Guest post | Mixing it up in Midtown Tampa

IMG_6443.jpg

Midtown Tampa is the kind of instant city that 20 years ago I would’ve raved about. It’s another great example of The Urban Experiment.

This is a mixed-use, walkable development that has been created out of whole cloth west of downtown, near the airport. It’s a sort of second generation version of these types of projects, and measurably better than the first generation.

Before I describe it further, though, it’s interesting to trace a brief history of apartment communities in the US.

Not long ago, not far away

In America, renting an apartment has been a choice of a minority of households since the New Deal incentivized home ownership. About 1/3 of households today are renters, though early in the twentieth century it was close to 2/3. I won’t comment on if that was good or bad policy. It’s just to note the context, note the incentives and how we’ve changed.

Apartments were most commonly rented in small buildings in that previous era. They were the Missing Middle types so often discussed, and highlighted very well by Dan Parolek of Opticos Design. Yes, there were larger buildings as well, and a wide variety of SROs, apartment hotels and boarding houses. But most of what housed people were ancillary apartments, duplexes, triple-deckers, fourplexes, etc etc. This was very common for middle-class people, virtually all over America.

As we became wealthy, single family ownership became all the rage, egged on by financing incentives and regulatory changes (zoning). At the same time, larger capital flows became more dominant in real estate, and the nature of apartment living began to change. Apartments increasingly were built in larger “complexes” of 100 or 200 units all at one time in one location. In order to make apartment living an attractive alternative to home ownership, and not just for the poor or those without choices, developers began adding “amenities” such as pools and common green spaces. Those were the sorts of things not even contemplated in the “Missing Middle” era. Back then, an apartment was just a place to live in a neighbourhood, no different than the house next door or around the corner. The “amenities” were often in public parks.

As time went on, the arms race for amenities ramped up. Soon were added fitness centres, spas, covered parking, valet services and more. Newer apartment complexes today are often touted as “luxury apartments.” In addition to the amenities, they also tout granite counter-tops, stainless steel appliances and whirlpool tubs in the units. Going after the renter by choice market has necessitated this push to go ever more upscale and out-class the competition. That’s not surprising, it’s just a certain element of markets and competition at work.

The walkability factor

Now enter the 2000s, and the slow but noticeably growing interest in urban living. In some cities, the newly thriving commercial districts, walkable to many apartments, became a new, sexy amenity. Many smaller developers smartly capitalized on this with renovations of historic buildings, loft conversions and some new urban infill. They helped create an urban market that had some of the new amenities renters (and some home owners) were looking for. Their buildings didn’t have pools or covered parking, but they had cool bars and restaurants to walk to, art galleries, lively streets and more things that appeal to a certain part of the population.

The folks who deploy big investment capital naturally noticed this change. And they didn’t want to miss out on the trend. For over a decade, every healthy market has seen an influx of large “luxury apartment” buildings of about 200 units in urban areas, complete with all the amenities they’re used to providing in suburban locations. You guessed it – the pool, the fitness center, covered parking, etc etc.

Again, I’m not passing judgment. This is simply an example of how development happens in modern America. In many cases, these larger entities deploy tens of millions of dollars to buy and upgrade buildings, build new ones and create portfolios of hundreds and hundreds of apartments. It’s very smart business. Some of the end results can be excellent, some very mediocre, but nearly all have been well received in the marketplace. Urbanist snobs like me might ask questions, but clearly the people renting the apartments are responding positively.

Enter Midtown Tampa

Midtown Tampa is simply another in the latest version of this phenomenon. It’s a brand new place, by different accounts, either 12 or 30 years in the making.

The apartments are very well appointed, the amenities are first-class. It also includes fantastic eating and drinking options, some retail, a Whole Foods and new office space. It truly is an “instant city” in the sense it has so much of what someone might need as part of a daily or weekly routine in one compact location. Despite the Florida heat, you can walk from your apartment indoors to the gym, where you can work out in perfect air conditioned comfort. This is the new, 21st century apartment complex.

Midtown has the trendiest new bar in town, and it looks like the kind of place I’d enjoy spending too much time in. It has a “signature scent.” Yes, that’s actually a thing. It’s not a cheap place at all, and not intended to be. The rents are about $3 per square foot. That’s the top of the market in Tampa, and in many similar markets in the US. You can do the math on what a simple, 900 square foot two bedroom apartment costs.

Everything in this development is impeccably managed. They do everything well that our cities do poorly. Trash and cleanliness, security, parking, and public space management are all incredibly well thought-through and executed. It gives people who advocate for privatization of city governance great ammunition.

So again, I’m not saying this is BAD. I think there’s much to admire and like. It’s just that this is another example of how we only produce this kind of development now. It’s either large single-family subdivisions on the edge of the city, or mega-investment “instant cities.” There’s nothing in between. It’s not just that the Missing Middle buildings are often zoned out of existence, it’s that the entire ecosystem of finance, acquisition, construction and more seems to make it virtually impossible to do again.

There’s no space in our system for the kind of change that gave us Chicago, or even my city. The professionalization of everything has created this predicament where the entire system pushes for bigger and more complicated projects and efforts of all kinds. This is not a “find a magic policy” problem. It’s the direct result of decades of policy, all made with good intentions and responding to constituents, but quietly damaging our systems piece by piece.

This isn’t healthy for our cities, and it’s especially not healthy for a democratic society. In this system, there seems to be little opportunity for people to build for themselves, to build wealth for themselves, and create the kinds of “messy” places that urbanists like myself most admire. The only option is to do it “sub-rosa” as Johnny Sanphillipo would say. And he’s right. That’s exactly what happens in the real world, often outside the view of the local authorities.

I have no objection to Midtown Tampa at all. In fact, it’s quite well done in many ways. But this simply cannot be the only solution to the development of our cities. We’ve got to unleash the swarm, as I like to say, or else all the current problems we fret about will only get worse.

