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.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.