Housing models for the future

Housing is one of the challenges of our time. The task for architects and designers is to create affordable, robust housing that can accommodate the needs of a rapidly growing, but also ageing population. And it’s not as easy as simply building. The demands and expectations on house builders to also be community builders and the architects of mental and physical wellbeing through design have led architects and designers to consider alternative ways to house us in the future. This includes innovative use of materials and construction methods, addressing the issue of financing through co-operative living models and using bespoke design to create lifetime homes which can be adapted to accommodate the changing needs of our population.

Large-scale development

One of the big challenges for urban areas is large-scale development strategies for designing and delivering housing to meet need. For developers and planners going forward there are a number of factors to consider: the type of investment introduced to an area; how the schemes fit with a wider development plan for the city; and the importance of engaging the community in any plans to develop or regenerate an area.

“Placemaking”, not just house building is central to large scale development discussions, emphasising to planners, architects and developers the fact that they are not just building houses, but creating communities. As a result, designers and developers should be mindful of their important role in community building, to build the right sort of homes in the right places, at affordable prices and with a legacy in mind. They should, create high quality, long lasting units, which will stand the test of time but that also can be easily adapted to accommodate people’s changing needs.

Alternative construction and design

Innovative models and options for future builds have been discussed for a number of years but they are becoming an increasingly mainstream way to build affordable housing that meets the current need, particularly of students and young professionals, and of older populations looking to downsize or move into assisted care accommodation.

Offsite manufacture or modular homes  Offsite manufacture of timber framed houses is becoming increasingly common, with the constituent pieces of the house manufactured off site, then transported to the site and constructed on a concrete block where foundations and services such as plumbing have already been created. Offsite housing can either be open panel, which requires the finishing such as bathroom and kitchen installation to be done on site, or closed panel which provide the entire section complete with decoration and flooring (this is becoming a common way to build cheap, efficient student housing).

Custom build  Custom build projects are similar to self-build in that they give clients flexibility to select their own design and layout, However, custom build provides slightly more structure and certainty which can make it easier when considering elements like financing and planning applications. In essence, customers select the spec of their house in the same way they might make custom modifications to a car.

Build to rent  This model has been adapted from the United States, where build to rent is popular. The model is based on self-contained flats, with central and shared amenities, entrance and communal space. Designed to attract graduates and young professionals, these are being increasingly designed using a “user first” approach. Developers identify the sort of person they want to live in the development, identify what sort of things they might look for in a development, including floor type, furniture, layout, amenities, gadgets, and then build the development around that.

Dementia friendly – Building homes that are safe and affordable, but allow for independence in old age, is one of the major demands on house builders currently. Housing stock is seen as not suitable for current need, but building bespoke sites for people with illnesses like dementia has been seen as a bit of a niche previously. Virtual Reality (VR) is being used by some architects and developers to try to help them understand the needs and requirements of people with dementia and how they can build homes suitable for them to be able to live as independent and full lives as possible. Building dementia friendly homes not only means making them accessible and open plan, but also adapting the layout, adding signage where appropriate and if possible locating the homes within a wider community development. Dementia villages like those seen in Amsterdam are being used as the model for this.

Co-housing

Co- housing offers an alternative to communities in Scotland, and while lessons can be learned from elsewhere in Europe, where co- housing models have been successful, there are also pockets of good and emerging practice in the UK too. More traditional examples include Berlin, where almost 1 in 10 new homes follow the Baugruppe model, and Amsterdam (centraal wonen) where some of the oldest co-housing projects originate. In Denmark, 8% of households use co-housing models.

Co-housing provides the opportunity for groups of people to come together and form a community which is created and run by its residents. Each household has a self-contained, private home as well as shared community space. Residents come together to manage their community, share activities, and regularly eat together. A “Self-build Cooperative Group” is a joint venture between several private households who plan and build their own house together. Usually they are supported by an architect. Often co- housing groups are able to realise high-quality living space at prices below local market rates, although it is not really considered suitable for large-scale development within the current UK market.

Opportunities for a new way forward

Practitioners are often challenged to push the boundaries of design and building in their field. Looking to new models for future building design provides an opportunity to think creatively about alternative uses of materials and space and to consider options for construction, funding and investment in the built environment that challenge the norm. Learning lessons and exchanging ideas from elsewhere, architects and planners have the opportunity to come together to consider how the built environment in Scotland can help to create places  not just buildings  and how this can contribute positively to the wider wellbeing and happiness of people living in Scotland in the future.