Kevin Klinkenberg has worked as an urban designer, architect and planner. His blog – The Messy City – looks at ways to use urban design and development to make people’s lives healthier, wealthier and happier.

Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on urban development

Looking back and beyond: The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2021

brown sand near body of water during daytime

If 2020 was the year of the coronavirus, then 2021 was surely the year of the ‘coronacoaster’. From the highs of vaccine rollouts and loosening of social restrictions to the lows of fluctuating case numbers and a worrying new virus variation, we’ve all become unwilling passengers on what feels like an endless un-funfair ride.

But while the pandemic has never been far from our thoughts, it hasn’t taken over complete control of our lives. Research, evidence gathering, conferences and partnerships have continued in fields as diverse as education and housing, culture and the environment.  Which is why, this year’s reflection on The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2021 focuses on some of the issues that we covered which looked beyond the pandemic.

Saving the planet

Until the emergence of Covid-19, many regarded climate change as the greatest threat facing humanity. That threat hasn’t gone away. Last summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on the current state of the climate crisis, setting out the already devastating effects of climate change and warning of the deadly impacts, which will intensify as the planet gets hotter.

Throughout this year, our blog has focused on this issue, highlighting the dangers posed by climate change and the efforts to tackle the problem. In April, we looked at the monumental challenge of decarbonising the UK’s ageing housing stock, and highlighted a survey showing that two-thirds of housing associations have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer.

“However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.”

We returned to the issue this month, with an overview of plans by government and industry to make the transition from gas boilers to greener ways of heating our homes.

In November, the landmark COP26 climate conference took place in Glasgow, and while the major talking points included protection of the world’s forests and reducing dependency on fossil fuels, our blog focused on how important the circular economy is to tackling global warming:

“…if we were able to double the current 8.6% global circularity figure to achieve 17% circularity, that move alone would achieve the targets on global warming set out by the Paris COP meeting in 2015.”

The cultural imperative

From community murals to television drama, from open-air concerts to singers entertaining neighbours from their balconies, culture and the arts have played a vital role in diverting us from the grim news of the past two years. And although the arts have taken a severe hit during lockdowns, artists across the globe have continued to create and share their work.

In January, we highlighted some of the ways in which creative people have found new ways to express themselves and to support the wellbeing of others:

“Organisations and individuals have been doing a variety of work to reach those most in need such as projects creating new programmes or adapting existing work to reach people who are shielding or vulnerable in their homes, overwhelmingly addressing loneliness and isolation. One participant described their experience: “I found the process of drawing and painting both cathartic and healing at the most difficult time of my life.”

In April, our blog reported on efforts by cultural communities to break down some of the barriers to digital engagement. It’s estimated that seven million people in the UK don’t’ have digital access, while 11.7 million don’t have the digital skills needed to engage online. In an increasingly ‘digital by default’ society, those numbers are troubling.

Our blog post described some of the ways in which arts and cultural organisations are tackling digital exclusion:

“One project managed by Birmingham Museums involved taking digital kit out to care homes for digital arts sessions. This was not only great for wellbeing; it also showed how digital technologies can be adapted to connect with people within communities.”

Levelling up and the foundational economy

The economy is another recurring theme that we’ve highlighted in our blog. The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

In May we reported from a webinar looking at the scope for charities to get involved. On the face of it, the fact that much of the focus is on capital spending could be challenging for charities whose work involves tackling problems such as addiction or homelessness. However, our blog explained that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of obtaining levelling up funding:

“… a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.”

In February, we shone a light on the foundational economy, which provides some of the essential services of everyday life, such as food, retailing and distribution, education, health and welfare. While these services are vital, many of the workers providing them are among the lowest paid in society.  Our blog looked at the potential value of the foundational economy for the post-pandemic recovery:

“It has been widely agreed that a return to a business-as-usual approach following the pandemic is not the way forward, and that there needs to be a shift in economic policies in order to achieve a more socially and economically just society. Perhaps if such policy change is achieved, a more balanced economy that provides a good quality of life for all can eventually be realised.”

The issues of our times

From town centres to smart cities, from Scotland’s burgeoning space sector to Britain’s hard-pressed food system, throughout the year we’ve been raising awareness of important issues that concern or impact on public policy and practice.

But we haven’t ignored the ongoing public health emergency. In November, we reported from a webinar on some of the lessons from the pandemic and the future role of public health; in July we looked at the important work of health librarians during the pandemic; and in May our blog reported on the role of behavioural insights, data analytics and “nudge” techniques in public health, and in particular during the vaccine roll-outs.

Final thoughts

As we stand on the threshold of 2022, things look uncertain. But, as our blog posts have demonstrated throughout the past year, despite the anxieties and restrictions generated by the pandemic, great work can still be achieved by the public and private sectors, by charities, communities and individuals, for the benefit of society and the wider world.

All of us in The Knowledge Exchange team – Morwen, Donna, Heather, James, Rebecca, Hannah, Euan and Hollie –  would like to wish all our readers a safe and peaceful festive season, and very happy new year.

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research officers and keep up to date with our latest blogs

Decarbonising our buildings: heat pumps or hydrogen for the future of heating?

In October, the Scottish Government released the Heat in Buildings Strategy: Achieving Net Zero Emissions in Scotland’s Buildings. The strategy presents the approach to achieving the target for net zero emissions from Scotland’s buildings by 2045 and is a key component of the government’s ambitious climate change targets for wider society.

In the same month, the UK Government also unveiled its eagerly awaited Heat and Buildings Strategy. This includes similarly inspired aims, such as the phasing out of all new fossil fuel based heating system installations by 2035.

The coinciding release of the strategies means that the journey to decarbonisation is gradually becoming clearer to the consumer. Both governments have indicated their ambitions to make housing greener.

