Housing, crisis or business as usual?

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Earlier this month, we held one of Marketing Derby’s Big Talks – a small round table of professional experts looking into a single issue in some depth – the session appropriately being held at the impressive Derby YMCA on London Road.

The theme was to ask whether housing was actually in crisis or it is the current situation simply business as usual?

The conversation was lively, heated even, and will be reported on in the next Derby Telegraph Agenda business magazine. The themes emerging though were so all encompassing that I thought it worth covering off briefly here.

A decent secure home is of course is a basic human right, yet the provision of enough homes, in the right places, is one we seem to perennially fall short.

It’s fair to say that housing is also a particularly British obsession, as reflected by the daily extensive media coverage of planning issues, prices and interest rates, not to mention the numerous makeover programmes.

There are many perspectives on most aspects of housing but one clear consensus is that we are not building enough homes to meet today’s demand.

The government target is for 250,000 new homes to be built each year.

Now, ask almost anyone if they think there are enough houses being built and I guess they would normally say yes.

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Any drive around Derby is punctuated by new housing estates popping up on the city’s periphery, most especially on the west and south side.

Added to that are the hundreds – soon to be thousands – of new homes in the city centre, first mostly in Permitted Development office conversions and soon in ‘build to buy’ and ‘build to rent’ schemes focused on Castleward, the DRI Nightingale Quarter site and North Riverside.    

That impression – suburban spread and city living - would be reinforced by visits to any city and that’s not to even mention London where the scale of building is nothing short of phenomenal.

Yet, surprisingly, the scale of house building in the UK over the past 3 years is at its lowest volume since the 1920s.

In the 1960s we were building 350,000 units per year – last year we build 184,000.

Remember, the annual target of 250,000 and you soon see how within any given decade, at current build rates, we are falling short of roughly 1 million new homes.   

The impact is pressure on existing stock, reflected in inflated price points, over-occupation, poor quality and eventually, and most brutally, in the homelessness we see on our cities streets.

What was most interesting in the round table was exploring the question as to how and why did we get to this position?   

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The finger of blame is usually pointed in various directions: difficulty in obtaining planning off Councils worried about voters’ reactions; the collapse of social housing building precipitated in the Right to Buy; greedy developers controlling stock release; shortages in money to build and buy and even to not having enough bricklayers or even bricks.

Whichever the facts – and there is probably some truth in each – we do seem to have got ourselves into a classic Great British mess, where many of those who their home sorted thank you very much can often resist allowing others onto that ladder.

The solutions lay somewhere in shifting the current practices of government (planning policy and public house-building programmes); industry (new technologies in design and build) and the customer (renting vs buying and changing demographics).

Meanwhile, it seems to me that the answer to our Big Talk question is ‘both and’ – in other words, yes we are in crisis but that the crisis is so ingrained that it is actually business as usual.