For a quick solution to London’s housing problems, look to pre-fab

Modular housing: better than it used to be. Image: Morley von Sternberg.

The Grenfell Tower disaster has shone light into many dark corners – one of which has been the sheer difficulty of meeting demand for affordable housing, particularly socially-rented housing, in central London. 

Kensington & Chelsea, with the highest average land values in London, has a challenge that is particularly intense, but not exceptional: the borough has around 7,000 socially-rented units, but more than 1,800 homeless households are housed in temporary accommodation, 1,360 of these outside the borough – the highest proportion in London.

Centre for London has argued for more collaboration between boroughs to build more affordable housing where there is most space. But this is a long-term solution; it’s no good talking to traumatised and grieving survivors about lead times of two to three years plus, about short-term tenancies, about outplacements. They want to be re-housed locally and securely, in socially-rented flats. They have lost family, friends, possessions; they need at the very least to retain their local connections, their sense of community.

If the traditional housing market can’t meet these needs, then perhaps this disaster offers the opportunity to try something new.  As the UK’s housing crisis deepens, and the supply of new homes fails to respond to demand, architects, engineers and investors have been working together on a new generation of manufactured homes. Rather than using the labour-intensive technologies of bricks and mortar that have been in place for centuries, these new homes are built off-site using the precision manufacturing techniques that are commonplace in office development, then assembled on site in a matter of months if not weeks.

Modular housing: better than it used to be. Image: Morley von Sternberg.

With a few exceptions, however, manufactured homes are more talked about than built.  As disruptive technologies meet a highly conservative industry, there are problems with how systems work together, with the warranties that can be given, with insurance. 

Centre for London is planning a project looking at how these can be unlocked. But perhaps the biggest problem is one of perception. Previous generations of ‘pre-fab’ and ‘system-built’ homes do not have a great reputation (though many ‘temporary prefabs’ built in the 1940s are still in place today).

These techniques mean that new homes could be built in a few months, on sites near North Kensington. Though there are few large sites in Kensington & Chelsea itself, there are several opportunity areas nearby: Old Oak Common, White City and Earls Court all border the borough.  If suitable plots of land could be identified and prepared within these area, and planning permission fast-tracked, new villages could be built to house Grenfell survivors, and could remain in place for three to five years, after which time it could remain in place, or be dismantled and moved to enable long-term plans to be realised.

Though procurement timetables would – as ever – be a challenge, the mayor and other agencies could appoint a selection of different suppliers to build new homes. In this way, he could respond to the needs of a desperate community, but also showcase a way forward for tackling London’s housing crisis.

Richard Brown is Research Director at Centre for London. He tweets as @MinorPlaces.

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How can we stop city breaks killing our cities?

This couple may look happy, but they’re destroying Barcelona. Image: Getty.

Can’t wait to pack your bags and head off on holiday again? It used to be that people would look forward to a long break in summer – but now tourists have got used to regular short breaks through the year. We love to jet off to the world’s glittering cities, even if only for a day or two. The trouble is, binge travelling may be killing the places we visit.

You may even have seen some “tourists go home” graffiti on your last trip, and it’s not hard to see why. Barcelona is a good example of how a city can groan under the weight of its popularity. It now has the busiest cruise port, and the second fastest growing airport in Europe. Walking through the Barcelona streets at peak season (which now never seems to end) flings you into a relentless stream of tourists. They fill the city’s hot spots in search of “authentic” tapas and sangria, and a bit of culture under the sun. The mayor has echoed residents’ concerns over the impact of tourism; a strategic plan has been put in place.

It is true though, that cities tend to start managing the impact of tourism only when it is already too late. It creeps up on them. Unlike visitors to purpose-built beach destinations and national parks, city-break tourists use the same infrastructure as the locals: existing systems start slowly to stretch at the seams. Business travellers, stag parties and museum visitors will all use existing leisure facilities.

‘Meet the friendly locals’, they said. Image: Sterling Ely/Flickrcreative commons.

Barcelona may only be the 59th largest city in the world, but it is the 12th most popular with international visitors. Compared to London or Paris, it is small, and tourism has spiked sharply since the 1992 Olympics rather than grown steadily as in other European favourites like Rome.

Growth is relentless. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) even speaks about tourism as a right for all citizens, and citizens are increasingly exercising that right: from 1bn international travellers today, we will grow to 1.8bn by 2030, according to UNWTO forecasts.

Faced with this gathering storm, just who is tourism supposed to benefit? Travellers, cities, residents or the tourism industry?

Market forces

Managing the impact of tourism starts by changing the way destinations market themselves: once the tourists arrive, it’s too late. Tourism authorities need to understand that they are accountable to the city, not to the tourism industry. When the city of Barcelona commissioned the University of Surrey to look into how it might best promote sustainable development, we found a series of techniques which have been incorporated, at least in part, into the city’s 2020 Tourism Strategy.

In the simplest terms, the trick is to cajole tourists into city breaks which are far less of a burden on the urban infrastructure. In other words, normalising the consumption of sustainable tourism products and services. In Copenhagen, 70 per cent of the hotels are certified as sustainable and the municipal authority demands sustainability from its suppliers.

Higher than the sun. A primal scream from the world’s cities? Image: Josep Tomàs/Flickr/creative commons.

Destinations must also be accountable for the transport impact of their visitors. The marketing department might prefer a Japanese tourist to Barcelona because on average they will spend €40 more than a French tourist – according to unpublished data from the Barcelona Tourist Board – but the carbon footprint we collectively pay for is not taken into account.

Crucially, for the kind of city breaks we might enjoy in Barcelona, most of the carbon footprint from your holiday is from your transport. Short breaks therefore pollute more per night, and so destinations ought to be fighting tooth and nail to get you to stay longer. It seems like a win for tourists too: a few extra days in the Spanish sun, a more relaxing break, and all accompanied by the warm glow of self-satisfaction and a gold star for sustainability.

Destinations can also target customers that behave the most like locals. Japanese first-time visitors to Barcelona will crowd the Sagrada Familia cathedral, while most French tourists are repeat visitors that will spread out to lesser-known parts of the city. Reducing seasonality by emphasising activities that can be done in winter or at less crowded times, and geographically spreading tourism by improving less popular areas and communicating their particular charms can also help reduce pressure on hot spots, much like Amsterdam is doing.

Turnover is vanity, and profit margins are sanity. No city should smugly crow about the sheer volume of visitors through its gates. If tourism is here to stay, then the least cities can do is to sell products that will have the greatest benefit for society. Whether it’s Barcelona, Berlin, Bologna or Bognor, there should be a focus on locally and ethically produced products and services which residents are proud to sell. Tourist boards should work with small businesses that offer creative and original things to do and places to stay, adding breadth to the city’s offering.

The ConversationWhether Barcelona will introduce these ideas will depend on the bravery of politicians and buy-in from the powerful businesses which are happily making short-term profits at the expense of residents and the planet. It is possible to do things differently, and for everyone to benefit more. It may be that the tipping point lies in the age-old mechanics of supply and demand: bear that in mind next time you’re booking a quick city break that looks like it’s only adding to the problem.

Xavier Font is professor of marketing at the University of Surrey.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.