Meet the Sheffield social enterprise using shipping containers to tackle the housing crisis

A shipping container, repurposed as housing. Image: REACH.

A Sheffield-based social enterprise is hoping to navigate the rocky waters of the UK housing market, by creating affordable 1, 2 and 3-bedroom homes from shipping containers.

Inspired by an episode of Grand Designs, former police officer Jon Johnson set up REACH – Recycled, Environmental, Affordable Container Homes – in January 2017. Following a small grant from charity UnLtd, the social enterprise built a prototype which it is currently showing off to interested parties from around the UK. Johnson believes it can build 6,000 units a year, helping to plug the housing shortfall and creating genuinely affordable homes.

Just 1.4 per cent of homes in large developments approved by planners in Sheffield in 2016 and 2017 met the government’s affordable definition. In Manchester, it was literally none..

“We need to build the houses people want, where they want them, rather than what developers can bully through,” says Johnson. “I’ve got 40 or 50 housing reports. Are we going to keep writing reports or are we going to do something about it?”

During Johnson’s almost 30-year career in the police force, he saw first-hand the effects that insecure and poor-quality housing can have on communities in Britain. “It underpins everything in society. Everybody needs somewhere to live,” he says. “And if you haven’t got a decent place to be, that is adding to mental or health problems. You're onto a loser from the outset.”


“Decent housing is a human right like air and water,” he goes on. “It’s always been done to us by people who don’t care about standards or quality as long as they’re making money.”

Johnson used skills learnt through his furniture recycling store, Strip the Willow, to decorate the prototype, and sourced every bit of second-hand wood he used locally. The panelling used to be a counter in a local Indian takeaway, the cladding on the roof came from a local mosque. The bedroom headboard is made out of a piano, and light fittings are made out of cymbals.

Each of his eco homes will be 60 per cent recycled, built offsite in three weeks and powered by renewable energy sources. “We aim to make use of million tons of waste we put into landfill every year,” he says.

Changing the playing field

But followers of the UK housing market will be unsurprised when Johnson says there are vested interests and serious obstacles to overcome before REACH can achieve its dream of turning a cottage industry something more substantial.

“The same people will just keep profiteering out of everyone else’s misery,” he says. “We're trying to do housing the right way. It’s about people and planet, not just profit. Housing shouldn't be about giving out millions in bonuses at end of the year.”

But REACH won't be able to build any homes without land – perhaps the biggest hurdle for them to get over.

Following the Second World War, the government freed up land and built prefab housing estates around the country. Johnson believes a similarly bold approach is needed to meet the housing demands of the 21st century.

However, the publication of the social housing green paper last week made no promises to build more social housing. It “doesn’t commit a single extra penny towards building the social homes that are desperately needed,” said housing charity Shelter.

Frustration with this situation led Johnson to set up the National Federation of Affordable Building (NFAB), which brings together organisations from across the offsite construction sector who all would like to see a change in policy. “The reason we set up NFAB was because so many SMEs have had conversations with Homes England and got nowhere.”

The current Homes England system for listing land means building companies need to have a turnover of £50m before they can even be considered for public land – a bidding process that excludes all SMEs such as REACH.

REACH does have backing from the Local Government Assocation, though. It also has Sheffield City Council on board, and is hoping the council will soon be given a piece of land to build the first nine homes, freeing up funds for its first off-site factory.

It's clear that it’s going to take some forward-thinking councils for it to succeed. “We need a Dunkirk style situation with SMEs getting some innovation into the market,” Johnson says. “The issue of land and how much its worth is entirely notional. Land is expensive because people think it is.

“If Homes England can ringfence a percentage of the land they give to the big builders every year, and have that for affordable development, we won’t have a problem because the SMEs will have somewhere to access the market instead of queueing up for massively expensive land.”

At the moment, he notes, “Big builders don’t want to do things any differently because they're protectionist of their profit margins. SMEs can’t get a look in. We need to alter that playing field.”

A sustainable trend?

One popular misconception of homes made from shipping containers is that they are too cold in winter and uncomfortably hot in summer. Some critics also suggest that say the current trend for modular housing is a fad.

But Johnson says that residents will need the heating on for only two months a year: the homes are designed using ‘Passivhaus’ principles, which optimises energy efficiency through its design.

“They are light and spacious,” he says. “It’s how we use the offset of parts of the containers. They are like adult Lego. We can use architectural glass and make some fabulous buildings.

“They’re affordable but they will look like architect-designed houses.”

