Europe’s housing time bomb: a new report highlights the millions affected by housing exclusion

The European Union has not had its troubles to seek in the years following the financial meltdown of 2008. Continuing concerns about the euro, the refugee crisis and Brexit are challenging Europe’s leaders as never before, leading to speculation about the very existence of the EU. But at the end of March, new research highlighted an additional challenge that threatens Europe’s social fabric.

The authors of the report described the current situation concerning housing exclusion and homelessness as “a state of emergency” affecting all European countries. Startling figures uncovered by the research show a continent-wide crisis in the making:

  • In France, the number of homeless people increased by 50% between 2001 and 2012
  • In Germany, 16% of people spend more than 40% of their income on housing
  • In Romania, one in every two people live in overcrowded conditions
  • In the league table of homelessness, the UK now ranks 20th out of 28
  • The number of families in temporary accommodation in London has increased by 50% since 2010
  • In Copenhagen, youth homelessness has increased by 75% since 2009
  • In Warsaw, the number of people sleeping rough or in emergency shelters has risen by 37% since 2013
  • One in 70 people in Athens are now homeless

Vulnerable groups

The report finds that young people across Europe are being hit especially hard by housing exclusion.

“In all EU countries, young people are more vulnerable to prohibitive housing costs, overcrowding and severe housing deprivation than the rest of the population. For poor young people across Europe, the situation is becoming unbearable, with 65% in Germany, 78% in Denmark and 58% in the UK spending more than 40% of their disposable income on housing. The average in the EU is 48%.”

The report also found that Europe’s poor are being side-lined at a time when housing expenditure has increased while incomes have fallen.

“In general, people living below the poverty threshold are increasingly marginalised by a private rental market that feeds off a systemic lack of affordable housing.”

Non-EU citizens are another vulnerable group experiencing housing difficulties:

“Two-thirds of non-EU citizens are overburdened by housing costs in Greece, almost half in Spain and Belgium, more than one third in Ireland and Portugal, and more than one quarter in the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, and Slovenia.”

Unfit conditions

While homelessness and the rising cost of housing are proving to be growing problems across the EU, poor housing is are also a Europe-wide issue.  Across all European countries, a poor household is two to twelve times more likely to live in severe housing deprivation (leaking roof, dampness, poor sanitation) than other households, and in the European Union as a whole, one person in six lives in overcrowded housing.

Fuel poverty is another significant problem, affecting almost a quarter of poor households across the continent. In the UK, 9.4% of the population and 20.2% of poor households experience financial difficulty in maintaining adequate household temperatures.

Eviction: “a collective abandonment of other people”     

An entire chapter of the report is dedicated to eviction, which the authors describe as “…one of the worst forms of violence that can afflict someone.

The figures from national governments and Eurostat highlight significant variations in the pattern of evictions in each EU country, with surges in the number of evictions in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Latvia and the Netherlands, while six countries – the Czech Republic, Denmark, Croatia, Lithuania, Portugal and Sweden saw substantial reductions in the number of evictions.

The figures also show varying trends within the UK and differences between the private and public sectors. In England and Wales, rental disputes rose in the social housing sector, but fell in private housing; in Northern Ireland, property foreclosures rose slightly, while tenant evictions rose dramatically by 75%; in Scotland, eviction procedures of all kinds fell by 17%.

Addressing the issue

The report argues that the tools for dealing with the challenges of housing exclusion in Europe already exist, including Europe-wide networks of local, regional and national governments, and EU initiatives, such as the Urban Agenda and the European Pillar of Social Rights. The authors note that there are many examples of good housing practice, notably in Finland, whose “housing first” strategy has achieved a reduction in homelessness – the only EU country to do so.

However, the authors contend that Europe’s leaders need to rapidly activate the political will to tackle the problem of housing exclusion:

“The EU and Member States should place the elimination of homelessness in the core of their social policy agendas. Responses to homelessness should be mainstreamed into the design and implementation of relevant sectoral policies including youth, gender, migration, and Roma inclusion. The EU and the Member States can and should act to enforce social rights.

Final thoughts

The report’s figures make sobering reading: more than 36 million households living in overcrowded conditions; almost 11 million households facing severe deprivation; more than 22 million households experiencing fuel poverty. Perhaps most worrying is the number of homeless people in Europe. This is an unknowable figure, but all the indications are that it is rising dramatically.

Published a week before the UK signalled its intention to leave the EU, the report received comparatively little media coverage. But if the problem of housing exclusion and homelessness continues to grow, it threatens to overwhelm political leaders at EU, national and local levels. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that homelessness could rival Brexit in its impact on the future of Europe.


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Driving diesel out of town: how cities are tackling the deadly problem of air pollution

2017 was less than a week old when, on a single day, London used up its entire annual air pollution limit.  European Union air quality standards permit the maximum safe levels of toxic nitrogen oxide (NO2) to be exceeded no more than 18 times a year. But on 6 January just one site – Brixton Road in Lambeth – generated levels of NO2 high enough to burn through the capital’s annual limit.

Experience underlined that the first breach of the year was always unlikely to be the last. In 2016, another part of London (Putney High Street) exceeded the limit 1,200 times. Other UK cities are also badly affected by air pollution. Government figures show that 38 out of the country’s 43 air quality zones breached legal limits for air pollution in 2015.

The deadly effects of air pollution

Since 2012, evidence on the effects of air pollution on the environment and public health has been mounting. Health issues such as cardiac and respiratory conditions can be aggravated by poor quality air, which can also cause lung cancer. In the UK, pollution is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution. Beyond the human costs, poor air quality also has economic costs (around £15-20 billion a year), as well as damaging biodiversity, wildlife and crops.

