Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Social Care

There will be nothing new in this Blog but the message is one of the most important for planners in this country - and possibly elsewhere.  The costs of social care is probably the only common life risks where the costs are not pooled and paid for by the state like the NHS for health treatment and care or insurable like our cars and property.  Sir Andrew Dilnot recommended state support would be beneficial and could be politically attractive if capped so that there would be sharing of the expense. his proposal was a cap to the individual of between 25k and 50k with the state picking up the extra. He believes that the cap might be nearer 60k for those who have it (there would be a means test). Higher figures have been suggested but the means test would afford some protection to those of modest means.

My layman's eye view of this (supported by any number of reports on the costs (eg from IPPR, the Kings Fund and Age UK) is that we are in denial about the affordability and desirability of the current system, by which I mean the caring burden carried by families and institutions.  I can't see that families will be able to cope with the extraordinary increase in older people including an increasing number of frail elderly with multiple conditions.  And I can't see that the state can pick up the cost of what families cannot do, as the tax payers of the future will have many other financial commitments (including student fees, mortgages, pensions - theirs and those of the retired) but having more precarious employment.  The Chancellor has already experienced a low tax take despite high levels of employment.

But my point is that the financial cost of social care is not the point.  It is the need to reduce the need for care by the state (and sometimes by families) by building caring environments.  We should not be building one more private house that is not designed to relate closely to the public realm and to a space where people can stand and sit and be noticed in all weathers.  Just by designing spaces where falls are less likely to happen will have a substantial bearing on the costs to the NHS.  If falls do not occur or are less serious, older people will continue to venture out and the need for care in the home will be reduced.  If a neighbourhood builds levels of familiarity and companionship then people will feel more comfortable about providing companionship and elements of care in the home.

This should not need saying and of course there are places where these traditions are alive and well, and in Leeds and Cornwall systems are being introduced to nurture this informal care.  However, planners, architects and urban designers are still pandering to privacy and making it sufficiently difficult for incidental caring to flourish at the scale that will be necessary when (and not if) existing social care systems crash.  So the point that needs repeating is that the growth of informal and mutual caring should be a massive benefit arising from the failure to maintain the institutionalised methods. And I can't end without saying that co-housing models would do all these things, whether designed from scratch or as a plan to adapt existing urban areas.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A rght to self/custom - build?

On 24 October 2014 the Government published the consultation Right to Build: supporting custom and self-build with a closing date of 18 December 2014.

This consultation is on top of several financial incentives (many to group self-builders) and the private member's bill to make it a statutory requirement for planning authorities to keep registers of potential self-builders.

When preparing a response it seems that the Government is shy of the obvious mechanism of increasing supply of self/custom-build plots which is to require a (say) 20% of all larger sites to be reserved for those purposes. 20% is more than the 10% of all new dwellings which is the recent trend seen as inadequate to meet either the demand (eg 145 from 900 households in my village) or the need to build more dwellings without relying on the large volume builders.  In fact the paper does refer to the Teignbridge Plan that requires 5% of plots on large sites to be reserved for these purposes.  This might create some supply but below trend.  The prospect of Councils finding land to meet the 'right' implied by having a name included on a register seems to be unrealistic.  And what would be the legalistic nightmare of a Council's failure to satisfy that right?

As so often a better response can be found in policy and not in law.  The Paper says that the supply should be in accordance with the planning system that implies that supportive policies and proposals should be included in the hundreds of neighbourhood development plans and local plans in preparation.  Changes in legislation will not be made until the next Government in 2015 when many development plans will have taken further steps towards adoption.  There seems to be no reason why all such plans could  not require 20% of plots on sites of 5 dwellings and over to be reserved for sel/custom-building - both to be carefully defined in the plan.  If there are no takers from the registers then the developer would be free to finish these plots.  These larger sites are much more likely to be on land that it is appropriate/sustainable to develop than for Councils to find what might be "exception sites" that are unsuitable for housing.

The Paper makes no reference to the need for these self-custom-built homes to be sustainable and to be zero-carbon.  The general need for two bedroomed south facing terraced housing might not be easy to reconcile with a self-build community used to building four bedroomed detached homes.  There is also an interesting question of whether models of self/custom-building can meet the need for downsizers.  It would be fantastic if the capital from downsizers could be added to the energy and skills of those after their first (small) that could be built for rent (but with staircasing options.  The Paper discusses the role of Community Land Trusts (and Housing Associations) as assisting with the provision of self/custom-built housing for affordable rent and CLTs might provide the platform for these partnerships.  It would be too much to hope for to find a reference to co-housing as an ideal way of joining these interests - and possibility of building themselves a commonhouse and other shared facilities.

Good marks to the Government for picking up on this issue but I hope that respondents will explain that models should include enabling policies in development plans that describe how self/custom-building should be zero carbon, 'affordable' in terms of the required quota and should be part of the phased development of all sites of five or over (less than 20% would be lower than the current trend). No change of the law is required if Councils accept the benefits of this kind of houising and recognise these in development plans.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The pursuit of loneliness and the affordablility of housing

This is a letter written to the Guardian in response to an article by George Monbiot.

"George Monbiot (Life in the age of loneliness 15 October) does not
refer to the role that our planning system has played, at least as an
accomplice, in creating the loneliest 'society' in Europe. During the
next few years hundreds of thousands of new homes will be built,
mostly following a model that could reasonably be described as
“pandering to privacy". In 1968 an American sociologist Philip Slater
suggested that,  “The longing for privacy  is generated by the drastic
conditions that a longing for privacy produces.”  We seem to be in
this vicious cycle where our individualism makes it increasingly
difficult to provide mutual support and affection. Private housing is
being designed to be not only privately owned but anti-social in its
occupation.  Planners should be engaged in the provision of co-housing
where care and companionship are the norm."

