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.


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.