Action on air pollution

“Nearly 40 per cent of all NOx emissions within London come from diesel vehicles, and unless this is explicitly tackled it will be impossible to cleanse London’s air.”
Lethal and illegal: solving London’s air pollution crisis – IPPR

The most significant cause of poor air quality in the UK is road traffic pollution, and in particular nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel engines. In recent years, scientists have been highlighting the dangers of diesel, but the Volkswagen emissions scandal underscored just how bad diesel vehicles are for urban environments.

In 2015, the UK government announced plans to discourage diesel vehicles from entering clean air zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Nottingham and Derby. Further measures are expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London,  Sadiq Khan, announced yesterday that from April 2019 the most polluting vehicles will have to pay a daily charge to drive within central London. He is also proposing to expand this charge, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), across Greater London for heavy diesel vehicles, including buses, coaches and lorries. In the meantime, from October this year, cars, vans, minibuses, buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) in central London will need to meet minimum exhaust emission standards, or pay a daily £10 Emissions Surcharge (also known as the Toxicity Charge, or T-Charge). In addition, London has been considering more innovative approaches to cleaner transport.

Last month, four House of Commons committees announced an unprecedented joint enquiry into the health and environmental effects of toxic air. Louise Ellman of the Transport Committee acknowledged the need for an efficient and flexible transport system, but added:

Emissions from vehicles are a significant problem and the standards that governments have relied on have not delivered the expected reductions. We will be asking what more can be done to increase the use of cleaner vehicles as well as to encourage the use of sustainable modes of transport.”

Cracking down on diesel vehicles

But many believe tougher action is needed, and that the time has come to drive diesel vehicles out of towns and cities.

This month, Westminster City Council becomes the first in the UK to impose additional charges for parking diesel-powered vehicles. For a trial period, drivers of diesel cars and vans will have to pay an additional 50% to park in one of the borough’s most heavily polluted streets.  Westminster’s Councillor David Harvey believes the charge will cause drivers to make more environmentally-friendly choices:

“Additional charges for diesel vehicles will mean people think twice about using highly polluting cars and invest in cleaner transport that will make a real difference in the quality of air we breathe and our environment.”

Another London council – Hackney – has gone further, announcing plans to ban any non-electric cars from parking on several streets bordering the City of London’s financial district.

International action

Beyond the UK, national and local governments are also taking the problem of air pollution caused by diesel emissions more seriously.

In December 2016, the longest and most intense pollution spike for a decade jolted the authorities in Paris into restricting traffic coming into the city. On alternate days, drivers of vehicles with odd-number and even-number licence plates were told to leave their cars at home. At the same time, public transport in the city and the suburbs was free of charge. The following month, a mandatory scheme was introduced in Paris and Lyon obliging drivers to display anti-pollution stickers indicating the age and cleanliness of their vehicles. Paris had already announced that cars registered before 1997 would be banned from the city between 8am and 8pm on weekdays.

Paris has also forged a joint agreement with Athens, Madrid and Mexico City to completely remove diesel vehicles from their city centres by 2025. The Netherlands is also believed to be considering a diesel ban, although reports of a similar move in Norway proved premature.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s ambitions for car-free “superblocks” to improve the city’s air quality have received international attention, but have also encountered some local resistance.

The death of diesel?

Some are concerned that a total ban on diesel vehicles is being put forward too easily as a solution to the problem:

Transport for London recently sought public consultation on what they should do to improve air quality, and their website notes that people are twice as likely to die from lung diseases if they live in “deprived vs. affluent areas of London”, both signs that this problem is too complex to be solved by a blanket ban on diesel cars.”

But as the case mounts against diesel, drivers are taking note. In February 2017, registration of diesel cars in the UK fell by 9.2%, while demand for alternative fuel vehicles saw a dramatic increase of 48.9%. London and other UK cities may not yet have completely banned diesel vehicles from their centres, but increasingly the question is not if, but when.


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Famous last words? Is this the beginning of the end for city slogans?

How do you sum up a city in a slogan? The simple answer is that you can’t. But that hasn’t stopped towns and cities around the world trying to encapsulate their essence in a few well-chosen (or sometimes ill-chosen) words.

For some, a slogan is a fun way to show that a town or city is a great place to live, work and visit. American municipalities that proclaim themselves to be “The Best Town on Earth” (Madisonville, Kentucky), or “The Toothpick Capital of the World (Strong, Maine) are doing so with their civic tongues firmly in cheek.

But for many towns and cities, slogan making is a serious business that requires considerable amounts of time, money and brainpower to come up with something that highlights communities as worth visiting and investing in.

And for some cities, a slogan can mean the difference between success and failure.

How a slogan saved a city

New York City today is a lively, attractive place that’s proud to trumpet its cultural, architectural, retail and culinary attractions to residents and tourists alike. Things were very different in the 1970s. Years of financial mismanagement and neglect had given New York a reputation for grime, crime, drugs and disrepair. By the mid-70s, the city’s image was in tatters.

The turning point came with a campaign promoting one of New York’s enduring strong points – its theatre district. A television advert featuring Broadway stars launched the campaign on Valentine’s Day 1978. Its message was short and sweet: I ❤ NY.

As Newsweek reported, the campaign was an overnight success:

“There were some 93,800 requests for the tourism brochure after the commercials aired. Hotel occupancy in New York City hit 90%, year-on-year earnings from travel activity shot up nearly 20 percent.”

Forty years later, I ❤ NY still has pulling power:

Walk around Manhattan today and you’ll find pretty much every store that caters to tourists is packed with T-shirts, mugs, keychains and more, all emblazoned with the iconic slogan. A 2011 report said the city still earns some $30 million a year through licensing the logo.”

Glasgow’s Miles Better

The New York campaign had a profound influence on another city whose image required a makeover. In 1984, Glasgow was making efforts to recover from industrial decline, and to regenerate its city centre as a retail and cultural hub. The city’s Lord Provost, Michael Kelly, wanted to promote Glasgow’s progress, and to show that the city was miles better than it used to be.

The Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign was one of the first of its kind in the UK, and – like its New York inspiration – the brand had important after-effects. The message was carried across the UK, appeared on London buses and was used to promote the city internationally. Arguably, the campaign boosted Glasgow’s success in becoming European City of Culture in 1990 and UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999.  Michael Kelly later summed up the impact of the campaign:

“The legacy was a permanent change in attitude towards Glasgow, exposing the reality rather than the rather distorted image people had outside. People began to look at it in a proper light and were able to make economic decisions based on that, so we got investment, we got employment. We turned the economy round, and that legacy is still being felt today.”

The slogan was finally dropped in 1997, but subsequent campaigns – Glasgow’s Alive, Glasgow: Scotland with Style – never enjoyed the commercial success of the Miles Better brand, nor did they win the hearts of the people.  Today, the city has another slogan – People Make Glasgow – which puts Glaswegians firmly at the heart of the city’s identity. The change recognised that in a city which still has significant social, health and housing problems, a slogan focusing on the strengths of its citizens is more likely to have credibility.

Slogan-free cities

But while numerous towns and cities around the world have embraced the power of a slogan, there are signs that city slogans may be reaching the end of the road.

In 2015, the city council of Edmonton, capital of the Canadian province of Alberta, voted to drop the “City of Champions” slogan. The Mayor of Edmonton contended that a city’s brand can never be expressed in a meaningful way by a single tagline. Other North American cities, including Moncton in New Brunswick, Mississauga in Ontario, and Cleveland, Ohio, have also been phasing out their city slogans.

Slogans with a smile

“The challenge of finding a slogan is handling the plurality of images and identities that the residents possess. The multiple and distinct identities supported by populations within a city should be included and coincide within the urban brand as much as possible in order to accommodate the resi­dents’ diversity.”
Championing the City

Faced with such a daunting challenge, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some cities and towns have given up on the idea of a civic slogan. But most are sticking with the concept, and some are hoping that even if they don’t greatly raise the profile of their municipality, they might at least raise a smile:

  • The Odds Are With You (Peculiar, Missouri)
  • It’s All Right Here (Dunedin, New Zealand)
  • It’s a Location, Not a Vocation (Hooker, Oklahoma)
  • Aha! (Suncheon, South Korea)
  • It’s Not Our Fault (San Andreas, California)

Prefabs sprout: could factory-built homes tackle the housing crisis?

Long regarded as a relic of the past, prefabricated housing is now emerging as a potential solution for the UK’s chronic shortage of affordable homes.

Britain’s golden age of prefabricated housing happened after World War II, when the government authorised thousands of factory-built homes to replace housing destroyed by bombing raids. Intended to last for no more than ten years, many prefab homes were still occupied thirty years after construction.

For a period during the 1960s, prefab housing enjoyed a resurgence. One scheme was showcased at Montreal’s Expo 67 as a solution for high-quality housing in dense urban environments. But in Britain prefabs became associated with shoddy, damp and dysfunctional housing. The largest remaining post-war prefab estate, located in London is now facing demolition.

The prefab renaissance

In recent years, prefabricated housing has been rebranded and is now showing signs of making a comeback:

  • In Yorkshire, the Legal & General insurance firm has opened the world’s largest modular homes construction factory.
  • In Manchester, regeneration company Urban Splash is developing a 43-home scheme, with each house designed by the customer, then built offsite and shipped to the New Islington estate.
  • In Lewisham, south London, Rational House is working with AECOM to build “off-the-shelf” homes for young professionals struggling to get on the property ladder.

Renewed interest in prefab housing has been driven by the severe shortage of housing in the UK, along with the rising cost of traditional construction methods. At the same time, new materials and construction techniques have made prefab homes a more economic and attractive option. This week, leading engineering firm Laing O’Rourke has suggested that the acute lack of space in Britain’s cities could lead to the next generation of tower blocks being built almost entirely off-site.

In its 2017 housing white paper, the government proposed measures to stimulate the growth of the offsite construction sector and promote more factory built homes through the Accelerated Construction programme and the Home Builders’ Fund. The paper highlighted Creekside Wharf in Greenwich as a good example of prefab housing’s potential.

The benefits and challenges of prefab housing

The champions of prefab housing argue that it provides comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed much more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern prefab apartment block in half the time that it would take to build using traditional methods, which means that units for sale or rent can start making money more quickly. Proponents also argue that offsite construction generates less noise, dust and disruption for neighbours. And although offsite costs remain higher, the margin is narrowing as prefab manufacturing achieves efficiencies of scale.

But although today’s prefab homes are a world away from their post-war forerunners, critics have argued that contemporary prefab housing is no match for a traditionally-constructed home. There have also been concerns that prefab homes could be deployed as a quick fix. The Guardian’s architecture and design critic, Oliver Wainwright commented:

“If taken up as the silver bullet to endless waiting lists, there’s a very real risk it could sow the seeds for a future of cheaply built, meanly scaled, less stable housing that can be conveniently swept away at a moment’s notice.”

Some have expressed concern that factory-built homes could end up deskilling traditional building, but others believe that prefabricated housing could plug a skills gap in the construction sector after the UK leaves the European Union.  Meanwhile, lenders to developers are still cautious about financing prefab projects until their long-term durability has been tested.

Prefab present…

Despite these reservations, prefab housing is shedding its outdated image and increasingly entering the mainstream housing sector. In some areas, factory-built housing is already being deployed to help people with urgent housing needs.

The architecture firm of Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners is internationally famous for its cutting edge projects, from Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five to the National Assembly for Wales. But in 2015, the firm joined forces with the London Borough of Merton, the YMCA and Aecom to create Y:Cube. The first 24-home Y:Cube development is located at Mitcham in south-west London, and took just five months to build. Tenants come from YMCA hostels and Merton’s housing waiting list, finding the flats as welcome alternatives to hostels and B&B accommodation. A similar project is taking place to provide Y:Cube accommodation for local people with acute housing needs in the London borough of Lewisham.

