Social not financial assets: What Britain can learn from Singapore’s housing market

Build high for happiness. Image: Getty.

One of the beacons of UK social housing policy, the legislation from 1919 that became known as the Addison Act after its sponsor, the minister of health Christopher Addison, imposed for the first time a duty on councils to build good quality and affordable housing. But, as with most policies, it was only partially effective. Today, 100 years later, housing provision in the UK remains a major challenge, mired in problems of affordability and availability.

Britain is a home-owning nation, where housing is considered an investment asset for individuals rather than a social asset for society as a whole. This is unfortunate. As an investment, buyers pour their wealth into property on the understanding that they will benefit from rising values. The resulting price distortions lead to – among other things – localised skill shortages as key workers, teachers, nurses, firefighters are forced out by rising prices, unable to rent or buy.

But there are alternative arrangements to the hybrid housing economy that has developed in the UK – a mix of private sector ownership and renting and of housing provided by housing associations and (historically) by councils.

Housing as a social asset

Take Singapore, for example. Singapore had its own “Brexit” in 1965 when it separated from Malaysia. In 1960 the Singapore Housing and Development Board (HDB) was formed to provide affordable and high-quality housing for residents of this tiny city-state nation. Today, more than 80 per cent of Singapore’s 5.4m residents live in housing provided by the development board.

These are issued by the state on 99-year leaseholds, and the value of the home depends on the inherent utility value of the property (size, type, location), with financing readily available, including that provided by the Central Provident Fund (CPF). The CPF is a social security system that enables working Singapore citizens and those with permanent resident status to set aside funds for retirement. It is a compulsory savings scheme, which includes contributions from employers, to set aside funds for healthcare and housing costs in later life.

Property buyers in Singapore can fund the purchase of a development board flat with a bank loan, a loan from the HDB, with cash, or with funds drawn from the CPF. In a similar way to the leasehold system in the UK, the resale value of an HDB flat deteriorates as the lease end date approaches, in this case when the lease drops to under 30 years. As is the case in the UK, difficulties arise in trying to finance homes with short leases. However, the HDB leasehold system is different as the “owners” have bought only the right to use the flat – the property title and ownership remains with HDB.

Additionally, the development board prohibits Singaporeans from owning more than two residential units at any time. In the case of an inherited flat, ownership is only allowed if the inheritor disposes of their existing private or public residential property within six months of inheriting it.

The HDB remains by far the dominant national housing provider, building and owning most residential housing and playing an extremely active role. Private sector housing is available, but it is much more expensive.

The Pinnacle, an example of more recent, high-quality public housing in Singapore. Image: ScribblingGeek/creative commons.

A lesson in long-termism

The differences between the approaches in the UK and Singapore are extreme. In the UK, council housing is considered to be a public sector cost – a burden to the taxpayer. For many people this is housing provision of last resort. In Singapore it is treated as an asset to the public purse, as well as a social asset – and carries no stigma, nor is seen as something to be avoided if possible. The UK’s mixed housing economy results in major social and economic distortions, whereas Singapore invests in housing precisely to avoid or counter those distortions.

In the UK, with the exception of the New Towns, housing has tended to involve creating individual assets rather than an approach based on place-making – creating neighbourhoods and communities. Singapore’s HDB housing units are built in HDB towns with housing units integrated with amenities including clinics, community facilities such as parks and sports facilities, and retail. As Singapore has developed economically, so HDB has also begun to produce more upmarket housing.

Transferring the solution that works for tiny Singapore to Britain would be impossible, but perhaps there are lessons to be learnt regarding a longer-term approach to meeting housing need.

One is to adopt a more integrated approach to housing: the conversation in Britain is dominated by the number of units provided and at what price they are sold, but a more sophisticated discussion would include who that housing is aimed at, where it needs to be, and how it is designed in order to create a sense of place. As important is the need to ensure housing is completely integrated into existing urban infrastructure, including roads, public transport, schools and health services.

The fragmentation of housing ownership in the UK makes it extremely expensive to redevelop or make major modifications to existing residential areas – each owner would have to be persuaded to modify their property or sell up as part of a land assembly process. In Singapore, with a history of intensifying land use and population density, HDB ownership means it is able to rebuild old estates and maintain and develop the extent of integration with social amenities.

Major innovations are occurring that will transform the ways in which we live – and these must be reflected in our housing: more electric vehicles and driverless cars, home working, e-commerce and ever-increasing population densities in cities. The integrated approach of HDB means Singapore is able to take a long-term strategic approach to these changes – and so more easily ensure that residential areas have all the public amenities, public services, retail and transport infrastructure required for them to thrive. The UK would be wise to watch and learn.

The Conversation

John Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Competitiveness, University of Birmingham.

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


Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.

Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

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