Homes of the future?

In 1945, in his regular Tribune column, George Orwell wrote about the “time-wasting drudgery” – washing up, mopping floors – that blighted the domestic life of ordinary people in Britain. He went on to speculate about the homes of the future:

“If one thinks simply in terms of saving trouble and plans one’s home as ruthlessly as onewould plan a machine, it is possible to imagine houses and flats which would be comfortable and would entail very little work. Central heating, rubbish chutes, proper consumption of smoke, cornerless rooms, electrically warmed beds and elimination of carpets would make a lot of difference. But as for washing-up, I see no solution except to do it communally, like a laundry. Every morning the municipal van will stop at your door and carry off a box of dirty crocks, handing you a box of clean ones (marked with your initial of course) in return…”

“And though it would mean that some people would have to be full-time washers-up, as some people are now full-time laundry-workers, the all-over saving in labour and fuel would be enormous. The alternatives are to continue fumbling about with greasy dishmops, or to eat out of paper containers.”

Some of that has come to pass, but most rooms still have corners and councils have so far resisted the temptations of a communal washing-up service – dishwashers have come along instead. So predicting the future has always been tricky, but this was what HQN’s Rethinking Social Housing event in London last week, tried to do.

The day’s main purpose was for attendees to take time out from the office and do some creative thinking about the forces that will shape the UK’s housing over the next 50 years – one of which will be climate change, the topic of HQN’s annual conference a few weeks ago, where it was pointed out that the UK housing sector is not as geared up as it needs to be to respond to our changing climate.

But last week’s conference also considered other changes that will shape our future. What will households look like 50 years from now? How will a more diverse and ageing population affect us? How will technology change the way we build and retrofit our homes?


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Water woes

Today [Thursday 29 August 2019] I will be chairing an HQN session on ‘Rethinking Social Housing’ – making sure that the homes we build now will be fit for purpose in 30 years’ time and beyond.

One important aspect of future-proofing our homes is to think more carefully about water. That ranges all the way from sea water levels to rainfall and the domestic use of water. On a global scale, as Matthew Gardiner will point out at the conference, if we fail to limit global warming and all of the earth’s ice melts, then sea levels will rise by up to 70 metres, wiping out much of our housing stock. That is the Armageddon scenario. But in the short term there are many things we can do to use less water (and hence less energy) and to protect our wildlife in the process.

We all take it for granted that clean water comes out of our taps, but we rarely think about the costs and processes that bring it to our homes.

The average person uses 66 cubic metres of precious fresh water a year. That’s nearly four billion cubic metres for the UK if my maths is right, which is equivalent to over 3,000 Wembley Stadiums. Yet too much of this precious fresh water is wasted on watering gardens and flushing toilets and other unnecessary uses. In the process, many of our rivers are drying up.

Feargal Sharkey, the former frontman of The Undertones, has been walking the chalk streams and rivers of England to highlight the problem. He blames the Environment Agency and private water companies for extracting too much water from chalk aquifers and for allowing farmers to use river water to irrigate their fields. As a result, river water quality is declining, and wildlife is suffering. This article explains the problems with the River Cam, which is at 33% of its long-term average flow. In total, 65% of precious groundwater is pumped out of the chalk for drinking water. Absurdly, the water companies then pump water back into the river during the summer months to keep a semi-reasonable flow of water going.

Sharkey says our chalk streams are the northern hemisphere’s equivalent of the Amazonian rainforest and says, “What hypocrisy that, as this country is chastising Brazil over fires in the Amazonian rainforest and criticising Indonesia about deforestation, we are destroying aglobally rare resource in our own backyard”.


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Neutering the nimbys

In the fight for decent, affordable homes, one of the key constraints has been public attitudes to housebuilding in general and to social housing in particular.

I’ve studied dozens of anti-housebuilding campaigns over the years. In my experience, opposition to housebuilding is often based on prejudice, and a dislike of change. Campaigners typically invent a menu of often tenuous reasons for opposing new homes, whether it’s great crested newts (planted in some cases, allegedly), or exaggerated claims about a lack of health services or schools, transport gridlock, inadequate water and sewerage infrastructure, flooding, and so on. It’s as if the planning system was not meant to address such problems. In Uttlesford, the council was even captured by anti-development residents.

The stigmatisation of social housing tenants has also been a big factor in our failure to build affordable homes, whether it’s poor doors, or the tricks that developers use to evade or hide their duty to provide affordable homes. One of the key aims of the SHOUT campaign was to end the stigmatisation of social housing tenants by challenging the way they’re portrayed in the media.

The SHOUT manifesto in 2014 said: “Much of the media twins welfare dependency with social housing. This is untrue. Reliance upon benefits is the offspring of dependency, not its parent. Dependency is caused by lack of well-paid work, by unaffordable rents and house prices, by low wages and high living costs.”

In recent times both David Cameron and Boris Johnson have taken the view that social housing tenants vote Labour and homeowners don’t, so investment in social housing has been paltry. At the launch of the SHOUT campaign in Parliament we told the story of the Great Stink of 1858, when the Thames became an open sewer. It was only when Members of Parliament were directly affected by the problem (Parliament had to close) that they voted to invest in a proper network of sewers for London. There’s a lesson there for today surely?

Apologies for that long preamble but two recent opinion polls offer some hope that the tide may be turning. The first, from Ipsos MORI for the Chartered Institute of Housing, shows that a growing proportion of Britons think political parties are not treating the housing crisis seriously: 60% of respondents disagreed that political parties pay a lot of attention to housing problems, up from 41% in 2014. Only 12% agreed that they do pay a lot of attention. A majority, 55% (68% of renters), think the issue of housing has been discussed too little in Britain over the last few years.


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The light that never comes on

George Clarke’s recent Council House Scandal on Channel 4 highlighted an office block in Harlow that had been converted into tiny flats, using Permitted Development Rights (PDR); in other words, no planning permission was required.

One of the more extreme recent examples of PDR was in Watford where a single-storey industrial building is being converted into 15 “homes” of which seven have no windows. The flats will range in size from 16.5 to 21 square metres. There’s no parking at the scheme and residents will not be allowed to apply for a residents’ parking permit.

Watford Council sought to block the conversion, noting that the flats “would not provide any meaningful outlook, daylight or even appropriate ventilation”, and that the upper floors “would have no means of escape in case of fire” and that “the oppressive environment” would have “a serious impact on the health of future occupiers”.

But a government-appointed planning inspector allowed the scheme to go ahead, arguing that none of the council’s objections were relevant to PDR.

“I recognise that the proposed units are small” he said, “and that, for example, living withouta window would not be a positive living environment” but the creation of “cramped living environments with poor outlook and the lack of windows” was irrelevant because the PDR made no mention of these matters.

So, PDRs are allowing homes to be created that are cramped, unsafe and basically unliveable. In the centenary year of the Addison Act, which set out generous space standards for new homes, we seem to be heading back to the 19th century.

It’s worth rehearsing how this appalling situation has come about.

Since 2013 the government has sought to liberalise planning laws to encourage the use of empty buildings and stimulate the construction sector. This started when homeowners were given greater freedoms to build house extensions. This was followed by PDR for taller mobile masts, click and collect services in shops, and suchlike. It’s now been extended to a wider range of developments.

For planning purposes, properties are categorised into four main classes:

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