“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 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.