We must begin by agreeing what is meant by the term ‘affordable housing’, which is no easy task. The National Planning Policy Framework does have a definition, but it is very broad and covers everything from fully subsidised council housing/social rent, through to shared ownership, and even open market discounted starter homes.
In practice, affordable rent and shared ownership are the only tenures that are being delivered, and only then because those are the tenures referenced by local authority policy. Although there is potential benefit for the housebuilder (and certainly greater benefit to the market) in providing discounted private sale market homes, the actual experience of this is that both planners and builders are hesitant to test these models.
The political and social dimensions of affordable housing are complicated beyond the subject of this paper, but it would not be contentious to suggest that the benefactors are immeasurably diverse. The question must then be asked:
- Is the public need for other specialist types of housing being adequately met by one-size-fits-all provision of affordable rent and shared ownership?
- Are these tenures then suitably flexible to deliver both ends of the spectrum from council/social rent all the way to market starter homes, and everything in between?
Following the breakdown of the definition (in every sense of the word), the provision of each type must not only be considered in its number, but its overall strategic location.
Is the need for 1-bed council flats the same in rural settlements as it is in town centres? Are the elements of community infrastructure in place in these locations to ensure the overall cost of living, including accommodation, is affordable and sustainable?
It is no good to place a family of six in a detached house in the countryside where they have poor access to schools, public transport, shops, employment, and leisure facilities. Inarguably these issues will affect all people, regardless of their housing tenure, but affordable housing is provided under public subsidy and therefore can be held more accountable. This accountability must come in the form of meaningful engagement with the relevant communities, seeking their views and truly understanding them before a single house is built.
Following on from the Localism Act 2011 more and more Parish-led Neighbourhood Development Plans are being prepared, and the ‘value-added’ factor of community engagement is increasing. This has led to a greater variety of truly local housing policies coming forward, with communities setting out their bespoke needs for more specialist types of housing, including sheltered accommodation, almshouses, downsizers, starter homes, etc.
Greater efforts should be made to encourage, enable and protect local involvement in the developments which are expanding their communities. Engagement should be early and be able to add value to every project, but this does mean that community representatives must be more informed on all aspects of planning and development. It also means that communities must understand the positives of building new local homes, and not just how to blanket refuse planning permission.
Nevertheless, some communities are being proactive, and over the past two years Clague Architects has been actively working with Dover District Council on its Community Housing initiative. However, based on anecdotal evidence, project viability and land availability remain the critical barriers to community-led developments actually getting out of the ground. The private market housing sector has become a beast that is dominating land and new homes, leaving other types and tenures of housing struggling to compete. How can we expect affordable housing to remain truly and individually affordable to the communities who need it the most?
Nonetheless the non-market subsidised housing sector is otherwise steadily growing in line with the private market, albeit neither fast enough. The two tenures continue to be lumped together, and even dependent on each other for definition: if 40% of new homes are affordable, are the remaining 60% therefore unaffordable? The private market and subsidised non-market rent are two very different sectors, and just because both involve building houses, we should not persist in the assumption that they are the same.
And therein is the real risk for affordable housing, particularly in the context of the national housing crisis: that it will be business as usual. The planning, design, and delivery of all forms of housing is recognisably flawed across the country as a whole, and Kent is no exception.
There must be greater involvement from the ‘forgotten’ stakeholders in residential projects, including existing communities, management companies, and new residents. And by panicking for numbers and quick delivery in response to the national housing shortage, the reality of prioritising quantity over quality is once again a burden we are forcing those communities to bear.
The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has recently released its report: Living with Beauty. Notwithstanding any political context, it does propose the deep level systemic change that is now needed. Our industry, our communities, and our country desperately need a system that places local quality and regional quantity hand-in-hand, rather than setting them at odds.
What is also needed is a robust collaborative process that brings together the best inputs of plan-makers, design-creators, and decision-takers. As with our design process, we believe that engagement, evidence and creative interrogation are a start in understanding these issues. Lest this process be diluted by the tick-box policy and building-by-numbers approach that has prevailed thus far, experimentation and innovative solutions must then be whole-heartedly encouraged. And although these efforts won’t automatically generate better new homes they will certainly be a step in the right direction, and we’re ready to be a part of the conversation.
National quantity should never come at the price of local quality, regardless of type or tenure.
Posted on | by Seb Willett