However, they also recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all to decarbonising the tens of millions of homes with mains gas boilers. This transition will be hugely complex, most likely requiring multiple technologies and approaches.

Industry contest heating up

The major players in the UK’s domestic heating industry – believed to be worth an estimated £17 billion – are already moving to secure their role in line with the new government plans and commitments.

In the future, there will be little place for the out-of-favour gas boiler. Traditional boiler manufacturers are aiming to evolve and align their products for long-term security,  whilst the manufacturers of technologies in their infancy, such as heat pumps, are presented with an opportunity to reform the industry for good.

It’s led to the cottage heat pump industry facing off against the established big gas companies’ development of hydrogen ready gas boilers.

Heat pumps the main contender

Whilst no quick fix technology is currently available to replace boilers, heat pumps are undoubtedly a viable frontrunner. The electric devices are steadily growing in government promotion and consumer popularity, as sales more than doubled in 2021 to give the industry its best ever year.

And, as a key feature of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, homeowners in England and Wales will be offered subsidies of up to £5,000 from April 2022 as an incentive to convert their gas boiler to a heat pump.

Heat pumps extract energy from a lower temperature source such as the ground or air and increase it to an appropriate temperature for a heat source in the home – via a compressor and a circulating structure of liquid or gas refrigerant. This heat can either be directly blown into the property or transferred into the central heating and hot water systems.

The selling point of heat pumps is their potential to greatly reduce carbon emissions if they are powered by low carbon electricity, which much of the UK now is. A new air source heat pump can lower a home’s carbon emissions by over 23 tonnes over 10 years.

Whilst relatively novel, the technology behind air source heat pumps is well established with evident positives. They are typically safer than combustion systems, have a very long lifespan with little maintenance and can double up as an air conditioner during the summer months.

Despite the UK Government and Climate Change Committee (CCC) pushing heat pumps as a blueprint for decarbonising, they are not free of concerns and complications.

Heat pumps are expensive to buy and install upfront and, similarly to boilers, the cost can vary. According to the Energy Saving Trust, an air source heat pump will generally cost around £3,000- £4,000 for an average sized house pre-installation and around £7,000-£13,000 installed – raising concerns about affordability and the average consumer’s willingness to go green.

They are, however, very efficient once installed. With an average efficiency of 250%-350%, a heat pump is likely to save you money, compared to an old gas and oil-fired boiler or electric heating. In well-insulated homes, heating bill savings of as much as 60% can be achieved.

Sufficient insulation is a critical pre-requisite to heat pump success. Commenting on the release of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas described placing heat pumps in Britain’s poorly insulated homes as like “using a teapot full of cracks: its leaky, its inefficient and it’s a waste of money.“

The UK’s housing stock is among the most poorly insulated in Europe and the current insulation of an ageing stock, like Glasgow’s Victorian tenements, poses a real barrier to the mass roll-out of heat pumps. Whilst heat pumps are suitable for older properties, consumers will need to commit to a considerable amount of insulation upgrades and home disruption to realise their benefits.

Hydrogen

An intriguing alternative that is in the developmental stages to replace gas is the use of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the natural world.

Hydrogen is already being heavily researched as a fossil fuel alternative in transport, and support for its role in heating is growing in popularity.

A study by the Institution of Engineers and Technology (IET) found that there is no clear reason as to why hydrogen gas cannot be seriously considered as a clean and safe alternative on the UK grid. Similar to heat pumps, hydrogen has the potential to be entirely renewable with no carbon emissions.

Hydrogen is also attractive as it requires minimal disruption in terms of new appliances and installation in the home. Consumers would use a hydrogen ready boiler that works almost identically to a traditional boiler. Likewise, the UK’s existing gas pipe system is well placed to make the switch due to the ongoing systematic replacement of old, unsuitable iron pipes over the last 20 years.

However, creating a new national network of hydrogen supply to the country’s homes would be a monumental and extremely expensive challenge that has never been done before. Concerns also exist around the extraction of hydrogen at this scale, as it is likely to be extracted from methane.

The extraction process emits carbon emissions which must be contained and stored through carbon capturing. Carbon capture projects of this scale do not currently exist and the idea is still under development, raising concerns around greenhouse gas emissions as a by-product of hydrogen extraction.

Final Thoughts

It is clear that the challenge of reducing building emissions is no longer just about grand intentions and targets. Whilst these are important to commit to, focus must now turn to ironing out the practicalities of how these will be achieved.

At the moment, the only established technology able to deliver clean heating is the heat pump. Yet, the UK has the worst heat pump sales and second worst installation record in Europe for a country its size. Technology such as hydrogen has potential but is still in the very early stages with many unknowns.

The UK must speed up investment in these industries to meet ambitious targets, with more detail, support and incentives for consumers.


Further reading: more on energy efficiency and decarbonisation from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Better housing for older people means better lives for all

“Sheltered Housing – MVRDV” by KJBO is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Housing is at the heart of a good quality of life. This is especially true as we get older, when health and wellbeing, independence and end-of-life care can all be greatly enhanced by decent housing.

Four recent reports have underlined the importance of good housing for older people, and the wider benefits for society.

Housing with care: progress and problems

The Commission on the Role of Housing in the Future of Care and Support  (CRHFCS) was established last October by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE). The new commission aims to produce a blueprint to enable greater choice and availability of housing and support for people aged 65 and older who may find it difficult to live independently at home, or who choose to live somewhere which provides more support options. The Commission will focus on five key areas: care homes; retirement communities; retirement housing; supported living; and the Shared Lives schemes.

The first report of the CRHFCS highlights progress made since the Commission on Residential Care 2014 (CORC) reported its findings in 2014. There have been some positive developments concerning the take-up of more new technologies in care settings, such as telehealth, telecare and smart home devices to help people maintain their independence.

