Monday, 3 March 2014

Why do we need to build (so much…)?

Like food, there is actually more than enough housing to go round – at least for the moment. Not only in the UK (which has more than 700,000 empty homes); but in the rest of Europe, too (with more than 11 million empty, in total – “enough to house all of the continent’s [4.1 million] homeless twice over”).

With around a third of all food being wasted (through over-supply and over-eating) – in this country, at least – there could be sustenance for the permanently hungry; for those who are forced to collect parcels of provisions that can be warmed up with a kettle (the only source of heat in some people’s homes being a camping stove…). With empty houses being refurbished or conserved, there could be accommodation for the dispossessed; for those forced out of the homes they have lived in for years because of the ‘bedroom tax’, or from delayed or deleted benefits (that, in all likelihood, they deserve, or are due…) – or simply because their landlords demanded excessive rents.

Food wastage and food shortage are terrible problems; but so is the reported lack of available homes that is – I am told – at the root of the carpet-bombing of proposals to cover our green fields with swathes of unsuitable, unsustainable, identikit boxes: with a legislated proportion being ‘affordable’ to almost no-one that would qualify for their residence, or actually needs them to live in (especially as Stratford district’s “House prices are higher… than the average for Warwickshire”).


At 1 April 2011, there were 1,329 empty houses (14% of the estimated new homes needed between now and 2028 – or two years supply) in the area governed by Stratford-on-Avon District Council (SDC) – with 748 of those (8% of the housing requirement) having been empty for six months or longer. [As of 2 March 2014, this latter number has been reduced to 543, as a result of SDC’s Empty Homes Strategy.] And yet, from my reading of SDC’s Draft Core Strategy, and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), it appears impossible to include any of these empty houses in the council’s five-year housing supply – even though there are hints in both of these documents that this would be a sensible move…. So they simply haven’t been.

And yet, the coalition government says that it is “committed to bringing empty homes back into use”: encouraging local planning authorities (LPAs), such as SDC, to do so – “as a sustainable way of increasing the overall supply of housing and reducing the negative impact that neglected empty homes can have on communities…” – both via the NPPF, and such resources as the Empty Homes Mapping Toolkit. The evidence appears circumstantial, at best, though.

This is what the NPPF says, at paragraph 51:

Local planning authorities should identify and bring back into residential use empty housing and buildings in line with local housing and empty homes strategies and, where appropriate, acquire properties under compulsory purchase powers. They should normally approve planning applications for change to residential use and any associated development from commercial buildings… where there is an identified need for additional housing in that area….

“Should”, not “must”. According to the CPRE:

The Government has… implemented two initiatives to support this policy: [including a] £160m fund for supporting local authority and community projects to get empty houses back into use…. Concern has been raised, however, that the Government’s proposed tightening of the rules which govern the use of Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) could undermine local authority attempts to refurbish and re-let privately owned empty homes.


By the way, the above figures don’t include all the second, third, or fourth (etc.) ‘homes’ that are occupied rarely – or sometimes never – by the super-rich who buy up property like most people buy tea bags (or lottery tickets?); and who therefore drive up prices and scarcity in the name of selfishness and greed (their twin gods?). “Even London has more bedrooms than people.” (If you counted empty bedrooms in Stratford, what numbers would emerge…?) This is why more people are renting than owning, again; why families are living in unsuitably small and squalid spaces; why slums will soon re-erupt, like flesh flies from diapause.


There are no easy answers. Campbell Robb, the chief executive of Shelter, the UK’s biggest homelessness charity, has stated that the government needs to come up with “bigger, bolder ideas” to tackle the lack of available, affordable homes. But I would add that it then needs to put these into action, rather than just “encouraging”.

On 16 January 2014, the European Parliament adopted a resolution – by 349 votes to 45 – demanding that the European Commission develop an EU strategy on homelessness “without further delay”. And I would hope – however Eurosceptical our government has become – that this would eventually filter down into UK law: ensuring that regulations such as the NPPF force LPAs to not only allocate empty houses to the homeless, but also to designate them as truly affordable. Additionally, new legislation must ensure they are used as part of the five-year housing supply: therefore relieving some of the pressure from the remote and greenfield sites that are of so little use to those with limited funds, and limited access to transport….

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