Social Housing, Future Proof … ? | S1 E7

The UK Social Housing stock is having a considerable impact on the UK’s carbon emissions, and as such the global climate crisis. Within that landscape is the country’s Social Housing. Today we explore the question, is our current model of housing future proof for both the society it’s serving and the environment it functions within?

Is our Social Housing future proof? Green energy sources are a vital part of reducing the environmental impact housing has on the UK’s emissions.


We’ve spent the last few weeks talking about social housing. We’ve looked at its history, the language used, we spoke to David Lock QC about the politics of Social Housing, we dipped our toes in the huge topic that is Social Housing’s social implications, spoken to those with direct experience of living in social housing, and the in the last episode, Housing LIN’s Jeremy Porteus spoke to us about the industry’s imagery and branding.

And now, the time has come,’ the Walrus said,

      To talk of many things:

Of homes — and hopes — and elder care —

      Of waiting lists for dwellings —

And why the sea is boiling hot —

      And whether we can put in place a structure that will meet the needs of those who need social housing whilst matching our social and environmental obligations.

That is one of Carol’s lesser-known earlier drafts … I am somewhat baffled that it didn’t make the cut as it is but I will agree, it doesn’t quite have the flow of the final version.  

Climate / environmental elements

So, that boiling sea. The climate crisis is something we are all facing. The implications of this crisis are widely felt, and the predictions of what is yet to come are, quite frankly, dire. We have all been told, many times over that we are individually capable of effecting change. I would imagine you are as familiar as I am about cutting down on our single-use plastics, evaluating our power usage, and taking a woosah breath when that paper straw folds in on themselves a third of the way through the drink. The thing is, though – and again, I am preaching to the choir, I know – our small steps are all well and good but we know it will take a larger, far more concerted effort to bring a nation’s emissions down. In terms of the environmental impact, the problems facing social housing are the same that all housing are up against; it makes little difference to the globe as to who rents or owns. What is going to make a difference to what housing contributes to the UK’s GH emissions is cleverer, more conscientious builds, increasingly efficient use of power, and a deliberate and effective retrofitting of the pre-existing 29 million homes. Alarmingly, there have been more than a million homes built that have been deemed ‘not fit for purpose’ by the government’s climate change advisers, and an additional two million new homes built since emissions legislation was put in place that will need retrofitting in order to meet the energy efficiency goals. I mean, that’s a bit of a kicker. Get it right the first time isn’t just a catchy saying … it’s kinda the way to go in this situation.

The government has put in place two billion pounds as part of their Green Homes Grant to assist with this retrofitting, covering two thirds of the improvement costs for 600,000 homes. The deal will give homeowners, including owner occupiers and social/private landlords, vouchers to install solid wall, under-floor, cavity wall or roof insulation, air source or ground source heat pump, and solar thermal panels, as well as supporting local authorities to improve their housing stock. If you’re concerned about the risk of any old cowboy cashing in on those vouchers, there is some assurance in the shape of TrustMark and Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS), either of which tradespeople must be registered with in order to carry out any of the subsidised retrofitting work. One of our customers taking the challenge head on is Russell Smith, Founder of RetrofitWorks, who believes the best way to approach the retrofitting needed it to look at it as a whole-house project. He recently spoke with Ben Adam-Smith on House Planning Help’s podcast, “Provided you’ve got a game plan right at the start knowing how everything should fit together in the long-term then your retrofits should add up to a whole house refurbishment in the long-term.” If you wanted to have a listen to their conversation, and I would recommend it if this is an area of interest for you, I’ll leave the link at the bottom of today’s transcript.

Now, onto the care for older people from our poem earlier. The aging population of the UK represents roughly 18% of the UK, and by 2050 that will have risen to nearly 25%. In the last episode, Jeremy Porteus, Founder and CEO of Housing LIN, said confidently that the majority of those elderly will continue to live happily and healthily in their homes for the remainder of their lives, meaning that houses will be tied up for longer.

We are no longer living in an environment where we have multigenerational homes, and as such each of the generations will rent or own their own home. With our older generation living longer, and staying predominantly staying put in their homes, we are in the situation of a diminishing stock of houses. And, spoiler alert, we’re already a bit (a lot) stuck for houses as it is!

Jeremy mentioned that those building houses in Japan are actively incorporating the provision of housing for the aging in their corporate strategy. This makes absolute sense to me. Incorporate housing that suits an aging population and make that an integral part of your revenue stream. Older homeowners quite often live in houses that they raised their children in. These houses are frequently three plus bedrooms in size, and are larger than, for argument’s sake, a couple in their 60’s would need. What is offered to them, in the most frequent model downsizing model, is often a 1-bedroom house which is a bedroom short of what they would prefer.

We are in a bit of a rock and a hard place situation with housing. Last year there was 1.16 million households on waiting lists, with only 290,000 homes made available, leaving a national shortfall of more than 800,000 homes.  Populations have a habit of expanding so there’s no chance that those figures are gonna sort themselves out without a big of elbow grease from those of us already here. As it stands now, analysis from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA)’s Housing 360 data tools show that it could take up to 17 years to clear the wait list.