Progress has also been made on age- and dementia-friendly housing design. And the report commends the Housing our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation (HAPPI) reports for raising awareness of housing specifically designed for older people.

However, little progress has been made on CORC’s recommended expansion of the market to give greater choice of housing with access to care. Options remain limited, especially for those struggling to pay for accommodation.

The CRHFCS sets out some initial policy proposals. These include planning reforms to make it easier to build retirement community housing, and improved information and advice to support informed decision-making for older people seeking housing with care and support facilities.

The Commission’s final report will appear in the summer, when it will make recommendations about the future shape of housing that facilitates care and support.

Needed: a clear vision about housing for older people

The findings from the CRHFCS report are echoed in another report, published in April by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research. The Cambridge report identifies numerous constraints to supply, investment and demand in the market for specialised housing for older people. 

One of the study’s key findings  is that retirement community development is unviable in many areas outside of London and the South East of England.

“Coupled with the fact that the majority of house moves made by older people are relatively local, this constraint to supply reduces housing options for those living elsewhere in the country, particularly home owners who do not qualify for assistance with housing costs. Unless the viability of retirement community development can be improved and the supply of mid-range retirement properties be raised, these households will have very little choice around moving in later life.”

Among the recommendations in the Cambridge report are calls for national government to provide a clear vision about housing for people as they age:

“For example, greater clarity is required around the joint priorities of ‘downsizing’ and ‘ageing in place’, and how these priorities can be best implemented at the local level.”

The report also recommends that local authorities should give priority to housing for older people, through the creation of clear strategic and local plans and guidelines for developers:

“Collaboration between local authority planning, social care, health and housing teams could allow for better planning around retirement housing. For example, retirement housing may make savings possible within health and social care budgets.”

The Cambridge report encourages housing providers to diversify the retirement housing offer, and to gain a better understanding of preferences of different older people:

“Rather than drawing on stereotypes of old age, providers face the challenge of recognising older people as a complex and heterogeneous group of consumers with diverse aspirations.”

Closing the generational divide

According to a report by the Intergenerational Foundation (IF), England now has two housing nations: the first is older, well-housed, often well-off, with space to work and self-isolate; the second nation is younger living in cramped flats or shared homes with little or no access to outside space.

The IF says that the pandemic has exacerbated housing inequalities between the young and the old, and observes that “…while younger generations have lost their jobs, their homes and even their mental health during COVID-19, older generations have stockpiled space.”

The report also highlights a rise in the number of second homes as a consequence of the pandemic.  There are now 5.5 million second homes in England – a 50% increase between 2011 and 2020 – most of them owned by older people.

Space inequality has also increased. Owner-occupied homes have a third more space on average than privately rented homes, and almost double the space as social housing.

Like the previously mentioned reports, the IF calls for market failures on retirement housing to be addressed. It recommends reform of stamp duty to encourage downsizing, and reforms to the planning system both to give a greater voice to the homeless and badly housed and to encourage developers to build more retirement homes.

Making a house a home: impacts of poor-quality housing

While some older people enjoy the benefits of good housing,  there are substantial numbers of people aged 50 and older living in poor-quality accommodation.

A report by the Centre for Ageing Better (CfAB) has found that living in cold, damp housing, or homes in a state of disrepair can increase the risk of illness and accidents. Poor housing also has wider impacts: first-year NHS treatment costs for over-55s living in the poorest quality housing are estimated at £513m.

But there are barriers preventing older people from making the improvements that would help them live healthier, more independent lives. These include a lack of finance and uncertainty about where to find trustworthy information about home improvements.

The CfAB report calls for a  wider range of financing options, including government grants and loans, to help older people adapt their homes. It also recommends clear signposting and advice to support informed decisions about home improvements, as well as initiatives to raise awareness about the impact of poor quality homes on health and wellbeing.

Final thoughts

The number of people aged 65 and over is set to rise from 12 million to more than 20 million by 2030. While poor quality housing presents risks for older people, age-appropriate housing can keep them healthy, help them to live independently and reduce the need for social care.

These reports highlight important issues that must be addressed not only to support older people, but to advance the radical changes needed to fix Britain’s broken housing market. Better housing for older people is better for us all.


The reports highlighted in this blog post have recently been added to The Knowledge Exchange (TKE) database. Subscribers to TKE information service have direct access to all of the abstracts on our database, with most also providing the full text of journal articles and reports. To find out more about our services, please visit our website: https://www.theknowledgeexchange.co.uk/

Further reading: more on housing for older people on The Knowledge Exchange blog

Close to home: getting to net zero means decarbonising the UK’s housing stock

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Two years ago, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law pledging to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Achieving net zero means balancing the amount of greenhouse gases we emit with the amount we remove, and it’s a critical factor in tackling climate change by reducing global warming.

But, according to the government’s independent adviser on tackling climate change, the UK will be unable to meet the net zero target without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from 29 million homes. 

The necessity: why buildings need to be decarbonised

In 2014, emissions from domestic properties accounted for 34% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. A combination of high energy prices and improvements in energy efficiency brought that figure closer to 19%. But those reductions have stalled, and because the UK’s building stock is one of the oldest and most energy-inefficient in Europe, the need to decarbonise is even more urgent.

The benefits: environmental, health, economic

While achieving net zero is one good reason for making our buildings more energy efficient, decarbonisation offers further dividends.

Energy efficient homes are cheaper to run, reducing the levels of fuel poverty that affect millions of households. They can also bring health benefits in the form of healthy air temperatures, lower humidity, better noise levels, and improved air quality.

In addition, a nationwide programme of decarbonising buildings could make a vital contribution to the recovery of the economy from the coronavirus pandemic. A recent inquiry by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee  (EAC) found that investing in energy efficiency alone could create 34,000 full-time jobs within the next two years. In the longer term, energy efficiency investment could support an estimated 150,000 skilled and semi-skilled jobs to 2030.

