Jane Embury looks at innovative ways to meet the housing shortage
The UK government recognises the scale of the country’s chronic housing shortage and has pledged to “build, build, build.”
It’s estimated by the BBC’s Housing Briefing that the UK has built 1.2 million fewer homes than we should have.
Not only that, but there is a growing need for new housing and not enough affordable homes are being built.
The biggest shortfalls are in the south-east of England, such as in London and Brighton.
But towns and cities elsewhere are also affected – for example, Edinburgh, Bristol, and York.
Calculated on new household formation and existing need, England should be building some 345,000 homes a year. In 2019/20, housing stock increased by about 244,000 homes.
The government is committed to doing something about it. It has a plan to build 300,000 new homes per year.
But that’s where ambitious rhetoric comes up against political reality. The government’s planning reforms may now be watered down.
It’s estimated that up to 100 Tory MPs could vote against the plans. Former PM Theresa May said that it would create “the wrong homes in the wrong places”.
Critics of the government’s plans say that it amounts to a developers free-for-all. There would be too little local democratic accountability.
In June, the government was unexpectedly defeated in the Chesham and Amersham by-election. A major issue in the election was its new planning proposals.
As things stand, the government would require councils to divide areas into three categories – protected, renewal and growth.
Protected areas, such as the Green Belt, would get limited development. In renewal areas, councils would be told to look favourably on development.
However, applications that meet agreed local plans in growth zones would be approved automatically.
But the problem with the government’s plans is that it lacks imagination. It is simply using build, build, build as a sledgehammer.
What’s needed is some blue-sky thinking, to make better use of precious land and repurpose existing buildings.
Labour, for example, favours development on former industrial “brownfield” sites. One advantage of that approach is that population growth would be contained within, or near to, existing conurbations.
That alone will bring added vibrancy to towns that have been badly affected by the pandemic.
We have cautioned several times about the need to reinvent our towns and cities. They need a resilient post-pandemic future.
While the requirement for new housing is pressing, so too is the need to build back better on our high streets.
It’s also important that government and planners consider the longer-term impacts of Covid-19.
For example, we wrote recently about an innovative scheme from Threefold Architects. Their Swaker Yard project in Boreham Wood, a commuter town, recognises that we have gone beyond work-life balance to work-life integration.
With extended home-working now a reality, their scheme builds in shared working space into its design. Swaker Yard will have a 50:50 split of workspace and homes in an innovative near-work housing development.
Underlining remote and hybrid working was a YouGov poll published last week. It found just one in five companies will require all staff to come in five days a week after the pandemic.
The Swaker Yard approach is one that therefore addresses two objectives. First, it provides new housing. Second, it meets an economic imperative for the new normal.
Unleashing more imagination, it is estimated that as many as 300,000 to 400,000 new homes could be created by making use of empty spaces above shops on our high streets.
Living over the Shop was an initiative originally pioneered in 1989 by Ann Petherick, a freelance planner. Maybe it’s time to dust off that idea.
For example, Dublin City Council is currently drafting plans to help convert more than 4,000 empty spaces above shops into housing.
This will form part of the council’s development plan for the city between 2022 and 2028.
And not necessarily above shops. With shop vacancies increasing there is the option of converting them for residential use.
The Local Government Association has published a guide on options for dealing with empty shops. The guide also includes examples of best practice.
Converting retail premises into a home or homes does require planning permission. But if there is no obvious commercial use, the chances of approval may be greater.
There are other ways. John Lewis is considering plans to build 10,000 homes over the next decade, primarily on excess space on land it already owns.
The properties will either be built over Waitrose supermarkets or on land next to the company’s distribution centres.
The first John Lewis homes are planned for south-east England but the partnership believes there are opportunities across the country.
While building new homes is a priority, we must also embrace innovative ways of thinking to protect and enhance local communities. Building anything anywhere is not a good option.
Our role in the built environment is to provide advanced glazing systems to protect against fire.
That’s important in any building, but particularly important in multi-use buildings. For example, where a residential property sits above a retail or food service outlet.
Again important in a multi-use context, we have also developed a dual-directional glazing system. This protects in either direction, because fire can and does start anywhere.
We can now look to the future and start to meet the need for more homes. However, let’s hope that we build the right homes in the right places.