17 October 2023
At our first Glass-House Chat of Season 4, Housing or Homes?, we were keen to explore the language we use to talk about housing and how rethinking the way we shape our housing can help us reconsider not only where we live, but also how we live. We were joined by a group wearing many hats including design professional, community activist, housing provider, educator and student, all located in different parts of the country. We even had one participant dialling in from Australia.
We kicked off the conversation exploring how personal circumstances and the stage of life we find ourselves in can affect how we relate to our homes and the role that homes play in our lives. Whether as a place of comfort and safety, a space to call our own or as a space for family, our homes do many different things for us. We also recognised that for many, home does not offer any of these, and indeed, that many do not yet have a place to call home.
We moved on to talk about how housing is created, managed and distributed, and the tension between the notion of home and the provision of housing as an element of infrastructure within places. Three recurring themes emerged through our conversation: the need to diversify both the types of housing available and how they are created; activating a different kind of investment in housing; and the need to embed the principle of care into housing provision.
The Need to Diversify
In recognising that our personal and societal relationships with, and requirements for our homes are changing all the time, we reflected on the surprising lack of diversity of housing typologies on offer and of those being built. In some areas, and indeed within the different markets of provision (properties to buy or let, socal housing, sheltered housing, student housing etc.) there seems to be either a surplus of the one and two-bedroom flats that do not meet the needs of large families, or of large family houses that do not meet the needs of young adults starting their independent lives or older people looking to downsize. What is effectively the “market offer” is simply not providing the range of homes that people want, need or can afford.
We considered whether this was due to the way that homes have been built over time, and how they are being built today, and to who is managing, maintaining and building them. The UK has a high percentage of homes built by volume housebuilders, who build at scale, to a formula and sometimes without architects involved. Whilst there is a rise in alternative models of community-led housing, co-housing and self-build, these have tended to land within certain social-economic groups and with people of a certain age. Local authorities hold considerable housing stock, but find themselves under-resourced to maintain this housing or to drive change. Progress is being made in local authorities making land available for community-led initiatives, but much work is needed to activate a more diverse range of people and organisations able to take on such projects, or to work in partnership with housing providers to create different housing models.
We also talked about the significant difference between VAT being applied to refurbishment and not to new build, and the impact this has on us as a country to adapt existing homes, repopulate empty properties and create new opportunities within our existing urban fabric.
Activating a Different Kind of Investment
Our group was keen not only to identify problems but also to celebrate successes, positive trends and to explore opportunities. This was about both shifting taxation and funding models for retrofit and new build, and about shifting from investment in the commodity of housing units, to investing in area improvement and activating investment in living in homes, rather than just building them.
As well as the obvious challenge of VAT affecting the balance of new provision and adaptation, investment in large-scale regeneration is too often focused on efficiently hitting housing targets, on balancing the number of units produced and the associated financial return, than on a whole place approach to providing a range of housing types, and ownership, rental or management models. We saw real potential in initiatives such as community land trusts, which can create and protect a stock of truly affordable homes at below-market prices.
We spoke of incentivising the adaptation, reuse and redistribution of existing homes, and talked about the £1 homes initiatives, and others like that known as “homesteading”. These activate new home owners to personally invest in bringing empty or derelict properties back to life, but on the condition they live in the homes for a minimum period of time rather than “flipping” them on the property or rental market.
People are instinctively ingenious and adapt to changing circumstances. Our housing provision needs to be able to do the same.
Embedding the Principle of Care into Housing Provision
In the end, we felt it came down to embedding the principle of care into the provision of homes. If we think about homes as a space to nurture people, can we shape them with more care to help them truly offer what people need from them? I will always remember an audience member at a Glass-House event saying, “Shouldn’t we build everything as if we were building it for someone we love?”
And our Chat group felt that building care into housing provision needed to happen at all levels, from policy and practise down to a shift in our culture about what a more holistic approach to place can do to cater for diverse needs. This is not just about housing design or construction, it is about creating the conditions in which people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse needs can live alongside each other and interact within the same community, in which people can move through different stages of their life and benefit from multi and intergenerational homes and communities. Home can care for us, but also help us care for each other.
Looking at the question of Housing or Homes? Inevitably took us and our Chat participants down all sorts of avenues of exploration, including the language and jargon that goes with this broad and challenging line of enquiry. However, in the end, our group was able to round up our conversation with some very clear messaging about creating the conditions for providing a diverse range of homes for our increasingly diverse population. There is no magic wand, and we know that resources are tight in today’s landscape, but it felt to all of us that just chugging along with the status quo was perhaps not the answer.