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Article by Nicholas Mulholland – architect and Director of AWW inspired environments in London. Nicholas specialises in the Residential, Healthcare and Education Sectors.

On 8th September, the leader of Britain’s trade union movement warned of a “Downton Abbey-style” society in which social mobility “has hit reverse” and criticised mixed housing apartment blocks where social housing tenants must use a separate entrance, the so-called “poor door”. It is over ten years since a study by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) reported housing availability in this country was among the worst in the European Union and RICS Chief Executive Louis Armstrong commented that a housing underclass was being created. It is clear that this rich/ poor divide has not been stymied since the 2003 report but the abolishment of the ‘poor door’ is not the solution for alleviating the housing crisis that those on low incomes and the many desperately in need of social housing and forced into long term ‘temporary’ accommodation face.

Oliver Wainwright argued in his article ‘Poor doors’: not the worst thing about social housing published in the Guardian in July, that the issue repeated by developers, architects, planners and social landlords alike, is one of pure practicality. “Registered social housing providers always want separate entrances,” says Robert Evans, a Director of Argent, the developer currently building 2,000 homes in King’s Cross, 40% of which will be classified as affordable. “They want to manage their own units, and feel they can get better maintenance and cleaning contracts with an economy of scale, when all the units are accessed off one core.” While he stressed that you shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between private and affordable units, mixed tenure schemes were not without pitfalls. “The difficulty is with the higher-end product in central London, which come with an astronomical service charge,” he says. “Housing benefit won’t cover that, and if you try to make the private buyers pay for it, that would last two seconds in a tribunal. It’s illegal to make one group of residents cross-subsidise another.”

Market conditions are driving land value growth, making the search for sites to deliver lower value homes ever more difficult. Savills has estimated that the shortfall in homes in the south of England will reach 160,000 in the next five years, unless local authorities act to make more building possible. The biggest deficiency is in London, where 14,400 more homes a year are needed to meet demand than are planned for by the Greater London Authority (GLA). In 29 of the 30 years up to 1978, local councils built more than 90,000 homes a year, in part replacing old and war-damaged stock, but also adding new homes. Figures released by the Government in May revealed that in 2013/14 just 840 new homes were completed by local councils and 22,150 by housing associations in England. A staggering 11,238 council homes were sold off through right to buy in England in 2013/14, compared with 5,944 in 2012/13.

A third of the council homes sold in the 1980s are now owned by private landlords, some of whom own dozens of properties that they now rent back at very high rents [Caroline Lucas, Hansard 23 June 2014 column 110]. Whilst the right to buy scheme undoubtedly diminished the social-housing stock, little has been done since to restore council house construction levels. Earlier this year the Scottish Parliament rejected by a margin of 103 votes to 12 a last-ditch effort by the Government to save the right to buy scheme from being scrapped by new housing legislation. It remains to be seen whether Scotland’s initiatives will result in more social housing availability.

The current ‘Help to Buy’ scheme has undoubtedly helped to increase growth in housing demand but nobody wants to see the market spiral out of control leading to another boom and bust cycle and plans by the Bank of England to cap riskier mortgage lending is an important ‘insurance policy’ for the UK economy.

According to RICS, the ‘pent-up’ housing market demand is dying down, but there are still too few properties coming onto the market which means prices are likely to keep going up. For the majority of Londoners, buying your own home is just not an option. Last month a tiny house in north London went on sale for £275,000. The bedroom was a mezzanine bed above the kitchen and the bathroom consisting of a toilet squeezed into a tiny wet room with no barrier to the shower. For the average Londoner, the deposit needed to buy even this tiny property is beyond reach. Renters don’t fare any better. Earlier this year, a Kings Cross Studio flat filled almost entirely by bed centimetres from kitchen units and the door was successfully let after being advertised for £737 a month. It created outrage when it went viral on social media from people highlighting the poor living conditions caused by London’s housing crisis. In Britain, owning your own house provides more security than renting. It’s not just the lack of social housing that is a problem. For the average working Londoner, just renting a flat of your own is out of reach.