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If more than one in three homeowners are interested in downsizing, why aren’t they making the move?

 

According to Savills estate agents, about 90,000 people over the age of 65 in the UK downsize to smaller homes each year. On the face of it, that’s a substantial number, but it still leaves more than three million houses under-occupied.

With an ageing population and a serious housing shortage, government at local and national levels is looking for ways to encourage older people to downsize their accommodation so that more family-sized housing is made available.

Benefits of downsizing

Everyone needs good housing, but as people grow older their homes become especially important as places where they can feel safe, independent and comfortable. Downsizing from larger properties can offer significant benefits to older people:

  • Smaller homes can be easier to heat and have lower utility bills.
  • People downsizing to sheltered housing can retain their independence, while having access to support when it’s needed.
  • Smaller homes are easier to manage and cheaper to maintain.
  • People moving into specialised retirement accommodation can experience improvements in their health and wellbeing.

Enabling people to remain in their own homes may also alleviate the pressures on the country’s social care system – pressures that are likely to intensify as the population age rises.

Downsizing barriers

While there are attractions to downsizing, important factors are putting off large numbers of people from moving to a smaller home. Some may feel too confined in a smaller space, experience problems storing their possessions, or miss having a large garden. Others may feel that they’ve taken a long time to climb the property ladder, and want to enjoy the home they have spent a lifetime working to achieve.

But for those who do want to move, downsizing can be expensive.  It may release equity, but some households find the costs of moving – notably stamp duty – may cancel out the financial benefits. And although lower maintenance costs can be a major reason for downsizing, older people moving into apartments may find that costs for maintenance and factoring, may be higher than in a standard family home.

Downsizing: the real story

A 2016 report by the International Longevity Centre (ILC) explored the experiences and expectations of people downsizing from under-occupied housing later in life. The report found that one in three homeowners over 55 are considering or expect to consider downsizing. However, while demand for downsizing is substantial, the reality is a different story:

“In many ways, the older generation is stuck in its current housing, which has resulted in the UK having one of the lowest moving rates amongst its older population compared to other developed countries.”

The study echoed the findings from a 2014 Age UK report which showed that the scarcity of suitable and affordable retirement housing was a barrier to downsizing:

“At the moment, retirement housing makes up just 5-6% of all older people’s housing. Research indicates that many more older people might consider downsizing if alternatives were available, although not just retirement housing schemes.”

The Age UK report noted that, based on demographic trends, specialist retirement housing would need to increase by between 35 and 75% just to keep pace with demand. The report also pointed to poor access standards and cramped accommodation in some sheltered housing schemes as downsizing deterrents.

Alternative approaches

The Scottish Government’s strategy for housing for older people, published in 2011, supports downsizing, and highlights Highland Council’s scheme as an example of good practice. In association with local housing associations, the council has provided financial and practical incentives to support older people wishing to move because their homes are too large for their needs.

Another approach, popular in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, is co-housing, which offers older residents a balance between independence and community life. Co-housing schemes are run totally by the residents, offering support when needed to those who live there, while respecting their dignity and independence.

In the Netherlands, there are now more than 200 co-housing communities. Successive governments there have supported co-housing because it has had such positive impacts on demand for health and social care services.

In April, the UK’s first co-housing project for older women opened in Barnet, north London. One of the scheme’s proponents, Maria Brenton, believes that it will be a model for similar projects:

“One of our purposes is to promote the idea of senior co-housing. Now we have shown the way, we are a living, breathing example, it will encourage people enormously.”

Final thoughts

As the ILC report notes, the policy debate on housing in the UK has focused almost completely on first-time buyers. However, with more than three million homeowners aged 55 or over open to the idea of downsizing, the impact of freeing up large numbers of family homes could be significant. Before that happens, the under-supply of affordable homes meeting the particular needs of older residents needs to be addressed:

“Fundamentally, the notion of downsizing in later life should be about choice rather than obligation. It therefore becomes clear that if we were to develop the right policy environment, we can enhance the choices available to people in later life, encouraging downsizing and creating a more dynamic housing market.”