The one, two and three bedroom models will be sold at £35,000, £65,000 and £90,000 respectively. There is already a large waiting list of people ready to move in once they've secured some land.

At present, “I don’t think it’s a trend,” Johnson admits. But “it will take over the market if it's done right. The tech has now caught up and modular housing can be controlled a lot more intelligently in the factory. It cuts down on construction costs, waste and theft of materials from sites. It makes the whole process of housebuilding a lot more efficient.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to get housing moving in the right direction and get sustainability on the agenda,” he concludes. “That’s not going to happen if we leave it to the big builders.”

Thomas Barrett is the editor of New Start magazine, where this story first appeared. He tweets as @tbarrettwrites.

All images courtesy of the author/REACH.

 
 
 
 

What’s the constitutional status of the Isle of Man, then?

...what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

Amidst the tumult of Brexit negotiations, away from questions about the integrity of the Union itself being asked by wearied bureaucrats in Edinburgh, Belfast, Brussels and London, the constitutional uncertainty of our times has washed up on the shores of the Isle of Man. Now it threatens the slumber of policymakers in Douglas, too.

The ten-by-forty mile island in the Irish Sea is best known internationally for its annual TT motorcycle races and tax haven status. If you haven’t been you should go: the variety of scenery is breath taking, as are the economics. Lamborghinis emerge from the back of slate cottages, a seaside dwelling can set you back more than an Edinburgh duplex, and the gilet prevalence index is off the charts in certain localities.

The reason for the disconnect is the constitutional relationship between the Isle of Man and the UK. For centuries the island supplemented threadbare revenue streams from subsistence farming and fishing with a robust smuggling sector. The IoM government homepage clearly, maybe even proudly, states that it has never been part of the UK: in the 1700s plans to buy it out and make it part of England were shelved after local unrest, while the current arrangement of Home Rule dates to the early 1800s.

Today the IoM government is based in Douglas, the island’s largest town. Its funding comes through a revenue sharing agreement, the “common purse”, with tax gathered locally on behalf of London and returned to the island according to an unpublicised formula. The agreement has been a source of contention for about as long as it’s existed, but ire has grown proportionally with the island’s pre-eminence as a tax haven. Its detractors point out that the UK consistently gives back to the IoM government more than it gathers, effectively subsidising the island’s status as a tax haven; while its supporters are wealthy.

A map of the Isle of Man. Image: Eric Gaba/Wikimedia Commons.

In a world gripped by economic injustice, the IoM drives social change with a programme of support to welcome the huddled masses of oligarchs yearning for freedom from autocratic tax regimes. Income tax tops out at 20 per cent but, fear not, it’s capped at £150,000. Corporation tax is nil, until your firm earns £500,000 a year; then it has to pay 10 per cent on everything over that. For mega-wealthy émigrés forced to flee odious obligations like capital gains, inheritance or wealth tax, there are opportunities to invest in local property, to get back on your feet: proceeds are taxed at 20 per cent.

The Isle of Man enjoys the same constitutional status as the Channel Islands: the UK handles its accountancy and defence, but aside from the constant vigilance required to keep Dublin at bay the only international hassle comes from Brexit. In the same way as the IoM has never been part of the UK, it’s never been part of the EU – it enjoys all the benefits (or unconscionable infringements) of membership by virtue of a legal protocol which doesn’t bestow membership. Crucially, the IoM doesn’t have any representation with the EU – it can’t, being the kind of Schrödinger jurisdiction which is neither part of the UK nor its own recognised area.


That distinction brings other problems. Regardless of how Brexit pans out, the EU has shown signs of going to war on tax avoidance – a rare political argument which unites populists and progressives. The EU now maintains lists of high risk money-laundering and tax compliance jurisdictions, and the IoM’s prominence in the international sector was part of the reason some MEPs have pushed for including the UK as a whole.

The IoM experiences the paradox of autonomy without representation. Its relationship with the UK has often been hamstrung, too, such as in 2009 when the Treasury slashed common purse funding in an attempt to nudge Douglas away from its tax avoidance platform.

Domestically, the distance between the plutocracy and everyday islanders is stark. Most people on the island are not wealthy: they rely on public services and work jobs like anywhere else. After the IoM’s funding was cut by London at the height of the financial crisis, lower and middle income earners were worst hit. Now the island has to maintain a favourable tax code for plutocrats while supporting public services used by the people who need them. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and likely to become more so if the EU pursues its anti-tax avoidance agenda post-Brexit.

Simon Jones is a writer based in Glasgow.