The problems: high costs, skills uncertainty and a “disastrous” insulation scheme

The UK government says the cost of decarbonising homes is between £35 billion and £65 billion. But the EAC believes that this seriously underestimates the cost of upgrading the energy efficiency of homes. With 19 million homes in England requiring energy efficiency installations, this could cost £18,000 per home, even before the installation of a heat pump.

Another area of concern is skills. Brian Berry from the Federation of Master Builders told the committee that every tradesperson in the country needs to be upskilled in retrofit techniques in order to secure overall competency in the supply chain:

“We need to upskill people in the building industry because there is a need to understand how their skills interrelate to one another. You cannot just pick out one bit of this. It has to be seen holistically, which is why I think there needs to be a national retrofit strategy, a clear political direction and a commitment to reducing carbon emissions in our homes.”

The EAC was also outspoken in its criticism of the government’s flagship home insulation scheme. The Green Homes Grant was launched in 2020 to offer £1.5bn in subsidies for insulation and low-CO2 heating. However, only 6.3% of the money has been spent, despite exceptionally high demand.

The committee said the scheme was rushed and poorly implemented, and described its administration as “nothing short of disastrous.” Just six months after its launch, the scheme has now been scrapped. Instead, energy saving upgrades and low carbon heating will be delivered to homes through local authorities in England.

The recommendations: strategies, incentives and insights from overseas

There’s no shortage of suggestions for driving decarbonisation forward. The EAC has called for a government strategy for the next decade to give industry and tradespeople time to upskill and to give households the right signals to invest in energy efficiency. The committee also recommends that VAT on the labour element of refurbishment and renovations is reduced to 5%, a measure also supported by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

It’s also worth looking at ideas from overseas. In February, research by the University of Edinburgh reviewed the heat decarbonisations policies in nine European countries. The report highlights particular progress made by the Nordic countries in decarbonising buildings’ heat supply and in making greater use of electricity as a potential future source of low-carbon heating.

The solutions: putting promises into practice

While the challenge of decarbonising homes may be daunting, a growing number of housing providers are taking steps to cut emissions from domestic properties.

The Welsh Government has provided £20m in funding for Optimised Retrofit. Through this scheme, 28 social landlords can retrofit homes and test the ways heat and energy are produced, stored and supplied. If it’s successful, the scheme could be the model for decarbonising all of Wales’ 1.4 million homes by 2050.

Last month, Sutton Council launched an energy-efficiency programme to transform draughty properties with high energy bills into net zero carbon houses which are warmer and cheaper for residents. The programme is based on a successful Dutch initiative known as Energiesprong (energy leap). In the Netherlands, 1300 net zero energy refurbishments have been completed, and a further 500 are being built. The initiative involves insulating the external walls and roof areas, replacing windows and doors and installing new solar panels to power a new central heating and ventilation system. Sutton is the first London borough and the latest UK housing provider to adopt the programme, which has already been taken up in Nottingham and Maldon.

Many housing associations are at the start of their journey to net zero, but a National Housing Federation survey has shown that two thirds of social housing landlords have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer. Three quarters (74%) of survey respondents expect to retrofit homes in 2020-21. A similar proportion (73%) expect to retrofit homes in 2021-22. However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.

The future: decarbonisation begins at home

Local authorities, housing associations, and the construction industry are all keen to transform existing homes into greener, warmer places to live in. At the same time, residents – especially those having to make the choice between heating or eating – need to be taken out of fuel poverty. And, as we’ve seen, achieving net zero will only be possible by making the nation’s housing stock more energy efficient.

With so much riding on decarbonisation of domestic properties, the need for more funding as part of an ambitious policy approach is clear. As the UK prepares to host the critical climate change talks in Glasgow this year, there has to be a better understanding that tackling the climate emergency starts on our own doorstep.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on housing and energy efficiency

Building sights: how offsite construction could help solve the housing shortage

“Offsite construction” by psd is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Long waiting lists, high rents, thousands sleeping rough, millions living in insecure or unsuitable homes and a generation of young people priced out of the market: these are the hallmarks of the UK’s broken housing system.

In England, the government is committed to building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. But in 2019, the number of new homes amounted to 170,000 – fewer than half of which were affordable homes. It’s a situation that is almost certain to get worse. Housing analysts have suggested that the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 will mean a 30% reduction in homes delivered.

Local authorities are rising to the challenge of the housing crisis. Between 1999 and 2002, councils delivered just 60 new homes as a consequence of central government housing policy. But in recent years councils have been returning to housebuilding in large numbers. A 2019 RTPI report found that:

“…more than two thirds of local authorities are now involved in directly delivering housing and local authorities are delivering homes in numbers not seen for 20 years.”

In the same year, The Guardian newspaper highlighted some examples of council housing projects:

“Bournemouth is building housing above many of its surface car parks, and has won planning awards for the results. Wigan is transforming tricky former mining sites with an exemplary programme of housing for older people. Exeter has one of Europe’s largest Passivhaus schemes underway, while Liverpool is developing rent-to-buy homes.”

Going modular

But if councils are to succeed in their efforts to deliver more affordable, low carbon housing, they will need to change the way homes are built. Increasingly, prefabricated modular construction is being seen as a way to meet some of the demand for new housing. Built offsite in factories, with fittings included, prefabricated housing offers comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern 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.

An article in the 12 November 2020 issue of MJ magazine reported further benefits, noting that:

“…these homes are delivered with up to 40% less carbon, fewer defects, and less disruption to neighbourhoods where sites are located. Once completed the fact they are made in a factory is not obvious to the passer by or occupant, it is just great housing, beautifully built, with low running costs.”

A shortage of skilled labour presents another reason why the old ways of building homes need to change, as a 2016 review of the construction market highlighted:

“We will not have the labour force to deliver what the country needs by working in those ways, and those ways will not create enough added value for clients or suppliers to allow construction firms to prosper, and make those investments in our people and performance.”