Beyond the capital, further prefab housing developments are in the making:

  • Manchester City Council has been leading an offsite construction consortium of 17 housing associations with the aim of building hundreds of new homes in the north of England.
  • In December 2016, Your Housing Group announced a partnership with a Chinese construction firm to deliver 25,000 prefabricated homes over the next five years.
  • Swan Housing Association is building an 18,000 sq ft factory to deliver new homes for the regeneration of Basildon’s Craylands estate.

…and prefab future?

While prefab housing is gathering pace, one entrepreneur is taking the concept to the next level. Alastair Parvin, a graduate of Sheffield University’s school of architecture, believes that harnessing the possibilities offered by technology can make building a house more straightforward.

The idea behind Parvin’s “WikiHouse” is to enable users to draw up plans for their new home online. But instead of the house then being constructed at one offsite location, the components will be manufactured by a network of small business and community spaces – known as maker-spaces.

We’ve come a long way from the prefab housing of the post-war years, and perhaps there’s some way to go before the vision of the WikiHouse is realised. In the meantime, prefabricated housing could offer a much-needed boost to tackling the nation’s existing housing shortfall.


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An Englishman’s home is his rabbit hutch? Implications of the national space standard for the building control profession

When the coalition government launched a fundamental review of England’s building regulations in 2012, it was called “the biggest change in housing standards in a generation.”  One of the review’s major outcomes was a standard that prescribes space sizes for all new-build homes, bringing the rest of England into line with London, which has had its own space standard since 2011. But a year on from its introduction, the national space standard has been branded too complex to implement and too easy to evade.

Looking back on housing space standards

Housing space specifications are not a new idea. There were prescribed floor space minimums in England’s public housing between 1967 and 1980. These were based on the recommendations of the Parker Morris Committee of 1961, which linked space to the utility of homes, rather than to expected occupancy levels (a benchmark that’s still applicable in Scotland). This standard was sidelined in the 1980s, and the focus shifted to housing delivery.

The new national standard

The government’s 2012 Housing Standards Review aimed to reduce the cost and complexity of building new homes by streamlining the large number of codes, regulations and technical housing standards applied to new housing through the planning system.

Most of the outcomes from the review (such as those affecting security, energy and accessibility) required changes to the building regulations. But when it came to the national space standard, the government decided there was no case for statutory regulation. Instead, the standard is optional for local authorities to adopt, subject to local plan viability testing and approval by the planning inspectorate.

The national space standard, which came into effect in October 2015, includes requirements such as:

  • A new three bed, five person home should be a minimum of 93m²
  • a one bed, one person flat should be a minimum of 37m²
  • Two-bedroom homes should have at least one double bedroom
  • A double bedroom should have minimum floor area of 11.5m²

House builders strongly disagreed with the changes, claiming the standard would reduce the number of new homes being built and increase costs. But the space standard won vociferous support from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), who went on to argue that it didn’t go far enough:

“Local authorities should be able to set space standards in order to improve new build homes in their communities. However….the most effective solution would be for a national space standard to be applied through building regulations so that it applies to all homes, in every location and type of housing.”

England’s shrinking spaces

England has the smallest homes by floor space area of any EU country. In 2013, the average size of a home was 93.6m², compared to 115.5 square metres in the Netherlands and 137 square metres in Denmark.

The contrast has given rise to new family homes in England being described as “rabbit hutches” because they are not big enough to comfortably meet the needs of residents. Smaller rooms have implications for wellbeing and quality of life, creating problems for storage, preparing food and entertaining visitors. More fundamentally, smaller living spaces can have impacts on mental health and family relationships.

Fighting for space

Shortly after the introduction of the national space standard, in October 2015, RIBA claimed that administration costs, red tape and potential challenges from developers on site-specific viability grounds, made it unlikely that the standard would have any meaningful impact:

“All of these bureaucratic processes place an excessive and unnecessary burden on local authorities to justify something which the government has already recognised is sensible and fair.”

Again, RIBA called for the space standard to be included in the building regulations, and again house builders voiced their opposition. Stewart Basely of the Home Builders Federation claimed buyers were content with the size of new builds, and warned that mandatory space standards could make the housing shortage worse:

 “Imposing space standards and so restricting what builders can build takes away choice from home buyers. This would not only prevent more people from buying their own home but also exacerbate the acute shortage of housing that we have experienced over several decades.”

Space: a place for building control?

On the face of it, the national space standard is not an issue concerning building control, whose focus is on enforcing the national building regulations.  But government guidance on the internal space standard has indicated that building control surveyors may have a role to play in the approvals process:

“Building control bodies may choose to provide checking of the space standard in development proposals as an additional service alongside carrying out their building control function. In these circumstances, local planning authorities may wish to avoid further additional checking of plans with regard to space standards.”

And the national standard could yet be included in the building regulations. In a House of Lords debate on the Housing and Planning Bill in May 2016, Labour peer Lord Beecham, put forward an amendment to make the standards mandatory. His intervention followed the Labour Party’s Lyons Housing Review, which recommended that space standards should be applied nationally, but suggested that more work was needed to consider exemptions in certain markets.

Later in 2016, the government launched a review into how the space standards are operating in practice. The findings of the review will be published in the spring, and it will be interesting to see the effects of the standard, and whether RIBA’s argument for mandatory implementation has taken hold.

Building control surveyors may have their hands full, not least because of changes to the building regulations resulting from the Housing Standards Review. But it’s not out of the question that the national space standard could yet become part of their workload.

Urban bike sharing: a tale of two cities

Bike sharing schemes are now a familiar feature of the urban landscape. From Montreal to Marrakesh, London to Lublin, more than 1000 cities around the world are learning that bike sharing can play a supporting role in reducing congestion, cutting air pollution, improving citizens’ health and boosting their reputations as great places to live, work and invest in.

