Social Housing Sector - Views

At the recent and excellent Chartered Institute of Housing Conference in Manchester, I listened to a very interesting presentation from Philip Blond, who was talking about the relationship between government policy and housing supply. He raised some extremely intelligent and, I think valid points.

As an independent IT Consultant specialising in Enterprise Architecture, I recognised his description of a central body, containing representatives from all disciplines and valid interests – a Design Authority in the parlance of my profession – which could operate with executive power to take decisions on planning and building matters within a devolved financial envelope (budget)

However, my concern was (and is) that this is another example of silo-thinking, although to be fair, the session was sponsored and chaired by a housing developer, so to a large extent, Philip had his scope defined for him. The housing crisis will not be solved simply by freeing up more land to build more houses – that is part of the answer. What we require is a radical change in the way society thinks and acts about fundamental issues such as family policy. The truth is that we have to take a holistic view; let me illustrate by describing the circumstances of a friend of mine.

David, lives in a detached, 3-bedroomed house in a small town in the North-West. He works on the North Sea Rigs, so is regularly away from home a lot of the time. David lives with Carol, who works as a carer for the elderly.

David’s neighbours on one-side are a very nice Indian couple with 2 young children (a girl and a boy.) The children’s grandmother also lives with them (as is often the way with non-western cultures – the family tends to remain a coherent unit throughout life.) Both the parents are doctors: father is a consultant at the local hospital, and mother is a GP. They have very busy and committed professional lives, and a lot of the basic child care and domestic work is performed by the grandmother.

This is clearly an extremely sensible arrangement for all parties, and means that the grandmother is not occupying a home on her own - good for her and for the housing supply

Carol works as an independent carer. One of her clients is an elderly couple in their 80’s, who live on the same estate. Albert (who has a son and a daughter living close by) & Barbara (who has no living family other than 2 nieces who have no contact) are living together for companionship and domestic sustenance; when their spouses were alive, the couples were best friends. When their spouses died, they decided to live together in Albert’s house as a partnership of convenience. This is an eminently sensible arrangement from their perspective, but not perfect: Barbara’s large 3-bedroom bungalow in another very desirable part of town is standing empty. Albert’s family are not too happy with the arrangement (lots of issues about the memory of their mother, concerns about financial implications etc) but they respect their father's wishes.

This works well for the couple at the moment, but I do feel that something could and should be done to recycle the unoccupied bungalow into the housing supply; although I'm not quite sure what to suggest without starting to trespass into the realms of George Orwell and "1984"

David’s situation is also interesting. He and Carol bought the property in which they live in 2005, but they split up in the same year and finally divorced in 2007. Carol received sole ownership of the house as part of the divorce settlement. David moved back to live in the property in early 2012 after a lengthy illness which left him in financial difficulties. Although they are not a “partnership” in the usual sense, this arrangement makes perfect sense – David is away from home for regular periods, and renting or buying his own home would involve a property standing unoccupied for much of each and every year.

Although not sustainable long-term, as it is highly-likely that one or both of David and Carol will find new partners, the arrangement makes perfect sense currently.

My point in is that the housing problem is not simply one of supply; it is also about occupation patterns and a whole host of other issues. For example (Philip’s presentation was extremely informative) one third of new-home-demand is caused by marital break-up. In addition to addressing family policy, is there anyway that those with houses that are under-occupied can be encouraged to take in lodgers?

Although boosting supply through energising new builds is of course important, it is equally important to look at all the other factors in the equation. I'm not pretending that this is easy - some of the issues are not just economic, and prompt us to explore our attitudes to things such as family, personal space and inheritance. However, to pretend that the floodgates holding back new builds are suddenly going to open and developers will solve our problems is simply naive

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