Thursday, January 15, 2015

Symposium on Sustainability

SoS was an idea which grew out of Green Drinks where people wanted more focused discussions and aiming for some kind of output.  We (slightly changing groups of about ten people) have met 4 times to discuss the format, flooding, Zero Carbon Britain, and a response to the Oxford City Council draft Housing Strategy.  One member prepares a paper which is then discussed for about 2 hours and the paper is amended to reflect that discussion (possibly involving conversations with others) before being submitted in the case of a consultation or filed as part of the SoS archive.  The discussions are non-attributable to enable those with academic reputations, affiliations or employment concerns to protect are free to voice their opinions. At the risk of making this Blog too long, I attach the paper sent to the Council that includes some ideas of what sustainable housing might look like.

Draft Housing Strategy 2015 – 2018

Response from Symposium on Sustainability – Oxford

SoS –Oxford is a group of people with a deep interest and no little understanding of the principles and practice of sustainability.  It produces briefing papers and responses to consultations that are intended to assist those involved in formulating policy and taking decision in areas impacting on the economy, society and the environment. The purpose of SoS is to analyse a subject in order to provide ideas and recommendations based on good evidence. Not all the proposals would be agreed by all participants of the symposium and papers might not be fully consistent or comprehensive. 

1          Comments on the Draft Strategy

There is no evidence in this document that the Council has any or sufficient recognition that the normal ways of delivering houses will do anything but perpetuate the existing problems of scarcity,  unaffordability and unsocial housing.

Oxford will not meet its claim or aspiration to be a ‘World class city’ for ‘everyone’, if it does not follow the many international (and few domestic)  examples of forms of housing that can be seen to be more sustainable in terms of affordability (in provision and operation), sociability and environmental impact.

In the ‘Foreword‘  to the Strategy there is nothing new to address the existing imbalance of the size of households and houses which is a major cause of  unsustainable levels of under-occupancy.  The ‘housing offer’ described in the Strategy aims to attract households as part of the ‘delivery of innovation-led growth’, but includes no equivalent innovation in terms of housing delivery.

There is no substance behind the priority to ‘support sustainable communities’.

Extra Care Homes are regarded as the necessary response to the perceived need to increase housing for the elderly.   The Council should be looking to build housing ‘suitable’ for the elderly but not specifically for them.  Care has to be carried out in the community – a cliché, but one with a substantial truth[1] that housing has to be designed to facilitate care, as the formal systems will be generally unaffordable.  This is reflected in the current problems being experienced in hospitals being unable to discharge (mostly) elderly patients into a caring home environment.

Discussion with health providers should have identified the important role that co-housing could play in wellbeing  - one form of housing suitable for but not exclusive to the elderly.

‘Increase housing choice for households on average incomes’, should have identified the areas which are under-provided eg self-building and co-housing that could be relatively affordable.  Many councils are keeping registers of potential self-builders that could sensibly include potential co-housers.

2          What are the factors that influence the sustainability of housing?


Shortage - not enough units or space to meet demand

Under-occupation - 75% of dwellings have one and more often two or more spare bedrooms.

Energy efficiency – housing accounts for about 20% of existing GHG emissions and will have to get to zero or below by 2050.

Affordability – measures should address the price of land for housing and both prices to sale (currently about twelve times average salaries) and rent levels (that are unaffordable at 60% or 80% of current open market levels) should also be brought down.  Affordability includes running costs as well as purchase price and/rent.

Anti-social Housing - housing has been designed to pander to privacy and has made neighbourly contact unnecessarily difficult.

Accessibility - housing should be well connected to work and facilities/services without depending on the car

3          Recommendations

Although this is a consultation on ‘Housing’, as has happened in Westminster, the planning and housing briefs have been combined because there is no sensible separation of responsibilities when looking for ways of making the new and existing housing stock more sustainable.