The report demonstrated that prefabricated housing can make a significant difference to satisfying demand:

“Tokyo alone is able to build nearly the same number of homes per year that the UK delivers nationally. This is purely due to the reliance on a different delivery model for single family homes which benefits from the mass market cultural acceptance of pre-manufactured modular housing.”

Housing the homeless

Further evidence that modern methods of construction can work well has come from a project in Cambridge, where six modular homes were installed on a temporary site to house local homeless people. A report by the Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research noted that residents were impressed with the design, space and quality of the modular units, and were keen to be involved in efforts to build a thriving community.

The Cambridge project is especially important in the light of the UK’s large number of rough sleepers and ‘hidden homeless’. In March 2020, more than 14,000 homeless people were housed in England as part of the ‘Everyone In’ initiative to take rough sleepers off the streets during the first wave of the pandemic. The programme was hailed as one of the leading successes of the government’s coronavirus response, but it ended in May and has not resumed during the current lockdown.

The future is modular?

So, could modular construction offer a solution to the UK’s housing shortage? Recent research published in the Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology set out to compare the traditional approach with modular construction, and to assess whether a shift in construction systems offers the potential to alleviate the UK’s domestic housing crisis. The study stressed that more research was needed to provide greater certainty about how modular methods could be more effectively grafted onto the current UK construction practices. However, the authors concluded that:

 “…modular construction promises strategic solutions to the lack of affordable housing currently experienced in the UK.”

In the meantime, recent developments suggest that the prefabricated housing sector seems to be going from strength to strength:

  • A 20,000 sq ft unit will be the manufacturing site for a new modular housing company in Durham, with plans to produce 1,000 modular homes a year.
  • A modular housing developer owned by Ikea has signed a 750-home deal with a housing association in the south of England.
  • Planning consent has been granted for 185 homes to be located in Bristol after they are shipped in from a factory in Yorkshire. Half of the homes will become part of the city council’s affordable housing stock.

The numbers of prefabricated homes are still too low. But if this trend continues, offsite construction might start to have a bigger impact on the UK’s housing shortage. The days of bricks and mortar could be numbered.


Further reading
More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on modern methods of housing:

The year of living differently: reviewing The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. A microscopic virus – 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has dominated, disrupted and redefined the way we live and work.

Although the pandemic is primarily a public health emergency, its effects have been felt in all areas of public and social policy, from economic development and employment to transport and the environment. Throughout this year, our blog has reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus and the restrictions introduced to prevent its spread.

The COVID-19 knock-on

While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news headlines, it has also obscured the knock-on effects on the NHS. In October, we reported on the impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures, such as screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

As the blog post noted, the impacts have been wide-ranging, including not only delays in care for case of physical ill health, but also for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions:

“Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this.”

The ‘hidden epidemic’

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence had become known as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the UK. In September, our blog highlighted the unintended consequences of quarantine for domestic abuse victims.

After the UK entered lockdown in March, calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25%. Three-quarters of victims told a BBC investigation that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received.

Despite additional government funding, the local authorities and charities which support victims of domestic violence have been struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Even so,  important partnerships have been formed between local government, educational institutions and third sector bodies to provide safe spaces for women and their children fleeing violence. Among these was an initiative at the University of Cambridge:

St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

‘Same storm, different boats’

As the recent Marmot review has stressed, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

In July, we looked at the uneven economic impact of the pandemic, focusing on the heavy price being paid by young people, women, disabled people and Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Women often work in the frontline of care services and have had to juggle childcare during lockdown. BAME communities are over-represented in key-worker jobs, and so were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

And although there has been much talk about ‘building back better’, our blog post drew attention to the observations of Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland during a Poverty Alliance webinar:

“She asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.”

The impacts of a pandemic

Many other aspects of the impact of COVID-19 have been covered in our blog:

  • How housing providers have embraced the fluidity of an emergency situation, including tackling homelessness, engaging effectively with tenants and addressing mental ill health.
  • Digital healthcare solutions for those with coronavirus and for the continuity of care and day-to-day running of the NHS.
  • Creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace.
  • How COVID-19 is changing public transport, including an acceleration towards contactless payment and mobile ticketing.
  • The additional challenges of the pandemic facing autistic children and young people.
  • The impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the arts.
  • The role of green new deals in tackling climate change and economic inequality as part of the post-Covid recovery.

Beyond the virus

Although the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds this year, The Knowledge Exchange blog has also taken the time to focus on other important issues in public and social policy:

We’ve also taken advantage of the ‘new normal’ experience of remote working to join a number of webinars, and to report back on the observations and ideas emerging from them. Most recently, our blogs have focused on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, which included contributions on how the planning system can help address climate change.

Final thoughts

The health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting – restrictions on travel, work and socialising will continue into the spring, and insolvencies and unemployment numbers are likely to rise. And the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s new trading relationship with the European Union will generate additional challenges.   

But, as a frequently difficult, often challenging and sometimes distressing year draws to a close, there is cause for optimism about 2021. Vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus have been developed with lightning speed. Across the UK people are already being vaccinated, with greater numbers set to receive the jab in the coming months.

Here at The Knowledge Exchange, we’ll continue to highlight the key issues facing public and social policy and practice as we move towards the post-Covid era.

Season’s greetings

It’s with even greater meaning than ever before that we wish all our readers a happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy new year.

Best wishes from everyone at The Knowledge Exchange: Morwen, Christine, Heather, Donna, Rebecca, Scott, Hannah and James.


Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

Guest post: Stories from lockdown – interviews show how poor housing quality made life even more tough

Mike_shots/Shutterstock

Philip Brown, University of Huddersfield

Life during COVID-19 has not been a uniform experience. There have been distinct differences in how people have contended with lockdown, depending on whether they have access to safe, secure and decent accommodation.