But not all bike sharing schemes are progressing at an equal pace. While some, such as those in Paris and London are moving into the fast lane, others are struggling to stay upright. In today’s blog, we look at how two different cities – Seattle and Dublin – are tackling bumps in the road to better bike sharing.

Seattle

In recent years, bike-sharing schemes have been springing up in cities all over the United States. Among the success stories is Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare programme, which is rapidly becoming an integral part of the city’s transportation system.

On the other side of the country, however, Seattle’s Pronto bike share scheme had a difficult birth. In its first year, people took 142,832 rides on Pronto bikes (the comparable figure for Capital Bikeshare was one million rides). A year after its 2014 launch, Pronto became insolvent, and Seattle’s city council bailed out the scheme at a cost of $1.4 million. Last year, the council announced that Pronto would cease operations in March 2017.

Pronto’s disappointing performance has perplexed cycling enthusiasts in the city. One Seattle bike blogger observed:

“Washington, D.C. is freezing in the winter and horribly hot in the summer, but they’ve blown past us, definitely on bike share and also on their rates of bike commuting.”

The factors behind the failure of Pronto have been the subject of considerable debate. Some have blamed it on compulsory helmet laws in the city, pointing out that similar rules in Melbourne also resulted in poor take-up of its bike share scheme. Others have put forward a range of theories, from poor cycling infrastructure and inadequate marketing to Seattle’s rainy climate and hilly topography. The city’s bicycle club also weighed in, arguing that the scheme’s small size, insufficient density of bike stations and prohibitive pricing structure put the brakes on what should have been a success story.

Bike sharing in Seattle may be down, but it’s not out. The city council is preparing to launch a successor to Pronto that will provide electric bikes and double the number of stations. There are still concerns that the mandatory cycle helmet rule may discourage take-up, although helmets will also be available for hire.

The council hopes the new scheme will be launched in summer 2017. It remains to be seen whether motorized cycles can kick start Seattle’s bike sharing journey.

Dublin

In contrast to Seattle, Dublin’s experience of bike sharing started off with positive results. Within seven years of its 2008 launch, the Dublinbikes scheme had 55,000 long-term subscribers and had recorded over 10 million trips. An expansion in 2013 took bike sharing stations beyond the core of the city and delivered an extra 950 bikes.

The popularity of Dublinbikes has continued to grow, but would-be users have often been frustrated by the lack of available bikes and delays in further expansions. Funding difficulties lie at the heart of the problem.

Dublin City Council contracted the outdoor advertising company JCDecaux to operate the Dublinbikes scheme. In exchange, the company was given the right to advertising space at a number of locations around the city. Dublinbikes also secured sponsorship from Coca-Cola, and managed to stay in the black for its first six years. However, the scheme has been running a deficit since 2015.

The stark figures tell their own story:

  • the Dublin Bikes scheme costs €1.9m to run
  • subscriptions and usage charges generate €1.2m
  • sponsorship by Coca-Cola is €312,000

Under its contract with JCDecaux, Dublin City Council must fill the €388,000 shortfall, but the council is itself under financial pressure.  Expansion of the scheme would cost €1.2m, with a further €500,000 a year of running costs for the additional bike stations.

To fulfil its side of the Dublinbikes deal with JCDecaux, Dublin City Council proposed the placement of advertising screens in the southeast of the city. However, these plans were thrown into question in August 2016 when Ireland’s national heritage organization lodged objections. One heritage officer described the proposed screens as “nasty” “contemptible”, “tacky” and “grossly offensive”. City councillors subsequently voted against installation of the screens, leading to concerns that the costs would have to be shouldered by bike users.

In November 2016, the annual Dublinbikes fee rose by €5 to €25. That’s still lower than annual membership of London’s more extensive Santander bike share scheme (£90), but there are now concerns that the price increase will exclude people on low incomes or unemployed people, who may have found the bike share scheme more affordable than getting around by car or public transport.

Overcoming spokes in the wheel

Seattle and Dublin have experienced different problems in establishing their urban bike sharing schemes. But it’s worth remembering that Washington, DC’s early bike share scheme suffered very low use rates, while Montreal’s first attempt at bike sharing went bankrupt. Today, DC’s Capital Bikeshare is among the most admired in the world, and is contributing to cuts in congestion. Meanwhile, Bixi, which now operates Montreal’s bike share scheme, is exporting its expertise to other parts of North America.

Clearly, successful bike sharing schemes require careful planning, public participation, adequate funding and – perhaps most important of all – time to grow.

Can they fix it? Reactions to the white paper on housing

By James Carson

After a delay of several months, the government’s housing white paper was finally published last week.  Its title – “Fixing our broken housing market” – makes clear that England’s housing market requires radical reform. The communities secretary, Sajid Javid underlined this when presenting the paper to MPs:

“We have to build more, of the right homes in the right places, and we have to start right now.”

The key proposals

The white paper contains 29 policy proposals. These include:

  • developers will be forced to use-or-lose planning permission within two years
  • local authorities will be required to keep an up-to-date local plan to meet housing demand
  • an expanded and more flexible affordable homes programme, for housing associations and local authorities
  • developers will be encouraged to avoid “low-density” housing where land availability is short
  • the time allowed between planning permission and the start of building will be reduced from three to two years
  • incentives for build to let
  • the Green Belt will continue to be protected, and may only be built on “in exceptional circumstances”

In addition, the paper proposes the establishment of a £3bn fund to help smaller building firms challenge major developers, and a “lifetime ISA” to help first-time buyers save for a deposit. The white paper also confirmed government plans to ban letting agency fees for tenants.

The paper proposes placing a cap of £80,000 (£90,000 in London) on starter homes (new-build homes for first-time buyers between 23 and 40 years old and sold at least 20% below market value). And it signals that 10% of all new homes should be starter homes (the current requirement is 20%).

Reaction to the proposals: the politicians

The communities secretary described the white paper’s proposals as “bold” and “radical”, but some responses have suggested that the new strategy will fail to meet the challenge of England’s housing crisis.

