Building homes, not just houses, takes more than bricks and mortar

Good quality, affordable housing is of vital importance to people’s sense of identity, health and general well being. But in the UK we don’t have sufficient housing that is affordable, of sufficient quality, and in places that people want to live in order to be able to provide the requisite conditions for making a house a home.

My research identified a number of elements required for a sense of “home” that are inherent in this sense of well being and which go beyond bricks and mortar. These elements of home reflect our need for security, safety, privacy, quality of space, connectedness and affordability.

This year marks the centenary of the Housing and Town Planning Act (1919) – better known as the Addison Act, after the first minister of health Christopher Addison who brought it to parliament. The Act led to the first government-backed, council-led house building programme of affordable homes. As a doctor, Addison knew about the terrible impact of lamentable slum housing conditions on their inhabitants and the transformative potential for health of good housing.

This meant that housing built under the act was not to be in back-to-back, overcrowded streets. While the programme was initially successful and led to considerable slum clearances, it did not reach the potential envisaged. By 1922, in The Betrayal of the Slums Addison bemoaned the rowing back of promises, saying that the provision of quality affordable housing:

… may be drab and unattractive in its detail, but in its nature and in its fulfilment, it is heroic. It is worthy of sacrifice and of all the powers of discipline and statesmanship that we possess. We should, moreover, throughout the years of work be conscious that the pledged word of the British people to the living as well as to the dead remain unbroken.

One hundred years on, there are calls for the sector to be supported to once again take an Addison approach. Homelessness figures in many of our cities are rising and it is difficult for young people to access decent housing they can afford on the private rented market, let alone to become owner-occupiers themselves.

Social housing in Page Street, Westminster, showing the Edwardian phase (left) and striking checkerboard Edwin Lutyens-designed 1930s blocks (right). Image: Paul Farmer/creative commons.

The number of new housing starts was down by 9 pre cent at the end of the first quarter of 2019 compared to the same period last year. The Market in Minutes report produced by estate agent Savills explains that this is because housebuilders are:

… maintaining margin discipline when land buying, managing risk through careful site selection and acquisition structures.

But of course they are “maintaining margin discipline” – private-sector house builders must keep the best interests of their shareholders at heart and ensure a profitable return on their investment.

While the number of affordable starts by housing associations rose by 31 per cent last year, just over half of these were delivered through Section 106 agreements with house builders.

This is a mechanism through which councils can require developers to provide public facilities as a condition of granting planning permission – for example roads, a new school, a leisure centre or, indeed, a percentage of affordable units in a housing development otherwise for rent or sale at market rates.

There has been improved planning guidance to try and minimise the game-playing by which developers reduce the number of affordable homes on claims that the entire development would not otherwise be financially viable. Nevertheless, the fate of providing affordable homes on a grand scale cannot be left to small victories from such planning gain alone.

So long as the UK continues to expect the private sector to be the chief means of delivering new housing, the rate of house building will continue to disappoint. We must escape this private-sector straitjacket in order to provide affordable housing at the scale at which it is urgently needed.

What makes a “home” is so much more than bricks and mortar. The physical structure is the starting point, but it must have sufficient quality, security and privacy to make it home. It’s not true to say that only public housing can provide this – there are some socially conscious private landlords too.

But housing is built and treated as a private commodity, rather than a social investment with society-wide benefits. Government policy tends to fetishise the potential of the private sector instead of focusing on the return on investment at a societal scale that providing social homes could offer.

The Local Government Association recently launched its #CouncilsCan campaign following the government’s decision to lift the spending cap that has for decades all but eliminated the power of councils to build homes. The campaign aims for councils to build 100,000 houses a year. But a budget for social house building is looking less likely following speeches by the new secretary of state for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Esther McVey, who is more from the mould of the “dream” of home ownership.

In his first speech as prime minister, Boris Johnson pledged £3.6bn as part of a package of infrastructure and travel measures aimed at boosting forgotten towns, largely in the north of England. Such announcements are welcome, but will the man who famously got stuck on a zipwire have the dexterity or inclination necessary to turn this into the game-changer it needs to be?

The Conversation

Jo Richardson, Professor of Housing and Social Inclusion, De Montfort University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.

The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.