The Slater book was called the Pursuit of Loneliness and the vicious circle he describes has been dividing society since he identified the insidious effects of privacy. 

On unrelated matters I thought that I would share a thought from a friend about how to make climate change conversations more compelling. Mutually Assured Destruction or the Path of MADnesss is well understood as one of the factors which induced nuclear powers to keep their weapons under wraps for the second half of the 20th Century.  MAD would seem equally apt in respect of the effects of climate change and should be an inducement to all emitters to agree to reductions.

On the topic of acronyms I am now using SI units (not for Systeme International - mm, cm, m, km etc) but for units of Self-Indulgence as a handy label for individualistic behaviour.  Examples would be a long haul flight to a sandy beach being close to the max of 10 points but the same flight to help care for ebola sufferers would be zero.  A short haul to attend a conference that was being skyped/streamed would be about 5.  We then move to degrees C of curmudgeonliness, where my complaints about the planning system are at least 5 and would be much higher if not justified by the facts.

A new week and a new initiative to build 200,000 plus dwellings per year. This time it is the Labour Party failing to understand that we have reached the limits of affordability ie all  housing for those not being able to climb onto the housing ladder through earning at least a living wage  (and in most places much more) has to have a public subsidy. This subsidy whether for rent or purchase goes straight to the landowner.  Why would the majority of voters not support a scheme for the compulsory purchase of land designated for housing in development plans - with ample funds going to physical and social infrastructure?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Affordable housing

It would be impertinent to attempt to deal with the issue of affordable housing in a single blog. However,  there are a few matters that I think could be discussed as this becomes ever more pressing issue and  one that will play an important part of the debate between the parties leading up to the 2015 General Election.

At the Conservative Party conference the Prime Minister found it  opportune to announce the discounting of  100,000 new homes that will also be  free of obligations  relating to energy efficiency. CIL, or other financial contributions (under s.106) that are needed to provide local infrastructure and  housing  at affordable rents.

The Conservative Party might well be in tune with the majority of voters in concentrating on home ownership  and  being convinced that the majority of homeowners will vote for them.   The exemption from the future zero carbon homes requirement  ignores the importance of 'affordable living' (based on lower fuel bills) in an attempt to get more people onto the ladder of home ownership. This is just the most recent attempt to make home ownership more affordable following on from the Funding for Lending and Help to Buy schemes which, together with the bank of 'mum and dad' have  helped to fuel the national increases in house prices.   Government  is increasingly  spending taxpayers money on subsidising the purchasing of houses being made less affordable by the subsidies.

It was Mr Pickles  who introduced a  scheme whereby housing associations and other providers can bid for a share of £400m in low-cost loans to build up to 10,000 new homes during 2015 to 2018. They will mainly consist of one- and two- bedroom flats.  Landlords must then make the homes available for rent at below-market rates for a minimum of seven years. This fixed period will give tenants the chance to save up for a deposit and get ready to buy their own home. A welcome but tiny initiative that uses the inflated land/housing costs as its datum and holds out the bait of home ownership.

Meanwhile, rents in the private sector  are also increasing as tenants are  having to  pay more for less space  (obviously a trend  that is more prevalent  in property hot spots).

To some extent the cost of  housing will be affected by  the cost of supplying new houses and any discussion on affordability should  include the cost of the components of building a dwelling (land, materials and labour) and then the components of the available finance. On the supply side there have been rises in the cost of both materials and labour but not  to the extent that would create a price bubble.  If  a house was built on land at agricultural value the land component would be in the order of £800  and not £80,000 that is the average cost of a single plot  in the south-east and  other areas with a buoyant economy. The 100  fold increase is largely down to the  desire and ability to pay -  which is  influenced by subsidies from government and parents. Incidentally, the benefit to parents is in maintaining the price of existing houses, including those owned by them.   It seems obvious, and it is part of the campaign to build new settlements ( increasingly referred to as garden cities), that by discounting the land value new housing can be built at lower prices and there would still be surplus for  the provision of physical and  social infrastructure.

While Government  does nothing to interfere with the market for housing land,  housing has probably reached the limits of affordability without  the scale of subsidies appearing to be politically unacceptable. In these circumstances the Government  should not be attempting to reduce standards but focusing attention on the need for  attractive smaller dwellings.  Small dwellings  use less materials (and less  transport and embedded carbon) and less labour,  but not necessarily less land if garden areas are part of what would make them attractive to those downsizing from larger properties. However, smaller dwellings would be cheaper and therefore more affordable and cheaper to furnish and heat. They lend themselves to terracing that is the most energy-efficient form of housing, especially if built with  south facing roofs and windows for solar gain.   Downsizing  to such developments at scale would be more likely to occur  is built as  in-filling and urban extensions rather than new settlements.  Larger dwellings would be released into the market and in private and social rental sectors.

My contention is that the housing models including  a predominantly3 and 4 bedroomed detached dwellings  should be regarded as intrinsically  unsustainable  (unable to benefit from the presumption in favour of sustainable development In the National Planning Policy Framework)  and unaffordable  on social, economic and environmental grounds. The Government should be concentrating on ways to incentivise the subdivision of larger dwellings.  We should be looking at  how housing  can be made 'sustainable'  and would  likely find that  socially inclusive housing that minimises its environmental impact would also be the most affordable -  win, win, win.