We can’t just impose all of this from on high either. We need to work with communities to be certain of the types of homes, and the locations, where they are needed and can continue to be a valuable asset. It doesn’t even just make good sense for local people. It makes huge sense for anyone investing in property too – including of course social landlords. If your asset has a life of more than five decades, then it is infinitely better value than one that will need to be replaced within 20 or 30 years.
We’re all passionate about homes. We all want to solve the problems. But we need to do it in a measured and sensible way. The housing crisis is a far bigger and more complicated issue than it will ever be possible to reflect in the pages of the tabloid press. It’s way more important than can ever be portrayed in a single political soundbite. We owe it to everyone to grasp the bigger picture, learn from the lessons history presents us with and this time, get it right.
believe housing Chief Executive Bill Fullen.