“The Social Housing Green Paper is another delaying tactic to put off fixing the broken housing market”

Hackney Town Hall. Image: RedLentil/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s time to let councils build, says the Labour mayor of Hackney.

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I was reminded of those words last week when Sajid Javid told the National Housing Federation’s annual conference that he would start a “nationwide conversation on social housing” by bringing forward a green paper that would be “wide-ranging, top-to-bottom review” of the issues facing the sector.

Presumably this is different to the “proper conversation” that the communities secretary said his damp squib of a Housing White Paper would kick-start just a few months ago.

Javid also said his green paper would be “the most substantial report of its kind for a generation”. Clearly the minister has forgotten about his own government’s Housing & Planning Act – the hugely damaging piece of legislation his predecessor drove through Parliament just a year ago, against the wishes of local councils, housing associations and tenants.

The Tories are now carrying out the third review of why this country’s housing system is fundamentally broken in little over 12 months. And every time they ask people up and down the country what the problem is, they get the same answer – the government’s obsession with leaving the market to deliver the hundreds of thousands of new homes we need simply isn’t working.

The NHF’s own research, published as the minister made his announcement, shows funding for new social homes is at an all-time low – at just 0.2 per cent of GDP.

In 2010, the government decided that there would be longer be any public money to build homes for social rent – and construction of these homes ground to a halt almost overnight. In 2010-11, just under 36,000 social rented homes were started. The next year, work started on just over 3,000.

This is bad for everyone. Bad for the 120,000 children in living in temporary hostels and B&Bs because there’s not a council home for them. Bad for private renters, like those in my borough of Hackney who pay nearly £2,000 per month for a two-bed flat while facing the impossible task of saving for their first home as prices hit record highs. And bad for the government, whose housing benefit bill has spiralled to £25.1bn – costing every man, woman and child in the UK £400 every year – with more and more of that money paid to private landlords, who are propping up a broken market by housing those who can’t find social housing.


Councils like Hackney, the borough I lead, have repeatedly said that they stand ready to fill this void. Despite getting zero funding to build social housing, we’re already building 4,000 homes in the next few years – with more than half for social rent and shared ownership, paid for by some for outright sale. If only ministers would abandon the sell-off of social housing and cut the unnecessary red tape that means we can’t access the finance we need to build, we could do so much more.

It seems to be an answer that Mr Javid doesn’t like. What other reason is there for this latest “conversation”?

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there is of course a need to make sure that tenants are properly heard. Clearly, that has gone badly wrong in Kensington and Chelsea. But the failings of one Conservative council should not be an excuse to try to further erode the role of local authorities in providing safe, secure and high-quality housing for their residents.

Instead of pointlessly fiddling around in Whitehall, ministers should abandon their market-led dogma and give councils and housing associations the funding and borrowing freedoms they need to get building in big numbers.

The government’s tired old ideas have been failing to fix this housing crisis for seven years, with every previous intervention making the situation worse. Perhaps instead of lecturing from Whitehall, it’s time ministers listened and let those who are managing their fiasco on the frontline take the lead in solving it.

Cllr Philip Glanville is the Labour mayor of Hackney.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.