Describing the plans as “feeble beyond belief”, Labour’s shadow housing minister, John Healey observed: “This white paper is not a plan to fix the housing crisis. And it will do nothing to reverse seven years of failure on housing we’ve seen since 2010. There are 200,000 fewer home-owners, homelessness has doubled, and affordable house-building has slumped to a 24-year low.”

The Green Party’s co-leader Jonathan Bartley said the policies were a “slap in the face for the millions of people in this country desperate for bold plans to reduce rents and make their housing affordable”.

On build to rent, Tom Copley, Labour’s London Assembly housing spokesperson welcomed the shift in focus from home ownership, but was concerned about the scope of the proposals:  “…whilst the promise of longer tenancies is welcome, its bearing will be miniscule unless it is extended to existing rental properties, where the vast majority of renters actually live.”

Reaction: architects, housing bodies and builders

Simon Henley, of architects Halebrown, welcomed the paper’s proposals to help smaller building firms challenge major developers – “More and smaller housebuilders will bring variety and inspiration.”  But he added that “reasonably priced land is vital to the equation for great homes.”

Alex Ely of the Mae architecture practice was disappointed with the continuing restrictions on building on the Green Belt, observing that “We know that just a 1km ring of Green Belt from inside the M25 would yield enough land for a generation of building at current rates.”

Terrie Alafat, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing said the package of measures demonstrates a commitment to tackle the housing crisis. “However our concern is that much housing remains out of reach for a significant number of people and we would like to see the government back up the package of measures with additional funding and resource in the budget.”

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation welcomed plans to bring forward more developable land: “If we are to build more homes, we need more land coming through the system more quickly.”

Reaction: homeowners and renters

Dan Wilson Craw, director of Generation Rent argued that the white paper failed to offer renters anything of substance. “Renters on stagnant wages need homes that cost no more than a third of their income, not ones let at 80% of the market rent, with a sticker that says ‘affordable’.”

Meanwhile, Paula Higgins, chief executive of HomeOwners Alliance, called for more action and fewer words. “It’s difficult to see how these measures will enable the government to meet its target of one million new homes by 2020.”

Reaction: the LGA and Shelter

Speaking for the Local Government Association (LGA), housing spokesman Councillor Martin Tett noted that the white paper contains signs that the government is listening to councils on how to boost housing supply and increase affordability. But he called for more support to enable local authorities to tackle the housing shortage: “…councils desperately need the powers and access to funding to resume their historic role as a major builder of affordable homes. This means being able to borrow to invest in housing and to keep 100 per cent of the receipts from properties sold through Right to Buy to replace homes and reinvest in building more of the genuine affordable homes our communities desperately need.”

Writing on the organisation’s blog, Shelter’s Steve Akehurst described the white paper as a step, rather than a leap in the right direction:

“Overall, the shift in emphasis – towards tackling big developers and dysfunctions in the land market, towards making renting more stable, and delivering more affordable homes – is really welcome, and there are some good first steps to making them a reality. In reality more will be needed to deliver upon these lofty ambitions in full… But today is a good start.”

The next steps

The government is consulting on the planning proposals set out in the first two chapters of the white paper, with a closing date of 2 May 2017. After considering the responses, the government will decide on how to take its strategy forward.

As the paper concludes, millions of people who can’t afford to buy or rent already know that the housing market is broken. Fixing it will be a job not only for the government, but for local authorities, developers, housing associations and local communities.

Time will tell whether the proposals set out in the white paper are radical enough to help the homeowners and tenants of tomorrow.


You may also find these blog posts on housing of interest:

Energiesprong: how a Dutch solution could improve Britain’s energy inefficient housing

There’s little doubt that many of Britain’s homes need to improve their energy efficiency. A 2015 study by the Association for the Conservation of Energy found that the UK has among the highest rates of fuel poverty and one of the most energy inefficient housing stocks in Europe. In terms of energy efficiency, the UK housing’s walls came 7th out of the 11 countries analysed, while its roofs were ranked 8th, its floors 10th and its windows 11th.

Badly heated housing has significant impacts on health. In 2011, an analysis by Friends of the Earth highlighted the links between cold housing and poor mental and physical health:

“The main health conditions associated with cold housing are circulatory diseases, respiratory problems and mental ill-health. Other conditions influenced or exacerbated by cold housing include the common flu and cold, as well as arthritis and rheumatisms.”

However, people living in energy inefficient homes are often those least able to afford the necessary retrofits, such as insulation, new boilers and double glazing.

The rise and fall of the Green Deal

In 2013, the coalition government launched the Green Deal, a retrofitting programme that aimed to provide an affordable solution for low-income households struggling to keep their homes warm. However, it soon became clear that the Green Deal was too complicated for the energy efficiency sector to administer, and too hard for householders to understand. After three years of disappointing take-up, the scheme was scrapped in 2015.

With no replacement for the Green Deal on the horizon, agencies supporting fuel-poor households have been trying to fill the gap. The Trussell Trust, for example, has been opening “fuel banks” in towns and cities across the UK, providing vouchers for paying gas and electricity bills.  Important as they are, these initiatives cannot take the place of housing improvements.

An energy leap forward

The demise of the Green Deal left a gap in the UK’s retrofitting market. However, a recent initiative that shares some of the features of the Green Deal has shown early promise as a possible substitute.

The Energiesprong (“energy leap”) model has its origins in the Netherlands. Energiesprong is a network of organisations committed to urban and regional development. It brokered a deal between housing associations and builders to refurbish houses to net zero energy levels. This means the homes do not consume more energy for heating, hot water and electricity than they produce. Householders commit themselves not to use any more energy than an agreed amount. If they do, additional charges apply, but these are likely to be minimal thanks to the improvements in insulation.