New research from the University of Huddersfield has looked at how people were coping while living with poor housing conditions in the north of England during the first lockdown, between May and July 2020. We spoke to 50 households: 40 in the private rented sector and 10 owner-occupiers, as well as eight housing workers.

The findings are stark and unsettling. The study found that the state of homes were causing increasing distress and were costing more to run and maintain. People in rental properties, in particular, felt increasingly insecure in their tenancies.

Worsening conditions

The majority of the people we spoke to were living in privately rented accommodation. We found that for these households, existing poor housing conditions worsened during lockdown.

Many households expressed a suspicion that landlords were using lockdown as an excuse to indefinitely postpone or delay repair works (repairs were permitted at the time the study was conducted). Others reported that their landlords had refused to arrange repairs. People told us about leaking roofs and guttering, and about how water coming into their housing had caused internal damage, damp and mould.

Woman looking at mould in corner of room
Damp and mould were recurring problems. Burdun Iliya/Shutterstock

These households faced the choice of waiting and trying to cope, or using their own income and savings to fix their homes. As one resident told us:

In the end I had to pay for someone to come out and get rid of the mice myself because I can’t have mice running about the flipping house… when it was leaking on the roof I had to pay to have tiles put in.

Our findings showed that people were not reporting or following up concerns or making complaints, due to a fear of possible revenge evictions or rent increases which they could not afford. Many respondents told us that they were putting paying for housing costs ahead of food and other outgoings.

Making ends meet

We heard accounts of the challenges of living in cold and damp conditions. This was a recurring factor in the lives of those people on low incomes, as well as for people for whom the pandemic had added a new layer of uncertainty.

A lack of control over rising energy costs in the home was an ongoing source of anxiety. A single parent said:

I don’t put my heating on as much as I should do. I make sure my daughter walks around in slippers, dressing gowns. You come into the home, you take your coat off and you put a dressing gown on, so you walk round in a housecoat, basically.

Often, these accounts did not come from people who had existing experience of the welfare system, but from people who were still working full-time in professional occupations.

Elderly woman wrapped in blanket adjusting thermostat
Energy costs cause anxiety. Paul Vasarhelyi/Shutterstock

Spending weeks at a time in poor-quality accommodation had a crushing impact. One woman reported:

I’ve got really bad damp in my house…it’s always bothered me, but it’s bothered me more and more and more because I work from home, and I’m working in the kitchen, and I’m looking at it every day directly and seeing it there. It’s just getting worse. The landlord keeps saying, “There’s nothing I can do”.

Existing problems

The report makes it clear that the issues households were facing did not begin during lockdown. Rather, households were put into lockdown within homes that were already low quality. The stories within the report are not isolated cases – around 1 million homes across the north fail to meet basic decency standards.

Research has shown that those most at risk of experiencing the worst impacts of the pandemic are those people who are already vulnerable: those receiving benefits, living with long-term health conditions, in precarious employment or living in insecure housing or with poor housing conditions. These issues are particularly acute in the north of England.

Immediate action is needed to ensure people retain as much income as possible, their outgoings are minimised and their housing is secure. The housing crisis in the UK is not just about a lack of new homes, but also about the quality of existing homes that many of us will continue to live in for decades.

Philip Brown, Professor of Housing and Communities, University of Huddersfield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading: more on housing from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

How the COVID-19 homelessness response shows opportunities for future progress

Before the UK entered lockdown in March 2020, there were already discussions around how the spread of COVID-19 would impact some of the most vulnerable people in our society. There was an acute awareness not only of the significant levels of homelessness in our towns and cities but that the number of people who needed support was growing at an alarming rate. Strategies for prevention and outreach programmes to help break the cycle of homelessness through a network of support systems for homeless people were helping to a certain extent in some areas, but the problem was (is) chronic and the concern among people who worked in, and had experience of, the sector in relation to the potential impact of COVID-19 was growing.

Homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic

Surprisingly though, in many areas the response to support the UK’s homeless populations was swift, definitive and all encompassing. Partnerships were formed with local hotel chains – the GLA partnership with multiple hotel groups as part of the Pan London Placement scheme is probably the best publicised but individual arrangements have sprung up across the country and people were moved from the street into accommodation which was self-contained and would allow them to effectively isolate if they showed any symptoms of COVID-19.

In March, minister Robert Jennick announced £3.2 million of funding for councils to help them protect local rough sleepers from the pandemic and MHCLG, councils, the voluntary sector and those who work within homelessness outreach specifically have all mobilised to form an effective network of support for many people who had previously been sleeping on the streets.

The response to moving those who were sleeping rough off the streets has been unprecedented, as is the volume of people who have been helped. Many people have been accommodated regardless of their “local connection” or their “recourse to public funds”, something which previously was a significant barrier to many people being housed in temporary accommodation by their local authority.

A new wave of homelessness?

However despite the significant progress made, there are growing concerns about a “second wave of homelessness”- people who become homeless off the back of the stagnation and collapse of some areas of the economy, particularly those in low paid and precarious work i.e. hospitality and retail sector. Additionally, there are signs that some especially vulnerable groups have not engaged with the process or that some people have became homeless after the initial offer of support was rolled out. These include people from migrant backgrounds, and people with acute and severe mental ill health.

Things can’t go back to the way they were

One thing is clear, according to professionals, things can’t be allowed to return to the way they were. In some instances this is for practical reasons, and in other instances because we have been able to see what it is possible to achieve when people co-operate and there is a collective will to progress.

The use of communal shelters, one of the main ways of delivering emergency accommodation for many years may have to stop, or at least be re-organised to avoid multiple people sharing facilities like bathrooms or sleeping in rooms with multiple beds. A move towards more “pod style” contained living may be a way forward, but it will take a shift in design to accommodate people safely in the future.

