1. Environmental
February 13, 2017

To solve the housing crisis, we need to rethink transport and regeneration, too

By Jas Bhalla

The government’s long awaited Housing White Paper was finally published last week. Its central premise was that there is no single solution to the UK’s notorious housing problem: increasing the delivery of private rented stock, coercing local authorities to build more, and greater support for SME builders are all strategies outlined by Sajid Javid.  

The government’s willingness to pursue many different solutions should be praised. Javid is right when he says we need to build more of “the right homes in the right places”.  To have any chance of success, however, these specific initiatives need to relate to a wider collective focus.

The UK needs an ambitious vision of how we will grow our towns and cities; not only to meet the target of delivering a million homes by 2020, but also in face of the wider challenges of rebuilding our country following Brexit. Against these criteria, the white paper is anything but “radical”.

In order to drastically improve long term access to housing, we must change the terms in which we discuss the provision of new homes. By using a simple binary of supply and demand, policy solutions fail to account for the great chasm of geographic disparities in the quality, quantity and value of UK housing stock. 

In November 2016 the UK House Price Index stated the average London property costs a staggering £482,000. In the North East this figure is £127,000. Recent data from Nationwide suggests house prices are 11 times average earnings in Oxford, but only 3.4 times average earnings in the north. 

While London and the south suffer from a lack of supply, low wages and a stagnating economy in other parts of the UK mean many homes lie vacant. 

A study by the charity Empty Homes found areas in the North tended to have a larger proportion of unused residential properties. The adage that the UK no longer has enough homes is only half the picture; many of the houses we do have are now located in areas in which jobs have long since vanished. 

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The housing in many towns and cities is a remnant of the UK’s formally industrial economy. Since the accelerated decline of manufacturing, with a few notable exceptions, growth has largely been focused in London and the South East. Now that jobs have moved elsewhere, urban areas across the country are characterised by vacant and derelict buildings – empty vestiges of a once prosperous economy.

Building new homes in areas of high demand is only one solution to part of a more complex problem. Whilst there is a strong case for building on the Green Belt around Oxford and Cambridge, can we really justify a new “Garden Village” outside Liverpool when so much inner city stock sits vacant? 

Focusing investment in declining urban areas would go a long way to alleviating other socio-economic ills. In order to address long term structural changes to the UK’s towns and cities, housing provision must be formally integrated with infrastructure spending and regeneration projects. 

In areas of industrial decline, for instance, the government should seek to invest in rail connectivity alongside reviving depilated housing. Imagine the regenerative benefit of improving train services between the South Wales Valleys and central Cardiff. This would give neglected communities much needed access to jobs, as well as bring investment to long suffering ex-industrial towns. 

Both the National Housing Federation and the CBI have recently called for housing supply to be incorporated into the National Infrastructure Assessment. In November’s autumn statement the chancellor announced the launch of the new “Housing Infrastructure Fund”: £2.3bn intended to unlock new areas of housing by paying for new roads, drainage, and broadband. This represents a move in the right direction, however such integrated policy tools need to be much bolder and go much further.

For too long housing provision in the UK has been piecemeal, focusing on leftover slithers of land. As the late Sir Peter Hall said “we don’t build enough, and what we do build is often ugly and alienating”. 

Using infrastructure to inform where and how we build would not only deliver homes that resonate with our industrial heritage. It would also go along way to making housing a lot more affordable for a lot more people.

Jas Bhalla is an architect and urban designer. 

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