So far, the Dutch scheme has proved successful; the first 800 retrofitted homes have performed better than expected, producing more energy than they consume. The tenants are very satisfied with the improvements and Dutch housing associations have committed to upgrade 111,000 homes under a wider roll-out.

Energiesprong in Britain

The Energiesprong concept is now being applied in the UK, where property developers are working with local authorities and social housing providers on prototypes.

Housing associations will finance the up-front costs of the work, including external wall insulation, roofing and renewables. These will be repaid by the energy cost savings resulting from the upgrade. Unlike the Green Deal, however, the Energiesprong concept is more straightforward and easier for consumers to understand, and refurbishments can be carried out within 10 days. In the UK, between 10 and 30 homes have been undergoing improvements in pilot projects during 2016, with a target of 5000 retrofitted homes by 2018.

The concept also has something to offer owner-occupiers; in addition to improving a property’s energy efficiency, Energiesprong also delivers a better-looking exterior. As Energiesprong UK director Arno Schmickler explained to Architects’ Journal:

“We are trying to position a high-quality, desirable product, to make your neighbours jealous – that really works.”

An off-the shelf retrofit?

The Energiesprong process in the UK must overcome significant challenges before it can achieve the levels of success seen in the Netherlands. Although it has secured European Commission funding, Energiesprong UK could achieve a much greater impact with government support. In addition, changes to planning guidance will be required to enable retrofitting without the need for explicit planning permission. The UK retrofitting sector must also make technical and cultural adaptations if it is to emulate the impact of their Dutch counterparts.

But if Energiesprong takes off in the UK, Arno Schmickler foresees the day when retrofitting could become as straightforward as choosing a new sofa:

“We want to position this where you could walk into, dare I say it, Ikea, and buy your Energiesprong solution while you’re kitting out your home with new furniture. ‘That’s how easy it should become.”



Read our other blog posts on energy efficiency in homes:

Building control – constructing a modern, diverse profession

A fire destroys England’s oldest hotel; a car crashes into a Northern Ireland shop; a sinkhole opens up after heavy rain hits a Surrey village. On the face of it, these stories from the past twelve months are unrelated. But in each case building control officers were called to the scene to assess the buildings in question.

Of course, not every aspect of a building control surveyor’s day makes the news, but the role of enforcing national building regulations does have far-reaching impacts. On one day, a building control officer might be suggesting ways to improve the energy efficiency of a new building, and on the next, assessing whether fire-damaged property should be demolished.

A profession in the making

Building control goes back centuries. After the Great Fire of London wiped out 80% of the city in 1666, a new London building act banned the use of timber-framed houses and gave surveyors powers to enforce the regulations. The first national building regulations were introduced in the 1960s, initially in Scotland and later in the rest of the UK. Subsequent changes have improved the overall quality of new and altered buildings, provided practical guidance on compliance, and made provision for private sector approved inspectors to compete with local authority building control officers.

The first national building regulations were introduced in the 1960s, initially in Scotland and later in the rest of the UK. Subsequent changes have improved the overall quality of new and altered buildings, provided practical guidance on compliance, and made provision for private sector approved inspectors to compete with local authority building control officers. More recently – as our previous blog post explained – new regulations have introduced a requirement for new homes to have easy access to fast, reliable broadband networks.

The challenges of change

Changing legislation is just one of many challenges facing the building control profession. In recent years, increasing numbers of properties across the country have experienced severe damage as a result of storms and flooding – widely regarded as by-products of climate change. Meanwhile, a shortage of housing has spurred on ever-more creative solutions, such as building on top of existing structures, and extending apartments below ground (so-called iceberg homes). All of these developments have implications for building control. Innovations in building technology and a government pledge to build a million new homes by 2020 will only add to the future demands for building control expertise.

But Britain’s army of building control surveyors is growing older, with increasing numbers reaching retirement. A recent report for the Department for Communities and Local Government noted that building control bodies are likely to face “significant problems replacing experienced staff as their workforce approaches state pension age”.

Attracting a new generation

Skills shortages have been exacerbated by a poor pipeline of new recruits. Young people who may have a limited understanding of building control and its opportunities are unlikely to pursue it as a career. As a result, building control bodies have been accelerating their efforts to attract new talent.

One approach has come from the Association of Consultant Approved Inspectors (ACAI) – the professional body for the private sector of building control. In 2015, ACAI devised a new apprenticeship programme. The two-part scheme offers a 16-18 apprenticeship programme for school-leavers, and a graduate/career development option for those aged 18 and over.

Elsewhere, the Construction Industry Council (CIC), which represents professionals in all sectors of the built environment, has developed a building control technical support apprenticeship for individuals providing practical support on projects covering assessment of building regulations and inspection of compliance on site.

It’s also important for the building control profession to spotlight its high achievers. Local Authority Building Control (LABC), which represents councils’ building control teams in England and Wales, does this through its annual Superstar and Trainee of the Year awards.

A diverse and inclusive profession

The recruitment challenge for building control is all the greater when it comes to inclusivity. In 2016, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) reported that 13% of the workforce in the land, property and built environment profession were female, and just 1.2% were Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME). Those with disabilities were at less than 1%, and there was no data for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) representation. The number of qualified female building control surveyors working for local authorities has grown from just 26 in 1986, but the proportion today is still a disappointing 15%.

RICS includes building control professionals among its 118,000 members, and in 2015 the institution unveiled a new initiative to make the property and construction sector more inclusive and diverse. Launching the Inclusive Employers Quality Mark (IEQM), RICS External Affairs Director Kim Worts stressed the need for the profession to respond to demographic changes and shifting employee expectations:

“We need to bring more skilled and qualified people into our sector, and until we change the culture in the workplace, we are not going to attract the brightest and the best.”

So far, more than 120 employers have pledged their support for inclusion and diversity. Among those signing up for the IEQM are Rolls-Royce, Gerald Eve property consultants and Northumbria University.

