It takes people to build decent housing and successful communities

If you were to look at the housing need numbers compared to what is actually being built the it is easy to argue that the housing industry is still on its backside and there hasn’t been the predicted reversal in the shedding of the housebuilding workforce that took place at an unprecedented rate. It seems an ideal time to take stock. Where am I with my crusade to prove that housing can well designed, can be part of long term positive legacy of leaving great places to live, can be sustainable and can be profitable?

In the last decade there has been much more talk about placemaking and sustainability in the housing industry. The easiest target has always been the housebuilder. My view is that housebuilders rarely have the experience to deliver what, in these “post housing greed “times, many of us want from our homes. In what industry do few of the senior employees use the products they sell? It is rare to find a decision making employee of a mass housebuilder living in one of the company’s products.

The next phase of the history of housing will not be based on people buying property as an investment; they are going to be looking to buy homes, homes to live in, and communities to put down roots in. I have met some good planners who do understand liveability and placemaking but there aren’t enough of them.

In recent weeks, folk have been asking how the rioters can smash up their own communities and the looters grab from their neighbours. The problem is that these people feel alienated from their communities, and don’t feel that they have a doorstep to call their own. While community is about people, it helps if there are physical facilities at its core and

it’s a worry how these are funded with the present “cut at all costs” attitude coming out of the Treasury.

Regeneration and empty homes

At HemingwayDesign we have three significant regeneration projects on the go at the moment, all of them focus on breathing new life into 60s and 70s estates that need significant “love”. These projects are not to be purely led by architectural intervention but rather by instilling a sense of community, hope and pride into every resident.

We must tackle attitudes to housing stock. In the UK we have a million empty homes and a further 300,000 empty commercial buildings and, as we all know, a major and growing housing shortage. I am not suggesting that it is easy to convert all these empty properties into homes but as a nation I don’t think we are doing our best.

Many commentators say that the majority of the empty homes are in the wrong location either in towns where there are no job opportunities or in the “wrong part of town”. But we have a growing creative industries sector (the second largest business sector in the UK), a sector that by its very nature and its early adoption of mobile technologies has made it more footloose and fancy free than most. What is more, for many of us creative’s the idea of upcycling an old building is at the forefront of our planning for a home, ahead of a pokey new build house ( Netherlands builds its new homes 70% bigger than UK housebuilders , Denmark 50% bigger etc etc )

Could government be taxing empty properties? Could they be encouraging us to bring unloved streets and industrial

buildings back to life by reducing (or abolishing) VAT on renovations? In Switzerland VAT on renovations was reduced to 5% and there was a net gain in income as activity rocketed.

The historic system for salvaging these properties was via the council, but because town halls no longer have money, we need to look at alternatives. We need mortgage companies to really support housing renovation and for the government to back their efforts. We’re not talking about vast sums.

The irony is that banks would lend a young couple £100,000 for a new flat, but not £50,000 for an old house and a further £35,000 for renovation. I understand why: there’s a risk the couple would just pocket the £35,000. So what we need is draw-down mortgages where banks release funds for each stage of repair. Yes, it would be hard work for the banks, but it would be worth it.

Home ownership today

Since 1990, average house prices have risen by 280% whilst wages have increased by an average of 175% pushing up the ratio between income and house prices from 3:1 to 4.2:1 and putting the UK on a rapid trajectory to first time ownership being achievable at an average of 43 years old without family help.

Even today, as mortgages become unaffordable most young people, 79% still see home ownership as a priority. Would I have been able to put down roots in London in today’s economic climate? Probably not. Would I have been content to rent until well into my 30s? Probably not. Would I have considered buying and making a go of life in east Lancashire? Quite possibly.

It is quite conceivable that the housing affordability gap between London and the regions could have an enormous impact on future demographics and business start ups. Could there be a reduction in the brain drain to London and a generation that becomes less mobile? Could we see our regional cities becoming larger creative hotspots and benefiting the regional economies? It is possible the housing crisis will have some benefits for towns and cities outside London and the south east.

Housing is central to our lives, our relationships, our family, our happiness and it’s people that are going to make an improvement in the delivery of great, sustainable places to live. It’s people who are going to bring us out the other side of this downturn. It’s people who are going to prevent us making the mistakes of the past or indeed, repeating them. It’s time to gather a group of people who understand what housing can deliver in terms of great product, happy residents and profit and go out and deliver