Saturday, May 29, 2021

A downsizing story; one of 5million?

There are differing estimates of the number of households looking to downsize - up to as many as 8million (HAPPI 2016).  This is treated as a private matter that can be observed but no intrusion from policymakers is appropriate. An alternative view, and one that is shared by Lord Best, is that interference is justified as meeting the housing needs of the elderly could be the most efficient way of meeting the needs of younger households. Downsizing or rightsizing is a way of reducing under-occupation, reducing the need/demand for new building and meeting housing needs within carbon budgets.


Living in an ‘empty nest’ of 4 bedrooms and 2200sq ft village property for the last 10 years I have recently been one of the 50% of households registered with estate agents looking for a suitable smaller property in the nearby town.  The thinking was to live closer to more daily amenities. Having found a buyer after two years of marketing through Brexit and Covid we had to choose between the suitable houses then available.  The choice was a three bedroomed semi -detached house of about 1600 sq ft with a decent garden.


I grew up in a 4 bedroomed semi of about 1200 sq ft and the 30% increase seems to be the same process that has seen the Austin Mini ‘bloated’ into the BMW version. The 1960s versions do the same job as the 2000 version but the materials, weight  and space have increased.  We have given up a guest room with en-suite, a 4th bedroom, an en-suite and a large conservatory. But we still have two studies with potential for guests, a lounge with sunroom, and a kitchen diner large enough for the selling agents to call a ‘lifestyle room’ and for us to call a MUGA having had the grandchildren to stay.  We have traded a £400 profit on gas and electricity (based on 2kW of PV and 1 sq m of solar thermal) for a bill of £6000 for installing less PV and no feed-in-tariff.  In the very similar house next door there are two adults, 4 children, a dog, cat and chickens (the latter in the garden).  Both adults have hobbies and businesses.  The question hangs over our move, of why we still occupy twice what could comfortably meet our needs.


1.     There is only so much stuff that can be disposed off in one go (even though the next move could be many years away).

2.     Children and grandchildren might want to stay (ie <10 days out of 365).

3.     Where would be put the balance of funds. Our move only produced £30,000 surplus but a smaller purchase could have produced 5 times that.


Whilst our credibility has been improved in the downsizing debate with the very many families who have not moved since children have flown, there are many unanswered questions that should be addressed by policy-makers in the transition to creating a carbon negative housing sector.  Having outlined just one example of downsizing (the extreme stress and unavoidable costs of buying and selling have been omitted) the only suggestion I have to make in this blog post is to train up professionals to advise on all aspects of this process.  Almost by definition these moves are undertaken by people in their later years and the extent of handholding that could smooth the process cannot be over–estimated.  For the fees being charged by estate agents they could, if adequately trained,  offer a much more ‘inclusive’ service to address the myriad issues incidental to the actual property transfer.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Lowering the speed limit is only a matter of time

I have just received a reply from the Department of Transport to my FOI request about the work that is being done on the impact of the national speed limits and possible changes there to. By coincidence, the Guardian also today published my letter on smart motorways and speed limits.


It is true that most if not all the necessary research has been carried out to show that a 50 or 60mph limit would substantially reduce carbon emissions from road transport (currently  dominated by ICEs) as well as trigger a modal shift to bus/train and now, crucially, to EVs. One piece of research that might be useful is how a 50mph limit could allow the narrowing of M-way lanes to allow the hard shoulder to be retained, and change the nature of smart motorways.


The DfT point to pilots where the speed limit has been reduced to 60mph to reduce NOX.  In fact Highways England has sent me research to show that NOX increases at lower speeds!? The DfT also refers to the suggestion, now dropped,  that the limit should be increased to 80mph.


The encouragement to be gained from this DfT ‘blind spot’ is that this is not a case where the ministry has been looking at the role of speed and has decided to carry on with the 70mph (unenforced) limit.  This is a case where the need to reduce the speed limit will become overwhelming as a means of managing the distribution and use of renewable (ie low carbon) electricity.  It seems unlikely that Government will prioritise personal transport over the heating of homes with heat pumps and the manufacturing of heat pumps, EVs/batteries and houses through Modern Methods of Construction. 