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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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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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Going through the roof: could building upwards address London’s housing problem?

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The Ter Meulen Building, Rotterdam: 21st century residential apartments built on top of a post-war shopping centre

The housing challenges facing London are well documented::

  • London needs around 50,000 new homes a year, but housebuilding is running at around half that.
  • Between 2005 and 2015, private rents in London rose by an average of 35%.
  • Future projections suggest there will be 9m people in London by 2020, 10m by 2030 and 11m by 2050.

There are now serious concerns that the lack of affordable housing and rising rents risk driving key workers out of London, and may cause businesses to think twice about locating in the capital. But as well as triggering dire warnings about the future of London and the UK economy, the housing crisis has also prompted increasingly creative ideas on how to solve it.

Going up

Last year, Darren Johnson, who represented the Green Party on the Greater London Assembly, proposed five ideas to secure land for affordable homes. One of his proposals was to build additional storeys on top of existing buildings.

Johnson suggested that this approach has many advantages over demolishing existing properties and building new homes, including:

  • a shorter period of disruption for residents;
  • more environmentally friendly than demolition and rebuilding
  • an opportunity to refurbish the existing homes

He offered the example of the Ducane Housing Association in Hammersmith, which built 44 new homes on top of two 1970s buildings. Based on data from London’s Borough Councils, Johnson estimated that almost 50,000 new homes could be built using Ducane’s example.

One potential stumbling block is the difficulty of getting planning permission for intensive construction projects in the heart of active communities. However, in July 2015, the Treasury signalled the government’s intent to end the need to obtain planning permission for upwards extensions in London.

Building on public buildings

Another approach, on similar lines, is the idea of building new homes on top of publically owned buildings. In 2015, WSP professional services consultants conducted a survey to gauge interest in the idea. Among their findings:

  • 61% of respondents supported the idea of allowing private developers to refurbish government buildings, allowing them to make their money back by building additional housing on top of the refurbished building, which they could sell for profit.
  • Over 60% of Londoners would happily live above a library, while 44% would be willing to live above a government administration building, and around a quarter of Londoners would be willing to live above a school or hospital.

The WSP report went on to suggest that developing all available sites by building apartments above all available public buildings in London could provide over 630,000 residential units.

“Of course we acknowledge that not every building will be able to be redeveloped in this way, but even targeting one in every two municipal buildings could go a long way in solving the housing crisis, providing 315,000 homes.”

These homes, the report argued, would be most suitable for key workers employed by these facilities, or by students, older people and young professionals. Some may even house those working in the facilities below.

One landlord is already exploring the idea with several London councils. Apex Housing Group has experience of converting airspace above properties into luxury penthouse apartments. Managing director Arshad Bhatti believes the principle could be applied to affordable homes:

“We are working with a number of local authorities across London and expect airspace development projects will help bridge the gap between demand and supply of new homes in London – crucially with minimum lead times, and offering maximum value for property owners.”

The view from overseas

The idea of building up may be relatively new to London, but other densely populated cities have already been exploring its possibilities.

  • In Rotterdam, developers have been combining ultra-lightweight materials to build apartments on top of a 1940s shopping centre.
  • In New York, a developer is planning to construct a nine-storey condominium on top of apartments dating from the 1950s.
  • In Paris, three prefab dwellings attached to the rooftops of existing buildings were completed in January 2016.

The architects of the Paris project believe it has multiple benefits:

“Building on top of the roofs is not only an ecological and economical solution, it’s working against the urban sprawl that kills the social link. It’s also a contemporary way to discover new perspectives of the city, a new Paris above the horizon.”

But not everyone is happy with the idea. Residents in the existing apartments beneath the proposed New York condominium are concerned that the wear and tear of construction could damage their properties. And they’re also worried about the stability of the columns supporting the new building.

The only way is up?

Clearly, building on existing properties is not without its problems. But as the housing crisis in London intensifies, and spreads to other parts of the UK, it’s an idea that may no longer be regarded as pie in the sky.


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Rent controls: lessons from Berlin?

 

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Image: James Carson

In March 2016, a study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research highlighted the growing problem of rising rents in the UK. The Cost of Renting found that the average private rent in England is growing at an annual rate of 2.5%, and forecast that rents were set to rise by 28% on average by 2026. The findings support recent studies suggesting that the UK is now the most expensive place in Europe to rent.