Over the last decade the number of households privately renting has increased to around two million Londoners – about one in four – but the capital has few purpose-built rented schemes compared to the US or Europe. The GLA is marketing two sites, Silvertown Way and Pontoon Dock, with the specific aim to deliver a significant proportion of private-rented homes. AWW has previously worked with the developers selected for these schemes. Silvertown Way in Canning Town, a 2.1 hectare site was previously vacant land, and will become more than 1,000 homes including 347 private rented, 232 for affordable rent, and 154 for affordable home ownership. Pontoon but will be transformed into more than 200 homes and approximately 11,000 sq ft of non-residential floor space, to include 137 private rented sector homes, 42 for affordable rent and 31 for shared ownership.

This is a great start, but with approximately one in 10 Londoners on council waiting lists we need to do more. Even leading business groups are urging politicians to build 240,000 homes a year to tackle the “chronic” housing shortage. Katja Hall, CBI deputy director-general said in the FT recently that the housing shortage was not just a social issue but a key business one with “huge implications” for competitiveness as the high cost of moving home and lack of affordable housing were barriers to attracting and retaining employees.

Since the 1990s, UK house building has failed to keep pace with population growth. Britain does not build enough houses to meet rising demand. We simply need to build more. The question is how can we achieve this? Councils could be more conducive to development; many are overly influenced by nimby and rural lobbies. Protected greenbelt land may not be protecting beautiful countryside but instead the interests of the nimbies. The economist argued this month that rather than protecting countryside from development, it pushes new house building out to places like the Chilterns, which though enormously beautiful, is not in the greenbelt and so is less protected from development. The current planning laws are rather restrictive, if they were redrawn in favour of development, increased supply would lower demand and therefore prices. However this solution requires safeguards to ensure that construction isn’t excessive or massively inappropriate. When it comes down to it, would you want your view of fields replaced by someone else’s backyard, even if the field in question was scrubby fields rather than glorious countryside? There are 61,000 hectares of brownfield land in England and the Government has approved half of it as potentially suitable for development. With builders to be given new incentives to make it easier to build on derelict sites in towns and cities, hopefully the economic viability that discourages building on brownfield sites can be overcome and with careful and considerate masterplanning, use of existing space can be optimised. AWW’s Residential Sector Director Philip Bevan says that “We always advocate looking at brownfield sites first, only when this is not feasible should greenfield sites be looked at.”

Other opportunities to create more living spaces include a proposed crackdown on “ghost homes” achieved through closing loopholes that allow absentee owners to avoid the council tax premiums or by imposing a land value tax. In 2013 it was estimated that there were 59,313 empty homes in London, approximately half of which were long term empty properties. The Permitted Development Right (PDR) is another option. Since May 2013, those looking to convert offices into new homes have been able to do so under a PDR. Islington council issued an Article 4 Direction, seeking to remove these rights across the borough with one of their arguments being that developers would avoid any obligations to include a proportion of affordable housing in these developments. However after discussions with the council, the steps taken by ministers will limit where office to residential conversions cannot take place under Permitted Development Rights to very small, targeted parts of Islington.

One of the main benefits of the PDR legislation may be in changing attitudes and getting local authorities to think differently about redundant spaces and planning alternative uses. AWW typically works with developers where the impact of developments focuses on communities and not just individuals. Local Planning Authorities, developers, masterplanners and architects need to work together and take a strategic view as to what is needed by a local community when planning housing developments. Teams need to ensure wider needs are addressed and this requires a flexible and pragmatic use of more creative policy. AWW’s Philip Bevan says “we are involved with a few PDR schemes in Bristol. Whilst we understand the criticism that no social housing is included in these schemes, the units being created tend to be reasonably affordable when compared to larger new build schemes on the harbourside for instance. These PDR schemes bring old office blocks back into use and fundamentally they revive or even create communities in the heart of the city.”