Shortage  & under-occupation - make better use of existing housing stock by encouraging right-sizing within Lifetime Neighbourhoods, and explore potential for sub-division of over-large houses.  Lifetime Neighbourhoods are designed to provide a mix of dwelling sizes and types within an area so that choice is no longer a constraint on being able to move a short distance within an area to maintain economic ands social links.  This principle should be given precedence over Lifetime Homes that are designed to encourage aging in a dwelling that might be larger than required to meet housing need. 

Empty homes (300 to 400 in the City) and second homes (>1000) are another form of under-occupation that should be addressed.  If these levels can’t be reduced then tax measures should be considered so that local areas do not suffer from the reduction in available housing and the lack of demand for local services. The shortage of housing of the right type and size is so critical in the City that the potential of compulsory purchase powers should be evaluated and used or threatened where the public objective would be to provide more sustainable housing.

Down-sizing  To enable this specific part of right-sizing applicable to older smaller households in large dwellings, new housing should be predominantly small units, but with scope to share space and have some with generous gardens.  Some older households would be more willing to down-size if there was space to keep and possibly share books, tools, furniture, guest accommodation etc as in co-housing.  This process is so fundamental to achieving a better and more sustainable balance between the sizes of household and housing, that it could prove a good investment to appoint a facilitator or enabler looking at the physical conditions and availability of smaller and larger houses, their locations, investment issues (what to do with any equity released?), family circumstances, health issues, the particular issues surrounding flats, parking and gardens etc

New building - Self-building and/or finishing could increase supply with Government wanting this to exceed historic levels of about 10%.  This form of housing conflates supply and demand and provides opportunities for building skills and communities.  It can also result in relatively affordable housing  which could be acknowledged in planning policy and quotas of affordable housing.   Involvement in self-building could include some of those least able to house themselves in the conventional ways. There might be partners in the City able to assemble groups of people with, or prepared to learn, the necessary energy and/or skills.

The Council is concerned about the number of 2 bedroomed flats being built and the small number of 3 and even 4 bedroomed houses.  However, this might not be a problem if moves to the 2 bedroomed flats are releasing larger dwellings? This would be more likely if the Council addressed all the issues implied by downsizing and the small dwellings were designed accordingly.

The Council should continue to press the neighboring districts to cooperate in the supply of housing land (inc possibility of Green Belt land and potential urban extensions).   At the same time the Council could take note of the initiatives being taken by Cherwell DC in respect of self-building and community land trusts.

The Council should, and encourage others, to be transparent in terms of land ownership and opportunities to build, so that access is increased to people and organisations currently being excluded from the systems of housing and land supply. This transparency should be extended, through open-book accounting to all building projects to ensure that all new schemes are providing the necessary affordable housing and sustainable infrastructure.

The Council should actively consider building more houses, but only along sustainable lines (see these SoS recommendations).

Anti-social housing – for too long traditional housing models have pandered to privacy (and resulting loneliness).  New housing should be predominantly terraced to facilitate informal neighbourly inter-action. While other forms of housing (eg flats) might be similarly thermally efficient, terraced houses might have the greatest potential to engender neighbourliness.  Purpose-built co-housing would be intentionally neighbourly and designed to be companionable.  The Council might see that, in Oxford, there are models of congenial collegiate housing/living around courts or quadrangles that could be extended into housing outside the academic community. 

There does not seem to be any place for detached (or even semi-detached) housing in the supply of new social and sustainable housing.

Energy efficiency - all new residential development must be zero carbon or preferably carbon negative. This implies predominantly but not exclusively south facing terraced housing (to reduce the proportion of external walls) with the main emphasis on the fabric/airtightness that will not be amenable to upgrading at a later date, and with the potential to be equipped with the most efficient PV and solar thermal panels. If Oxford wants to be an exemplar, it should be noted that there are already Passivhaus regions (standards 3x higher than the proposed UK zero carbon standard for 2016) with an estimate of minimal extra cost over traditional build.  Energy efficiency has been embraced by many co-housing groups as a shared ethic and could be more energy efficient in construction and use.

