Friday, June 27, 2014

Young planners and the green belt

It is a theme of these blogs to question whether planners of a younger generation are being given a voice and whether the profession as a whole is serving the interests of older generations (the overwhelming constituency of property owners) to the disadvantage of everybody else. on 26 June a debate a the green belt (focusing on Oxford with reference to Cambridge as a comparable) was organised by Thames Valley Young Planners. The event was ably chaired by a young planner and the research officer from the Council might not have been much over 30. However, the four other members of the panel were of the older generation (just) and the contributions from the floor were all from relatively elderly men. Many of the questions submitted before the event might well have been from young planners but I left the debate without hearing a young voice or an opinion about how green belts might serve their generation. We know that green belts have been an important planning tool in the containment of urban Britain that has been part of the excuse for limiting housing supply and maintaining house prices. I doubt that abandoning green belts would have any discernible impact on either the release of housing land (that would be controlled in any event through development plans) or for that matter on house prices. However, I would have liked to have heard other end younger views on this subject. I would suggest that Young Planner Groups (including Novus a branch of the Planning Officer Society) conduct a policy review from the perspective of those who will be living and experiencing the transition to a very low carbon future by 2050 and beyond. I happen to think that implies a greater degree of localism in the way we live, work, and play but my opinions should become progressively irrelevant and superseded by those who matter.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Downsizing options

There are, apparently millions of households looking to downsize (half of those currently looking to move) making it a very high priority to find out why this step is proving so difficult. Clearly, the shortage of suitable smaller dwellings (particularly if a larger garden is required) must be one of the first hurdles. However, until we decouple the enjoyment of the dwelling as living space with that of a private pension pot, priority should be given to addressing the question of what the downsizing household could sensibly do with the equity released from the sale of a larger property. Those supporting co-housing would respond with the possibility of the homeowner buying a new (and smaller) dwelling for their own use with the possibility of buying a 2nd dwelling on the same development for rent (and possible gradual purchase of equity) by another small household - possibly of a younger generation. If the cohousing scheme has some form of mutual ownership or trust then all the downsider's equity could be put into that entity and they could feel secure that it is related to some property asset. However, the option for those for whom cohousing is either an unattractive alternative or, and equally likely, currently unavailable, the obvious option is currently buy-to-let. For those who sense that this is an inequitable and ultimately unsustainable trend, there should be an exploration of some form of property bond into which equity released from the sale of a large property could be invested. That bond could be used to develop property within or outside the local area. In conversation with an advocate of community land trusts the possibility emerged of an investment of such spare equity into a trust of that nature, the advantage of which would again be the security of investment in the property market. Of course, the recent surge in property prices (at least in some regions)might indeed be a bubble, but while residential property appears to be the best investment for those concerned about their pension pot the community land trust alternative might be worth exploring. Finding a secure investment for the equity released from the sale of a larger house would be a very important step in the decoupling of the enjoyment of a dwelling, that could and should be of a much more suitable size, from the need to hang on to a dwelling simply to maximise or at least maintain one's pension. Incidentally, the case for cohousing was recently enhanced by Linda Grant in her writing on the killing of her library. Would it not be much more sensible for collections of books to be shared and for the original owners to introduce them to the new audience comprised in their new neighbours? What goes for books should also go for tools, decorative items, cars, pets and skills... it is also conceivable that the showing of outdoor space could overcome the current problem where smaller dwellings imply smaller gardens which is exactly what many downsizers find unattractive. Coming back to the problems of finding suitable housing (Including larger gardens), this is a matter for planners to ensure that new developments are almost exclusively of 2 and exceptionally 3 bedrooms (look at Rightmove to see how many larger dwellings are already on the market).

Monday, June 16, 2014

Small is Beautiful and Practical Action

On 14 June 2014 I attended the annual supporters day organised by Practical Action ( that is one of my two holy days (the other is Levellers Day held each year in Burford). Practical Action would be known to my generation as the rebranded Intermediate Technology Development Group inspired in the 60s by Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful:A study of Economics as if People Mattered (SiB). The 200 plus supporters are taken through the achievements of this development charity over the last year showing how the use of appropriate technologies had improved if not saved lives. As an example, the session on agriculture explained how the use of monitoring the rainfall combined with local knowledge was making smallholders in Zimbabwe more resilient to the variable and more extreme weather that was coming through changes to the climate. By focusing on poverty alleviation PA will locate its operations where agriculture is already a marginal activity and changes to weather patterns could push many smallholders ‘over the edge’. My interest is to see not only the consequences of climate change for which the developed world must shoulder the greatest responsibility, but to see technologies that could be as appropriate to the over- developed world as to that which is seen to be still developing. This confusion of language could be addressed through the emphasis on ‘appropriate’ but also to adaptive technologies, those suited to the changes to climate and weather. I remember that the external examiner of my undergraduate dissertation was curious if unimpressed that SiB appeared in my bibliography. However, 40 years later, in a world where the public discourse on planning is about major infrastructure (HS2 and nuclear power stations) and large scale housing (including new settlements), I do wonder about the value which should be placed on repair and adaptation of our built environment. Not only could this approach prove to be better value for money but the outcomes (eg less mobility but more access, distributed energy systems, better fit between the size of houses and households) might be what most people would want if treated as if they mattered. I would recommend a (re) reading of SiB and joining Practical Action to support its activities in the developing world and to reflect on our role in making these problems worse (eg unfair trade and excessive carbon emissions) and how some of the ‘practical answers’ could have applications here.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Co-housing for seniors (and others)

On 2 June Green Templeton College on Oxford hosted a talk by Claire McNeil joint author with Jack Hunter of a report published by IPPR,  Generation Strain: Collective solutions to care in an ageing society.  If there is one thing that you should read in the coming months this should be it.

If you have time for one more report then it should be the JRF publication Senior cohousing communities - an alternative approach for the UK? written by Maria Brenton

Time is not on our side. McNeil explains how the current system of care for the elderly is simply unsustainable and the 'pinch' could come as soon as 2017. Many carers and cared for are already feeling the strain but very soon the ability of families to provide the £55b per annum equivalent of caring for relatives will diminish sharply. And the cost of replacement through formal care systems will put a serious strain on family, Council and Government finances - even were the faciliites and staff available.

Moving on to the JRF report on cohousing there is said to be a clamour for this form of congregant and sharing community, primarily but not exclusively by the older generations.  The case is made out, drawing on international examples where the Netherlands seem to have the greatest number and range (as with conventional housing, variety is very important). I would just turn to  the "Key barriers to progress" and guess what? the Report identifies "Local authority planning and other blockages such as departmental silos" as one  of the 6 barriers.   Wouldn't it be great if there were planners and planning authorities out there to  make sure that the finger is no longer pointed in our direction. 

The disparity between the advantages of cohousing models (possibly essential to relieving the Generations Strain) and the lack of supply could not be more stark and frustrating.  Brenton hopes that there would be the  “… Emergence of one 'pathfinder' local authority willing to work with forming-groups of older people to promote senior cohousing would make a significant difference to the adoption of this model as an alternative to the isolation at home that is increasingly the lot of very many older people. A' pathfinder' local authority  would itself acquire beacon status nationally and other local authorities would follow."  Unfortunately  for 20 years  Leeds has been  setting a similar example as 'pathfinder' for Neighbourhood Networks  and has found few if any followers.

I would recommend the reading of  both these reports but, of greater importance, would be for those working in local government or housing associations to grasp the  significance and urgency of this matter and to do  all that they can to facilitate the development of  cohousing.