Making a virtue out of the necessary lowering of the speed limit the Government could take credit for reducing  the burden on the NHS as accidents become fewer and less severe, families suffer less trauma, public transport becomes relatively more attractive (coaches could safely continue at 60mph plus), lessening the  noise from engines and tyres, showing that no new road space would be needed as congestion would be reduced, and commuting journeys would be shortened to match the perceived increase in drive time (ie the constant time budget).

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Mr Jenrick and the Queen's Speech

The Planning Bill that has been mentioned in the Queen’s Speech is programmed for the autumn and was debated by over 50 MPs last week


The only contribution that matters is that from the Secretary of State from which I have extracted, “The other thing that the Bill will do is empower local people to set standards for beauty and design in their area through design codes that developers will have to abide by, putting beauty at the heart of our planning system for the first time, and embedding the work of the late Sir Roger Scruton and everyone who was involved in the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission in the planning system as a matter of law. There will also be a greater emphasis on better outcomes, rather than simply on process, to protect and enhance the environment. We will ensure that biodiversity net gain is met, we will ensure that all streets are lined with trees, and we will deliver on net zero homes as a matter of national priority.”


Were that to be the case, the Bill will have to deviate from the White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’ that proposed carbon zero ready housing (ie not requiring major refitting to reach zero carbon), and absolutely nothing on construction carbon that is about half the lifetime carbon attributable to a new dwelling before the servicing and infrastructure is taken into account.  The Sec of State need to speak to his officers responsible for the Future Buildings Standard that kicks construction carbon down the road ‘for the longer term’ and not to be dealt with as a ‘national priority’.


This comments will appear in Hansard and Mr Jenrick will expect to be held to this commitment (as an expert in dissembling). Readers could cut and paste this into an email to their MPs who can try to keep him ‘honest’ (but see what Stephen Reed MP had to say about  the Westferry scandal).

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Under-occupation and 15min neighbourhoods


It is worth repeating many of the issues that arise out of the scale of under-occupation of the existing housing stock.  Figures vary and are debatable, but there seems to be about 28m dwellings and 27m households.  There was a decrease in household size impacted by the increase in housing costs leading to a suppression of new household creation. While grown-up children living at home can be bad, there can be some advantages in growing ‘multi-generational households’. About half of existing residential space and fabric is not meeting genuine housing needs (ie bedrooms being used for storage or working from home – that could and perhaps should be accommodated in neighbourhood workspaces – another blog post needed).


The heating and insulation of un-occupied  or under-occupied space and fabric is and will continue to be unsustainable while accompanied by new building and the carbon emitted in the construction of buildings, services and infrastructure.  The real zero carbon electricity will need to be fairly apportioned between heating, transport and manufacturing (as well as NHS, service/creative industries, security forces etc). Demand from the building sector must be reduced as the scope for building the generators of real zero carbon electricity within carbon budgets is limited.

2.     Active travel and 15min neighbourhoods depends on the density of resident populations and are both impacted by under-occupation.  At current levels of under-occupation (often by the elderly and less mobile) will mean that a 15min ‘locality’ will have fewer and less thriving facilities and services.  This will have the result (as now) that the more mobile will use motorized transport to extend their orbit, and be generally less dependent on both active travel and the local facilities.

3.     The serious inequality in Britain (see The Spirit Level and/or The Inner Level by Wilkinson, R and Pickett, K) is reflected in housing occupation and availability. If some people occupy more space than they need then it is likely if not inevitable that others will not have enough.   Given the adequacy of overall supply, in bald terms (ie ignoring factors such as geography), a relatively small reduction in under-occupation could all but eliminate overcrowding.

4.     The only way to increase supply of  ‘new’ housing in areas of the country where new building is severely restricted (ie Green Belts, AONBs, flood plains) is to sub-divide existing stock.


None of these issues are non-trivial but do not appear to be receiving any serious attention by professional bodies or policy makers.(see earlier DanthePlan posts on custom-splitting for one  possible response)