The existing housing stock will be the greatest challenge in terms of energy efficiency and the Council should explore methods of deep green retrofits for its own housing and have effective policies in its development plans to ensure upgrading of existing properties when applications are received for alterations and extensions (eg see Merton Rule or potential of  upgrading existing buildings as an ‘allowable solution’ for zero carbon houses).

Water – covered by the Code for Sustainable Homes (being wound down), but not adequately by the Building Regulations, is very important in a city where flooding is becoming an increasingly heavy cost to residents and businesses.   All new developments should be maximizing the on-site drainage to minimse the scale and speed of any run-off.

Affordability – The Strategy should challenge current market forces.  Land for housing should be purchased at existing use values with a small uplift  (see Lyons Review).  Genuine affordability requires this to be provided as ‘affordable’ based on local wage levels without public subsidies that are not material planning matters being outside planning control (eg housing benefit -  currently £23.8billion/annum, grant to RPs, Help to Buy, 20% Starter Home exception etc).  Self- building and/or finishing would contribute to affordability.  By making efficient use of buildings and land (and by keeping exclusive use to a minimum)  co-housing would be more economic to build and, more importantly, in occupation.

To concentrate on ‘affordable living’ as opposed to ‘affordable housing’ would underline the importance of running costs (eg water and energy) as fundamental  to affordability.

Right to Buy – wherever possible OCC should seek to remove or limit this right from its housing stock or when involved with other RPs.  This is a fundamental aspect of community land trusts that could be partnered for this, and other purposes,

Rental sector  - Affordable rents would be related and tied (ie 35%) to average earnings and not fixed as a percentage (ie 60%) of private rents.  The Shelter (or even Labour Party manifesto) proposals for affordable rents should be considered.  Is there a role for the Council in addressing the growth of buy-to-let?

Innovation The starting point for change must be an acknowledgement that the current system is not working and that systemic and innovative changes are necessary.  The Council should be assisting in the setting up of housing coops and community land trusts (where Right to Buy is excluded) and, possibly, an Oxford Community Housing Fund?  The Council might have to look abroad and/or to the social innovators within the area for ideas that could make the difference rather than perpetuate failed models.

Accessibility – the location and type of housing has a significant influence over car ownership and use.  Both could be substantially reduced by insisting on developer funded to a car clubs for all new development and made accessible to neighbouring areas.  Oxford already has a low carbon car club(s) and this should be a requirement of all new examples.  This would be a good fit with co-housing where car dependency and use are reduced through the mix of uses on the site.

4          Conclusions

The essential components of sustainable housing listed and discussed above indicate that there is an urgent need for systemic change in the provision of housing. There cannot be a 2.5% annual growth of housing (ie the SHMA projection) at the same time as a 6% (Committee on Climate Change estimate) or 10% (Tyndall Institute estimate) annual reductions in carbon emissions unless the housing sector (new and existing stock) becomes much more energy efficient

The Housing Strategy and related development plans/SPD should include policies that would support both self-building and co-housing.   Housing and planning strategies without the necessary enabling policies would be inadequate and unsound, as housing needs would be increased rather than be met, and the Strategy would not be contributing to the achievement of sustainable development.

Housing (especially for the elderly) has become a fundamental aspect of social and health care – and implicated in the severe problems being faced in discharging patients from hospitals. This should be one of the main drivers in prioritizing and providing housing which is more companionable.  There should be more attention paid on Lifetime Neighbourhoods than providing a greater proportion of Lifetime Homes.

The Building Regulations cannot be relied on to ensure that new and retrofitted housing will be sustainable. The Council should ensure that the form of housing (eg there is no place for detached housing that is intrinsically thermally inefficient and makes social interaction unnecessarily difficult) lends itself to sustainable construction and living.

Affordability is a major factor in the City (this should be considered as affordable living rather than simply the cost of purchase or rent).  This requires a concerted attempt to establish the real costs of provision and ensuring that the profit from the land does not erode the sustainability (inc community benefits and provision of affordable housing) without clear justification.

[1] Generation Strain IPPR 2014

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