In contrast to the UK, renting in Germany is less expensive. For historical as well as economic reasons, only 43% of Germans are home owners (compared to over 70% in the UK). The rest rent their homes, making rent rises a highly sensitive political issue in Germany.

In recent years, Germany has been experiencing a housing shortage. Last year, the Cologne Institute for Economic Research reported that in 2014 the number of new flats and houses built in the biggest cities was 50% fewer than needed to cope with rising population numbers. As a result, rents in Germany have been rising more steeply.

Introducing rent caps

Last year, concerns about keeping homes affordable for tenants on average incomes prompted the German government to introduce legislation on rent control. The new law means that private landlords taking on new tenants can only raise rents by up to 10% above the local average for similar properties.

Even before the law was passed the state government of Berlin had announced that it would be the first city in Germany to introduce rent controls. In recent years, the German capital has been growing by around 50,000 people a year, putting greater strains on the city’s housing market. Rents in Berlin have risen on average by almost 53% in the past five years, and in some districts, by 79%.

The trend has raised concerns among Berliners that their city could be on the way to emulating London, where growing numbers of people are struggling with the cost of living in their private rented homes. The Cost of Renting report found that Londoners on average spend nearly a third of their disposable income on rent payments, and suggested that worsening rent affordability may push residents on lower incomes out of the capital. Rent control is one measure intended to prevent Berlin going the same way as London.

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Image: James Carson

The impact of rent controls

Within weeks of Berlin introducing its rent cap, there were signs that the move was having an immediate effect, with the average rents per square metre falling by 3.1%. But in February 2016, a survey of Berlin rents by CBRE found that the year-on-year rise across the city for 2015 was 5% (compared to the 2014 rise of 6.5%).

On the face of it, this looks like the new controls are not working. But the rent cap was always intended to slow down Berlin’s spiralling rents, rather than bring them to a halt, and on those terms the law has been effective. Moreover, while new rents for Berlin’s most expensive apartments rose by 5.7%, rent rises for the cheapest 10% of flats rose by just 2%.

And, as if to underline how serious Berlin is about tackling rising rents, in addition to the rent controls on private landlords, the Berlin state government has also introduced new rules for over 500,000 social and state-owned housing tenants, guaranteeing that rent rises will not price them out of their homes.

Lessons for the UK?

Since Berlin introduced rent controls, other German states, including Hamburg and Bavaria, have followed suit. This has prompted some commentators to wonder if the idea could help to tackle the UK’s housing crisis.

A recent report from Shelter highlighted the serious impact of rising rents in London:

“Those who find it difficult to pay their rent are likely to cut back on food for themselves or clothes for their children. Others get deep into debt to avoid going into rent arrears or to cover the high costs of frequently moving home. At worst, a growing number of London renters lose their home and become homeless.”

Although London has seen the steepest rises, other parts of the UK have also been affected. In April 2016, figures showed that rents on new tenancies in Greater London were, on average, 7.7% higher than a year ago. But in Scotland the increase was 7.3%, just ahead of the East Midlands with 6.8%.

Writing in the Financial Times, columnist Jonathan Eley acknowledged the differences between the UK and German housing markets, including the high numbers of renters in Germany and the larger number of properties owned by institutions (in contrast to the UK, where most private rented sector properties are owned by individual buy-to-let landlords). However, he concluded that the UK had something to learn from the introduction of rent controls in Germany:

“It is not perfect, but it does a much better job of balancing the interests of tenants and owners than the policies of successive UK governments, who have basically ramped up house prices without much thought for the long-term consequences.”

It’s still too early to say whether Germany’s attempt to tackle rising rents will have a long-lasting impact. But if the measures succeed in putting a brake on spiralling rents, there may be growing calls here to follow Berlin’s example.


Further reading
If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, you might also be interested in these previous posts:

Generation rent: are there lessons from Germany?
To regulate or not to regulate? Housing standards in the private rented sector
Support for the squeezed middle: could public subsidies tackle London’s housing crisis?

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Christmas without a home

By Heather Cameron

Last week saw George Clooney launch a campaign to feed the homeless at Christmas by donating the first £5.

