To solve the housing crisis, we need to rethink transport and regeneration, too

London's Olympic Village: one of the few housing schemes where someone thought about the infrastructure, too. Image: Getty.

The government’s long awaited Housing White Paper was finally published last week. Its central premise was that there is no single solution to the UK’s notorious housing problem: increasing the delivery of private rented stock, coercing local authorities to build more, and greater support for SME builders are all strategies outlined by Sajid Javid.  

The government’s willingness to pursue many different solutions should be praised. Javid is right when he says we need to build more of “the right homes in the right places”.  To have any chance of success, however, these specific initiatives need to relate to a wider collective focus.

The UK needs an ambitious vision of how we will grow our towns and cities; not only to meet the target of delivering a million homes by 2020, but also in face of the wider challenges of rebuilding our country following Brexit. Against these criteria, the white paper is anything but “radical”.

In order to drastically improve long term access to housing, we must change the terms in which we discuss the provision of new homes. By using a simple binary of supply and demand, policy solutions fail to account for the great chasm of geographic disparities in the quality, quantity and value of UK housing stock. 

In November 2016 the UK House Price Index stated the average London property costs a staggering £482,000. In the North East this figure is £127,000. Recent data from Nationwide suggests house prices are 11 times average earnings in Oxford, but only 3.4 times average earnings in the north. 

While London and the south suffer from a lack of supply, low wages and a stagnating economy in other parts of the UK mean many homes lie vacant. 

A study by the charity Empty Homes found areas in the North tended to have a larger proportion of unused residential properties. The adage that the UK no longer has enough homes is only half the picture; many of the houses we do have are now located in areas in which jobs have long since vanished. 

The housing in many towns and cities is a remnant of the UK’s formally industrial economy. Since the accelerated decline of manufacturing, with a few notable exceptions, growth has largely been focused in London and the South East. Now that jobs have moved elsewhere, urban areas across the country are characterised by vacant and derelict buildings – empty vestiges of a once prosperous economy.

Building new homes in areas of high demand is only one solution to part of a more complex problem. Whilst there is a strong case for building on the Green Belt around Oxford and Cambridge, can we really justify a new “Garden Village” outside Liverpool when so much inner city stock sits vacant? 

Focusing investment in declining urban areas would go a long way to alleviating other socio-economic ills. In order to address long term structural changes to the UK’s towns and cities, housing provision must be formally integrated with infrastructure spending and regeneration projects. 

In areas of industrial decline, for instance, the government should seek to invest in rail connectivity alongside reviving depilated housing. Imagine the regenerative benefit of improving train services between the South Wales Valleys and central Cardiff. This would give neglected communities much needed access to jobs, as well as bring investment to long suffering ex-industrial towns. 

Both the National Housing Federation and the CBI have recently called for housing supply to be incorporated into the National Infrastructure Assessment. In November’s autumn statement the chancellor announced the launch of the new “Housing Infrastructure Fund”: £2.3bn intended to unlock new areas of housing by paying for new roads, drainage, and broadband. This represents a move in the right direction, however such integrated policy tools need to be much bolder and go much further.

For too long housing provision in the UK has been piecemeal, focusing on leftover slithers of land. As the late Sir Peter Hall said “we don’t build enough, and what we do build is often ugly and alienating”. 

Using infrastructure to inform where and how we build would not only deliver homes that resonate with our industrial heritage. It would also go along way to making housing a lot more affordable for a lot more people.

Jas Bhalla is an architect and urban designer. 


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”