“We need politicians to be really honest with people”: on the gaps in the housing white paper

Yeah, good luck with that. Image: Getty.

This was not a housing white paper that would see the chancellor in a hard hat being gleefully greeted by a happy major house builder.

The narrative is markedly different to that of previous governments, and lays responsibility for the housing crisis in a multitude of directions – rather than at the feet of the planning system. House builders, as well as both central and local government, are expected to take responsibility for a crisis where we need to build a quarter of a million homes a year to try to catch up.

There is a lot to be pleasantly surprised with in this approach, and much of it sets a bold direction. The support for SME builders is very much welcome – the sector has been dominated by a small group of national builders who often prioritise very large scale developments for too long – as is the two year time limit on builders to develop land for which they have planning permission.

Giving councils the power to reclaim land that isn’t built on may actually be the kick the housing sector needs to start delivering at scale.

However – and there has to be a however, because if solving the housing crisis was as simple as fixing a couple of incentives and a few bits of legislation, this would have either been fixed yonks ago – clearly, there’s a much bigger problem to be solved.

It seems to be this – there’s a distinct lack of real leadership from both central and local government. The fact that neither party will even open a discussion regarding the greenbelt shows the level of reluctance. According to Lord Matthew Taylor and Policy Exchange, only 12.2 per cent of land outside of London is developed – even taking into account farmland and a desire to protect a huge proportion of greenbelt, there is an awful lot of land there up for debate. 

Allowing everyone to have a decent quality home will lower demand, and therefore house prices. We know this, it’s basic economics – and yet barely anyone in either local or central government will openly say it.

We need politicians to be really honest with people who are lucky enough to own their own home, and to tell people that they may well have to take a financial hit to allow struggling families and young people to live in a decent home. It’s not going to be popular, but it’s a level of realism that we are going to have to live with.

We also need to be better at acknowledging that building more homes is not just a case of quickly building some blocks of flats – there’s a whole host of infrastructure and quality related issues to deal with. Building more homes near transport hubs sounds perfectly logical, but as anyone who travels on the Northern Line on the London Underground will tell you, infrastructure has to keep up. This is going to involve huge investment from central government, as well as long term planning across multiple councils.


Which brings us to the next issue – how are local authority planners are going to have the capacity to deal with these extra powers over house building? Planning departments have been decimated in recent years. The problem with building housing is that it’s pretty permanent – you can’t decide you don’t like it in five years and start again.

So we need to create places with proper infrastructure, green spaces, decent space standards, good design, access to transport and culture – the things that make life worth living. This takes time, and highly skilled planners.

Not only would this create the homes that we need, it would also go a long way to tackling the opposition and fear of development that is causing the shortage in the first place.

There is obviously a natural conflict for local politicians between those who oppose development and those who need it, and often those who shout the loudest get listened to the most. But we can’t go on ignoring the millions of people who are currently shut of the housing market.

It is time for politicians to step up, take the flack, and build the homes that we need.

Claire Porter is head of external affairs, and Adam Lent director, of the New Local Government Network.

 
 
 
 

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.”