When visiting Edinburgh’s branch of Scotland’s not-for-profit sandwich shop, Social Bite, last month, Clooney filmed a video clip on a staff member’s phone in which he pledged the first £5 donation to Social Bite’s £5 Christmas dinner appeal.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Olympic star Sir Chris Hoy, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, comedian Rob Brydon, broadcaster Chris Evans, and Scotland football manager Gordon Strachan have also pledged their support.

Last year’s campaign raised enough money to buy 36,000 meals to feed homeless people in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen for the whole year. Just 24 hours after Clooney’s initial donation, £165,000 was raised with over 33,000 people donating.

How many homeless?

Considering that Scottish local authorities logged 35,764 statutory homelessness assessments in 2014/15, of which 28,615 were assessed as ‘legally homeless’, this figure is impressive.

Nevertheless, the actual number of homeless people is likely to be far greater.

The latest data for Scotland suggests that 50,000 adults experience homelessness each year.

Shelter has estimated that 109,000 children in Britain will be homeless this Christmas, with nearly 5,000 of them in Scotland. According to the Scottish arm of charity, this is a 15% increase on last year’s figure, which:

“is simply not good enough and a badge of shame for such a relatively wealthy country”…The increased number of homeless children indicates a growing bottleneck of families stuck in temporary accommodation due to the major shortage of affordable housing across Scotland.”

upset boy against a wall

Government figures show that the number of people in temporary accommodation has grown over the past five years despite more than £1bn being spent on homelessness since 2010.

And these figures don’t include the hidden homeless that evade official statistics. According to Crisis, “official homelessness figures are masking the true scale of the problem”.

People living in overcrowded accommodation, shared accommodation, young single people and those in ‘concealed households’ (including groups/families/single people who are unable to form separate households and forced to live with others) can all be hidden from the system. And as local authorities only have to accommodate ‘statutory’ homeless people, these people are often hidden from support and advice as well as statistics.

Positive practice

As Social Bite’s Christmas dinner campaign shows though, good work is being done. Many homeless charities work tirelessly across the UK to provide services for people at Christmas time and indeed throughout the year.

The Salvation Army provides support and friendship to the homeless and other vulnerable people and its Christmas appeal for donations of time, money and gifts has seen much success over the years.

Crisis runs their Crisis at Christmas event across the country providing hot meals, fun activities, entertainment, health care and advice for the homeless. This year they have Christmas centres in Birmingham, Coventry, Edinburgh, London and Newcastle.

A new community initiative led by students at Darlington College aims to give homeless people in the town a Christmas lunch at the college, a cooking demonstration and festive meal at a local restaurant.

And as well as providing dinners for homeless people in Scotland, Social Bite will also be using donations to provide food and clothing packs for refugees in camps in Calais, the Serbia/Croatia border, and Lesbos.

Final thoughts

With the sheer scale and complexity of the issue, of course it won’t be possible for such initiatives to reach every homeless person. And with the combination of cuts to welfare and a severe lack of affordable housing across the UK, many more families are likely to face a fight to keep roofs over their heads.

So while we settle down to enjoy the festive period with our nearest and dearest, perhaps we should all spare a thought for those who simply seek the gift of shelter.


Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our previous blog on Britain’s hidden homeless. 

Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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Support for the squeezed middle: could public subsidies tackle London’s housing crisis?

apartment building in Nottingham UK

A new report from the Centre for London has highlighted the potential of intermediate housing in supporting Londoners on middle incomes.

The report – Fair to Middling – argues that not only could publicly-subsidised housing help those on modest incomes in London find better places to live, but could play a vital role in ensuring that the capital retains the school teachers, bus drivers, chefs, nurses and other workers it needs to sustain its economy.

Chaired by the leader of Haringey Council, the Commission on Intermediate Housing was set up by the Centre for London to investigate the strengths and weaknesses of current housing policies with respect to those on middle incomes. Its latest report builds on a 2014 analysis, which found that house prices, rents, transport, energy and childcare costs were substantially higher in London than in the rest of the UK.