Selling the unsung heroes

Building control is much misunderstood, even among industry professionals. A senior manager from a major construction firm who was on the judging panel for the 2016 LABC building control awards expressed surprise at the full extent of the profession’s reach:

“I was amazed by the scope and depth of work carried out by building control and we saw many examples of great work by individuals covering training, emergencies and danger to the public, consumer protection and everyday support for good builders, architects, developers and property owners. It certainly helped me to see local authority building control in a new light.”

Building control is a keystone in the system that keeps our buildings safe, sustainable, energy efficient and accessible for all. But if it is to continue with its work and mission, it will need all the help it can get in spreading the word to the next generation of building control professionals.


Idox’s innovative technologies for the sector – including iApply and a new Building Inspector app – will continue to support building control departments and officers, whatever the future may hold.

Further reading

Building inclusivity: Laying the foundations for the future
This 2016 report from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors looks at all aspects of diversity and inclusion in the land, property and construction sector.

Mind the gap – how can the construction industry tackle its skills shortage?
Published on the Idox blog in September 2016, this article considers the factors driving skills shortages in the construction sector, and looks at possible solutions.

Controlling the future
This article from the summer 2015 issue of the RICS Building Control journal (p.15) describes the ACAI apprenticeship programme which aims to attract new entrants into the building control profession.

Rounding up our best blogs of 2016

Throughout 2016, The Knowledge Exchange’s team of Researchers has been reporting on developments in a wide range of subjects. As this selection of our blog posts from the past year illustrates, we’ve been covering everything from health and social care to digital transformation.

January

Stacey Dingwall reported on the decision by Brighton College, a co-educational independent college, to stop making a distinction between boys’ and girls’ uniforms. While the announcement was applauded by parents and other schools, the Commons Women and Equalities Committee highlighted more needs to be done to ensure schools are compliant with their legal obligations towards pupils across all protected characteristics.

“The Committee recommended that the government should consider the inclusion of training on these protected characteristics in its review of initial teacher training, and that trans issues (and gender issues generally) should be taught as part of PSHE.”

February

Heather Cameron reported on the pressures facing social workers in England:

“The Social Lives Survey revealed that while the majority of social workers enjoy their job, two-thirds say they can’t focus on what really matters and only a quarter feel their workload is manageable. Almost 80% work overtime every day, and 86% don’t get paid for doing so.”

March

Reablement, or enablement is the process of rehabilitating people to allow them to regain some or all of their independence. In March, Rebecca Jackson blogged about the successful application of this form of care:

“A 2007 study for the Department of Health’s Care Services Efficiency Delivery Network found that up to 68% of people no longer needed a home care package after a period of reablement, and up to 48% continued not to need home care two years later.”

April

James Carson introduced Reading Room, which joined the Idox Group in 2015. Reading Room is an award-winning digital consultancy with an international reputation for innovative strategic consultancy, design, and technical delivery.

“The company was especially proud to have won the British Educational Training and Technology Award for Free Digital Content/Open Educational Resources for its development of the Magna Carta educational resource for the National Archives.”

May

In May, Morwen Johnson reminded readers that the Idox Information Service has its own library of 60,000 books and reports, and highlighted some recent additions, including Inside the Nudge Unit: how small changes can make a big difference.

“Behavioural insights, and how these can be used within policymaking in order to shape and improve outcomes, has always been popular as a search topic on our database. Now this book, written by David Halpern, who headed up Number 10’s ‘Nudge Unit’ or Behavioural Insights Team (now spun out as an independent company jointly owned by the UK Government; Nesta and its employees) sheds light on how it works.”

June

As the UK prepared to vote on its membership of the European Union, our blog looked to Switzerland, where referendums are far more commonplace than here.

Of all the national referendums held in Western democracies since World War II, more than two-thirds have been held in Switzerland. Swiss voters go to the polls three or four times a year, deciding on issues as varied as immigration, complementary medicine, and financing of local sports facilities.”

July

Steven McGinty looked at public-private collaboration as a means of helping government to achieve digital transformation, and highlighted a new approach taken by the Scottish Government’s Civtech project, which encourages entrepreneurs, start-ups and small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) to develop innovative solutions to public sector problems.

“Unconventionally, the tender does not include pre-determined solutions, instead opting to pose six open questions, known as ‘challenges’, and inviting participants to provide answers.”

August

As London Underground’s Night Tube was launched, Heather Cameron outlined the benefits and concerns about night-time public transport:

It is of course too early to tell whether the night tube will bring the economic and social benefits to the city as predicted. What is clear is that the night tube supports London in its drive to becoming a truly 24-hour city.”

September

Steven McGinty reported on Norway’s pioneering role as a leader in digital government.

“In 1973 Norway became the first country to connect to the US’ ARPANET, which was the military predecessor to the Internet. And more recently, maritime and off-shore technology developments in Norway have become of global importance. In particular, the use of Big Data modelling plays a significant role in finding new oil fields.”

October

In October, Stacey Dingwall reported from the annual CILIPS autumn gathering in Glasgow, where Martin Goodfellow described his role as Coder in Residence at Glasgow Life.
“For the uninitiated, Martin explained that coding=programming. It’s a form of computational thinking: something we all use in everyday life, e.g. in deciding when to stop looking for something, be it when shopping or looking for information. Martin’s remit is to support the creation of coding clubs in Glasgow’s public libraries.

November

In her November blog post, Donna Gardiner explained that, while coaching was becoming more prevalent in organisations, there is very little research evidence about what makes a ‘good’ coach.

“The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) are among those working to address this.  In August, they published a report which explored the factors leading to coaching success, from both the coach and the coachee perspective.  They also examined the nature of an effective coaching relationship and set out practical advice for organisations on how to improve coaching elements of everyday work.”

December

Steven McGinty highlighted the challenge of digital transformation in local government. While there are significant barriers to digital adoption, Steven reported that many councils are involved in pilot projects and introducing new services.

“For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.”