How to solve the housing crisis? Focus on quality, not just quantity

housingHOUSING provision is more than just a numbers game, but numbers are a great place to start so Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge to build 50,000 homes over the life of the next parliament is very welcome news. This target falls some way short of that sought by Shelter Scotland, of 23,000 new homes a year, but the housing crisis is not a simple matter of bricks and mortar – it’s about housing quality and housing ownership too.

Scotland doesn’t just need more homes, it needs better homes, which is why we must guard against the danger of quality being overlooked in the rush to meet quantity targets. And by “we” I really do mean all of us, as we all have the right to a say about planning decisions in our local areas. What we do not need is more sub-standard accommodation, hastily thrown up in the wrong places, that will quickly deteriorate and land us right back where we started.

Waiting list figures are often quoted in discussions about the current crisis, but these don’t actually tell us an awful lot about the housing landscape. About 150,000 households may be on waiting lists for social housing, but that’s not to say these people are currently homeless (around 29,000 Scots were in that dire predicament at last count, but few would suggest building flats is the sole answer to their problems). Instead, many Scots are living in expensive privately rented properties which landlords operating in a favourable market have little incentive to properly maintain.

Many Scots are living in expensive privately rented properties which landlords operating in a favourable market have little incentive to properly maintain

The more revealing figures are those relating to fuel poverty and substandard conditions in rented accommodation. The Scottish Housing Condition Survey estimated in 2014 that an enormous 845,000 households were in fuel poverty – that is, requiring to spend at least 10 per cent of their income just to keep their homes warm – and its findings on the condition of properties tend to suggest some social landlords have been economical with the truth. The councils and housing associations self-reported to the Scottish Government that 18 per cent of their homes failed to meet the Scottish Housing Quality Standard, but information from sampled tenants generated a figure of 43 per cent. The picture for the private rental sector is even more concerning, with tenant reports suggesting fewer than half of homes make the grade. The single biggest shortcoming identified with these properties was lack of energy efficiency.

So the housing crisis is, to a great extent, actually an energy-efficiency crisis, and the solution may be materials-based after all, since loft and cavity wall insulation as standard on new properties mean lower heating bills for tenants. But why stop there? Should we not aspire to make these new homes self-sustaining using solar panels, windmills or other micro-generation technologies? Yes, we need housing in a hurry, but with a whole generation locked out of property ownership it is more important than ever to make renting affordable in the long-term.

Falling rents mean more house sales, and more house sales mean a drop in property prices, which the media encourage homeowners to obsess over

It’s worth considering why the First Minister has settled on the figure of 50,000 homes over five years, rather than the 115,000 recommended by the Commission on Housing and Wellbeing, the independent group established by Shelter Scotland to look at the evidence. An important factor may be that many of her party’s supporters will be private landlords who bought before the bubble burst and have been onto a nice little earner ever since. A housebuilding response to the crisis is about both raising standards and bringing down market rents. Falling rents mean more house sales, and more house sales mean a drop in property prices, which the media encourage homeowners to obsess over despite the fact they are largely irrelevant to anyone who is clear of the negative equity trap, owns just the one house, and uses it as a place to live.

Owners and landlords aren’t the only ones who might be off-message when it comes to new housing developments; prospective neighbours might have something to say too, regardless of their own housing status. And while it’s fair to say that plenty of local objections are nimbyish in nature – terrible business, this housing crisis, but I’m afraid our neighbourhood is full – others raise important challenges about so-called “material considerations”, or things that matter. Amid the push to reach that 50,000 target, local authorities must not lose sight of implications for parking and traffic management, loss of green space, or the need for new developments to blend in with existing buildings. Opportunities for local people to view and comment on planning applications should be actively promoted, not hidden away on council websites or in the back rooms of libraries, and residents should be encouraged to discuss potential benefits as well as costs.

To give an example, I’m picking up good vibrations from a new housing development near my flat – literally, because they’re drilling the foundations into the ground, but also because it’s the perfect site for development: derelict land beside a long-abandoned council building that has had plants growing out of its gutters for more than a decade. The arrival of new neighbours will increase my security when I’m walking home at night (the ominous clink of the fence that currently surrounds the scrub land creates a distinctly Taggart-like vibe); the influx of new customers will boost local businesses; and the public transport links are likely to attract renters without cars. The new homes will overlook industrial units, and only be visible from the street on which they sit.

Does the average single occupant of a two-bedroom flat really need an en-suite bathroom? Unless we are facing a timebomb of embarrassing bowel problems, the answer is surely no

A prime location is crucial, but any sparkling new addition to the landscape can quickly become an eyesore if the developers neglect to consider how its render or paintwork will cope with daily assaults from the Scottish weather. The properties built over the next five years should not just meet the minimum building standards but exceed them. These should not be seen as temporary stopping-off points, but proper homes of which their inhabitants – who may end up staying for a lifetime – can be proud. Developers should not be aiming to cram as many dwellings as possible into one block or to market shoe boxes as bedrooms. The digital age may have decluttered many lives of books, CDs and DVDs, but we should hope never to reach a point where a children’s toy box is stored on an iPad.

Demographic forecasts and an ever-increasing focus on community-based elderly care suggest the number of older households will rise very sharply in the coming years, so developments should reflect the access and support needs of this age group. A one-size-fits-all approach simply will not do – some tenants may require space and facilities for overnight carers, but does the average single occupant of a two-bedroom flat really need an en-suite bathroom? Unless we are facing a timebomb of embarrassing bowel problems, the answer is surely no. If it ultimately comes down to a choice between saving for a mortgage deposit or spending a penny in private facilities, I know which option savvy renters would choose.

A version of this article first appeared in The Herald.

 

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