In the Social Implication episode, we talked about insiders and outsiders of housing, and how it’s the insiders that hold so much sway over the way housing is delivered. The areas where the demand for Social Housing is high are more likely to come up against opposition for developments. For homeowners in these areas, the introduction or increase of social housing in their neighbourhoods is seen as being contrary to their interests. Hence the pretty staunch opposition. In 2013, the Social Market Foundation suggested that the solution was to reduce the number of insiders and bring about a more equal balance between them and the outsiders. By doing that we would see reduced insider influence, and a situation where we were seeing planning decisions that reflected the wider needs for housing in our society rather than the valuation of Mr and Mrs Smith newly renovated, overly modernised terraced shoebox.

The government’s Planning for the Future white paper, released in March, proposes a number of quite drastic revisions of the current planning process. In an incredibly brief overview, it sets out the government’s plans for housing and planning. It explains the funding for

  • an extension of the Affordable Homes Programme with a new, multi-year settlement of £12 billion
  • over £1 billion of allocations from the Housing Infrastructure Fund to build nearly 70,000 new homes in high demand areas across the country
  • nearly £650 million of funding to help rough sleepers into permanent accommodation.

If you’re in need of some light bedtime reading and are interested in reading the whole thing, you’ll find it at the bottom of the transcript of this episode.

Where the report is likely to appeal to developers, it’s been utterly roasted by housing charities, planning officers and architects who believe that this quick-fix approach is going to result in a lot of substandard housing. The Guardian writes that the Town and Country Planning Association has condemned the suggested revisions, describing them as “disruptive and rushed…” and that, “Labour called [the report] “a developers’ charter” that will “set fire to the important safeguards”. ‘’

Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1990 is a private agreement made between local authorities and developers that, and I’ll quote the gov’s planning portal here, “can be attached to planning permission to make acceptable development which would otherwise be unacceptable in planning terms”. Within that, the developers are required provisions for social housing within new developments, although small sites are currently exempt, and it looks as if that exemption will be extended, or to provide something that will contribute to the community at large. The thing is, that developers may only be allocating three of their new builds to social housing or settling on a playground as their community contribution.

Instead of the Section 106’s agreements, the plans would turn the existing community infrastructure into a single tax based on floor space that would be paid by developers to the local authority upon occupation. Should the developer include affordable homes in their development they’d get a discount on that tax. Keir Starmer is quoted as saying, “This is a developers’ charter, frankly, taking councils and communities out of it. And on affordable housing, it says nothing. In fact, it removes the initiatives that were there for affordable housing”. What this tax does is remove the requirement for the provision of affordable housing and make it a mere option to consider. If you’re in the house building game to make profit, and your profits are going to be healthier with full paying, unaffordable house buyers, even bearing in mind the full tax, you’d more or less just go for it, huh?

One of the proposals in the report is the removal of planning permission for the conversion of commercial spaces into residential. Alan Jones, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects goes a step further than Kier and describes the reform as “shameful”, saying that it does “almost nothing to guarantee the delivery of affordable, well-designed and sustainable homes.”. He suggests that the fast tracking this conversion could very well slide us back into a situation where slum-living becomes very real.

So where does this leave us? We are in need of a large number of houses, and yeah, actually, quite quickly.  Jones is right in that this isn’t a numbers game that can be fixed by deregulating our current model. Instead, he offers some suggestions as solutions: “If the government is serious about addressing the dominant position of large housebuilders and the lack of quality social housing, the secretary of state needs to make changes to the tax system, look at why land approved for development lies untouched for years, and give local authorities power and resources to promote and safeguard quality.” Those definitely are options worth considering. A significant systemic shift implemented by the big boys at the top is something that will deliver changes the environment needs.

That sort of shift, however, isn’t going to happen immediately, and as such there is room for other players to step in an contribute.  I mentioned the Japanese

earlier, and the way that, for some organisations, the provision of housing for their aging population is deliberately included into their corporate and marketing strategies. Why would we not do the same in our current situation? We need to do the same with Green. That, in our industry, makes perfect sense. Innovations from building products suppliers are where big shifts can happen, and the market is wide open for it. Our industry provides the individual components that will make our housing stock supportive of the environment rather than destructive, and when implemented against initiatives such as the Government’s Green Homes Grant, there is room for some real change to be made. Imagine that. The White Gold double glazing salesmen of the 80’s were right … it really can save the world 😂

And so, there it is! Our brief jaunt through social housing has come to an end. I have to say, personally, I have found it fascinating. It is a story with so much complexity, and something that has had such a significant impact on our country – politically and socially, and now environmentally. We’ll continue to be diving into how the climate crisis effects our industry over the coming weeks, looking at companies that are innovating with the aim to contribute to the Green nature of housing and building. I invite you to get in touch with us if you are involved in Green, we’d love to have a conversation about how you are making buildings better.

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