The response has shown that it is vital to develop links between housing and health, and that the integration of services with public health to create wrap-around care (which is something which is currently being co-ordinated in response to the pandemic) should be maintained going forward.

The pandemic response has also shown that multiple organisations can work well effectively together and that the red tape, perceived layers of bureaucracy and challenges of different ways of working can be overcome if there is collective understanding and will. These barriers can be overcome to create really effective and much needed services and support for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Concerns have been raised around future funding, and in particular the risks of funding being stopped abruptly or the supply being removed at short notice, for example if hotels re-open and councils then struggle to identify appropriate accommodation for people to transition into. The sector has stressed that councils should be planning for this transition phase to prevent people returning to the streets and dis-engaging with services.

Opportunities to learn lessons

At an online event hosted by the Centre for London, which brought together professionals from within the sector in London to reflect on the response to COVID-19, somewhat surprisingly, the atmosphere was one of optimism that this could be the start of a new way of working. There is hope that a “can do” and “get things done attitude” which had been catalysed by the need for urgency because of the spread of COVID-19 can be harnessed and that this mindset should be embedded into practice going forward.

One of the main questions that appears to be raised is, if we can do it now, with such urgency, why couldn’t we do it before, and what steps need to be taken to ensure that the collective will and the government support doesn’t disappear post COVID-19? This is something local authorities, homeless outreach groups and other partners will have to grapple with over the coming weeks and months.

The response to the pandemic has been unprecedented. It has shown that with understanding, flexibility and effective partnership working to deliver coordinated services (as well as appropriate supply and funding) that tackling homelessness, or at least offering more to our homeless communities in terms of effective long term support, can be achieved.

There is a collective sense within the sector that the steps forward taken as a result of this pandemic should not be allowed to regress in the future, but should be strengthened and built upon to provide more effective support going forward for homeless communities across the UK.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

Read some of our other blogs on housing and homelessness:

Digital Housing Week: How coronavirus is affecting housing

Throughout this week, Inside Housing magazine has been providing a series of webinars offering debate, learning and innovative thinking on how housing providers are responding to present-day challenges and preparing for future demands.

One of the webinars focused on the ways in which Covid-19 has accelerated the move to agile working for housing associations (HAs) and council staff, and how housing providers can tackle the  mental health and wellbeing issues experienced by staff and residents.

Responding to the new normal

Anita Khan, from Settle Housing Association in Hertfordshire explained how her HA responded to lockdown by mobilising its continuity plan. Settle’s first responsibility is to engage with and support its customers, and once the plan was enacted, agile behaviour took root.

Anita described how automated contacts with HA customers enabled it to identify which people were in isolation or shielding. At the same time, methods of enforcement had to change, as the UK government banned evictions. Anita explained that once the HA stopped sending messages warning customers of enforcement of the rules on rent payments, the residents started to engage more positively with it.

Working practices at Settle also changed substantially, with a move away from a face-to-face culture towards remote working. Anita described the process of change HA staff experienced, from relief at not having to make long commutes, followed by fatigue from too many video conferences, and more recently recalibrating to a situation that works.

Agile working in the age of coronavirus

Tony Morrison, an agile working consultant, described the measures taken by Newham Council  to modernise the way the local authority worked. He explained that in 2019, Newham got a new leadership team, and deployed a plan to make the first investment in IT for eight years. The aim was to make sure everyone was mobile by default, and to pivot a local authority with 14.5 million pieces of paper towards a paperless organisation. The plan was already under way when the lockdown was imposed.

Immediately, the council had to adapt to the new situation. Around three thousand members of staff didn’t have effective ways of working from home, and so the council identified who most needed assistance, and delivered laptops and mobile devices to these 500 individuals.

At same time, the council deployed Office 365 and migrated Skype for Business, and enabled staff to communicate with customers using Zoom.

Newham has now rolled out a further 2000 devices to staff, and it’s clear that the lockdown experience has demonstrated the possibilities of remote working.

The council is already looking to the post-pandemic period when it might not require so much expensive office space. Tony explained that now would not be the right time to consider disposal of offices because so many other organisations are in the same position. Instead, Newham is looking at alternative uses for its property estate, including cohabiting with other organisations, pop-up spaces and conversion to affordable housing.

Housing on the frontline of a mental health crisis

There’s now little doubt that the coronavirus pandemic is having a significant effect on mental health. With the loss of lives and livelihoods, and the growing demands for support from already overburdened health services, the fallout from the pandemic is likely to be on an unprecedented scale.

During the Inside Housing webinar, consultant psychiatrist Raj Persaud talked about the unique role housing can play in tackling mental health issues among staff and residents.

He noted that housing staff may be among the first to identify signs of mental illness among residents, because fewer people have been attending GP surgeries during the pandemic.

He suggested that housing staff in this position should raise such issues with community mental health teams. He also highlighted the importance of contacting NHS services by letter. Because letters are legal documents, health professionals are more likely to pay attention to issues raised in this way.

Raj highlighted a key issue housing staff can focus on when dealing with people who have mental health problems:

“Too often, the aim has been to concentrate on the causes of mental illness, but that misses out on the coping skills people have used in the past. The right skills can make a person super resilient, and so it’s always useful to engage in conversation about coping skills people have used for previous life events.”

All of the speakers in the webinar stressed the importance of the human factor in tackling the challenges raised by the coronavirus pandemic. Raj Persaud noted that, in the absence of the water cooler, the pub or the staff room, physical locations have to be recreated virtually. Doing this may feel clunky at first, but even if things don’t feel right, housing staff and others should persist until they find a method that suits them, and enables people to feel they are less isolated.

Final thoughts

One thing is certain: post-Covid will be very different from pre-Covid. But this webinar demonstrated that housing providers are embracing the fluidity of this situation. In an age of thinking differently, those who consider alternative solutions to the problems of the present may be better equipped for the challenges of the future.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.