The new report paints a stark picture of London’s housing crisis. The Commission selected six households on modest incomes and charted the relationship between their earnings and house prices in four London boroughs. Among its findings:

  • Kensington and Chelsea is now unaffordable for all the selected households, and has been unaffordable for all but one of the households for the entire period covered;
  • Only the two highest earning households – a doctor, and a solicitor/journalist – can now afford to live in Haringey, but they will be priced out of the market in 2016 on present trends;
  • On present trends, both the nurse and the teacher households will find London unaffordable in two years, while the electrician household will only be able to afford Barking and Dagenham, and Enfield.

The authors warn that, unless action is taken to support the people it depends on to keep the city going, the consequences could be widespread and severe:

“Rising housing prices will inevitably squeeze these people out of the city or harm productivity in other ways – long commutes and unstable and overcrowded accommodation eventually affect performance.”

The benefits of intermediate housing
Fair to Middling makes the case for public subsidised housing in London, arguing that intermediate housing can:

  • help make housing more affordable for low-to-middle income earners;
  • keep London competitive and boost its economic success;
  • foster mixed income and stable communities.

Options for the future
The report describes overall supply of intermediate housing in London as “lamentably small”, amounting to less than 2% of the capital’s housing stock. Shared ownership – the most common type of intermediate housing – is, according to the Commission, an unfamiliar and complex product, and in the most expensive parts of London it is completely unaffordable.

The report suggests that intermediate rent offers the best deal to housing providers and investors.

“Local authorities and other housing providers should make appropriate use of intermediate rent products as well as those offering a route towards low cost home ownership. Intermediate rent policies should be offered at a range of levels to meet the needs of different types of household and households confronting expensive locations.”

The report also identifies examples of employers, such as universities, helping their staff secure affordable housing. It suggests that an employer-backed shared ownership scheme could help employees buy a share in a home that they otherwise could not afford, and help the employer attract and retain valuable workers while making a good return on its investment.

The Commission’s findings offer another reminder that, while solving the housing crisis won’t be easy, failing to tackle the problem risks creating challenges that may be much harder to overcome.

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Starter Homes: affordable housing at an unaffordable cost?

By James Carson

A report from homelessness charity Shelter has suggested that one of the UK government’s key affordable homes initiatives will be out of reach for many people on average incomes.

The ‘Starter Homes’ initiative was launched in December 2014, offering first time buyers under the age of 40 in England a discount of up to 20% off the normal price of new homes built on brownfield land. During the general election campaign, David Cameron promised that by 2020 200,000 Starter Homes would be built by private builders and sold for no more than £450,000 in London and £250,000 in the rest of England.

The government has claimed that first-time buyers paying an average of £218,000 for a home would save £43,000 under the Starter Homes scheme.

However, analysis of the programme by Shelter suggests that it will not help the majority of people on the new National Living Wage or average wages into home-ownership in England by 2020.

Cheaper homes but not cheap enough

Shelter looked at three typical household formations in each local authority in England earning a range of different salaries to assess whether they were likely to be able to afford to buy a Starter Home. The study found that:

  • Starter Homes for families earning average wages will be unaffordable in over half of local authorities across England in 2020.
  • Families on the National Living Wage will only be able to afford a Starter Home in 2% of local authorities.
  • Single people on low or average wages will struggle to afford a Starter Home in 2020 in the majority of local authorities.
  • London, the South East and the East have the lowest number of areas where affordable Starter Homes under the schemes threshold could be built, despite high demand in these areas.

The scheme is being funded by changes to the planning system, exempting developers from their obligations to include affordable housing in building schemes. The government says that these ‘Section 106’ obligations typically add £15,000 to the cost of each new home being built.

However, even before its latest analysis, Shelter was expressing concerns that the removal of these requirements would lead to Starter Homes ‘cannibalising’ genuinely affordable housing. There are also questions about whether the homes will come with the necessary infrastructure in place.

Government pressing ahead

Nevertheless, the government is pressing ahead with the programme and extending its scope. In August, chancellor George Osborne announced that the Starter Homes scheme would be extended to some villages as part of the government’s rural productivity plan. At the same time, some of England’s major house builders have pledged their support for the scheme, including Barratt, Cala and Taylor Wimpey.

Even if it meets the target of 200,000 new homes by 2020, the Starter Homes scheme on its own will not solve the national housing shortage. Around 250,000 homes need to be built each year to keep up with demand, but in 2014 fewer than 119,000 homes were built in England. As the Shelter report concludes, the Starter Homes programme is no silver bullet for the housing crisis:

“Starter Homes would primarily help those on very high salaries or couples without children, but they are not a good replacement for other forms of affordable housing and will not help the majority of people on average wages struggling to get an affordable, decent home. The government needs to look very closely at this policy before going down the wrong track.”


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on housing; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

The home front (interview with Brandon Lewis outlining plans for housing)

Building to order (development on brownfield sites)

A living countryside: responding to the challenges of providing affordable rural housing (CPRE Housing foresight paper no 5)

Housing summary measures analysis

Tackling our housing crisis: why building more houses will not solve the problem

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

“Generation Rent” – are there lessons from Germany?

Berlin Housing (Photograph: James Carson)

Berlin Housing (Photograph: James Carson)

By James Carson

Could a lower level of home ownership in the UK become the new normal? That’s one of the questions arising from a recent Halifax report  that examined perceptions and changes in the first-time buyer market.  Although there has been an increase in the number of first-time buyers in the past five years, the report identified a growing number of people aged 20-45 who do not believe they will ever own their own home.

The authors concluded that if this trend continues the UK could be moving closer to the German housing model, where renting is the norm.

While about 60% of Britons live in owner-occupied accommodation, barely half of Germans own their own home (the lowest proportion in Europe). A number of factors explain the enduring preference for renting in Germany :

  • A good supply of high quality rental accommodation from housing associations and municipal authorities;
  • Rents are transparent and tightly controlled, and tenants enjoy substantial rights and protection from bad landlords;
  • Lending requirements have been traditionally more stringent than in the UK, and there is less of a borrowing culture in Germany;
  • German house prices have shown lower levels of growth and volatility.

In recent years, there have been some signs of a shift towards home ownership in the German market, particularly in Berlin. But, having looked on with disquiet at the fallout from property crashes in the rest of Europe, many Germans remain suspicious of booming housing markets. In Germany, renting is still seen as a perfectly respectable alternative to home ownership.

Could that happen here? Prohibitive deposits, high property prices and low incomes are preventing many people getting a foot on the property ladder. Faced with a shrinking social housing market, they are increasingly turning to the private rented sector (PRS), which now forms the second largest form of tenure in England (18% of the total households).

The Halifax report suggests that the German model is not unattractive, but also warned that a shift away from home ownership means problems in the UK’s PRS need to be addressed.

These issues were detailed in another recent report, from the Just Fair Consortium. Among its findings:

  •  33% of PRS dwellings do not meet basic standards of health, safety and habitability;
  • Tenants are afraid to complain about the poor quality of properties for fear of retaliatory evictions or arbitrary rent rises;
  • The cost of PRS housing is almost double that of social housing, and private tenants are increasingly unable to meet the costs.

The report’s authors noted that, while the rise of the PRS has been characterised by the government as a positive development, this has not been the experience for everyone:

“The UK government has increasingly presented the PRS’s expansion as based on lifestyle choice, and as a form of tenure suited to greater labour market mobility and flexibility. While this may be the case for some economically empowered renters, the overall context of private rentals suggests that the sector provides housing for a number of households, particularly families, for whom a private rental home is a source of anxiety over tenure security, cost, habitability, and quality, rather than a sought-after choice.”

The problems associated with the PRS in the UK may be contributing to a reluctance to rent. But if there were improvements to security of tenure, quality and affordability, the PRS might appear a more attractive option. Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at Oxford University, recently contrasted the UK’s rented sector with the situation in Germany:

“In Germany tenants cannot be evicted on a whim. Often landlords have to bribe them out if they want control of the property back before the agreed date. Property is of good quality, well soundproofed, spacious and well insulated. Pension companies often hold it, so you know where your rent is going: it is paying for your parents’ generation’s old age.”

If Generation Rent is here to stay, this has implications for the private property market, for the social and private housing sectors, for planning and economic development, to say nothing of the social impact. The UK is unlikely to return to mass private renting any time soon, but if current trends continue, perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the German model.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on housing; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

Rent increase (Britain’s housing tenure landscape)

The future of London’s private rented sector

Resilient? (social housing in Scotland)

Ownership status, symbolic traits, and housing association attractiveness: evidence from the German residential market

Making a rental property home

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service