How can Britain’s built environment tackle social exclusion?

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Poor housing
BRE round table

Niall Trafford, CEO of BRE and colleagues welcomed more than a dozen senior policy-shapers, key building experts, academics, and commentators to the third in its round table discussion, focusing on poor housing and homelessness

Niall Trafford provided the context and noted: “It might not appear to some that social exclusion comes within BRE’s remit but that isn’t the case. For example, how are we going to ensure that the hundreds of thousands in our society who continue to suffer heat poverty, can be kept warm during our winters? We have done extensive research in this area: around 11% of English households are fuel poor; 65% of English homes could benefit from energy efficiency improvements.”

Following Trafford’s scene setting, Antony Lockley, the director of Strategy and assistant chief executive at Blackpool Council, opened the discussion on social exclusion and the failure of the current model to support everyone’s housing needs. Lockley is well placed to do so: Blackpool’s difficulties have led it to become a by-word for social exclusion in the UK.

Blackpool is the unhealthiest place in England, and poor housing is at the centre of the town’s poor health. Its 4,000 disused guesthouses – the consequence of a slump in tourism since the 1970s – have over recent decades been bought-up by private landlords to profit from housing benefit claimants who are often crammed into houses of multiple occupation.

Lockley noted: “Landlords are incentivised by the benefits system to sub-divide these properties, assisted by a lack of effective regulation and low statutory standards. We’ve experienced a permanent migration of vulnerable people to Blackpool, in particular from the big cities like Birmingham, Burnley, Manchester and Glasgow. In our inner eight wards, over 50% of our housing is poor quality for private renters – a startling statistic.

“Some parts of many towns and cities across the North now require wholesale clearance and remodelling. We need a localised system of public subsidy that rewards quality and investment rather than incentivises failure. We are doing everything we can within the law in Blackpool to regulate this housing failure.

“But we need the private sector to be incentivised to make similar kinds of investments. In the end, the aim is to have a housing stock that supports individuals and families in putting down roots, stabilising their lives, and contributing to a sustainable community. Right now, in inner Blackpool, we have exactly the reverse.”

Daniel Cochlin, head of External Affairs at the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which has called for £39bn for investment in an improved East/West rail network and a £250m housing fund to cater for the predicted growth around the areas of transport expansion including HS2, noted we will need a mix of social rent and private sale housing, and affordability is critical.

Risha Lancaster, the founder of Coffee4Craig which provides help, food, advice and a shower for Manchester and Salford’s rough sleepers, proposed a root cause of social exclusion is insecurity of employment. “Trying to rent with a zero-hour employment contract is impossible – you just can’t secure a tenancy, let alone a mortgage. The homeless need not just housing, but community spaces where they can help themselves.”

David Rudlin, director of URBED (Urbanism Environment and Design) has been responsible for flagship renewal schemes in Manchester. He told the room, “We built 2,000 social houses in Hulme and the stability that comes from giving people a good home allowed them to improve their circumstances. Many of them are still there and it is the stability of the community that limits opportunities for new people to move in.

“The answer to how we house deprived communities is, of course, council housing. It always was, despite the terrible mistakes that we made in the 1960s and ’70s. Council housing that serves a wide range of people and doesn’t put all of the most deprived people in the same place. This is a lesson we need to re-learn.”

David Roberts, director at Igloo, a sustainable urban regeneration specialist, proposed change is needed throughout the supply system if we are going to deliver quality places to live work and relax. “That means,” he noted, “from the starting point of land sales (local authorities, Homes England, private landlords and their army of advisors) through to planning, financing, designing, constructing and managing.”

Gwyn Roberts, Homes and Communities lead at BRE, added: “The opportunity to get things right with new homes isn’t quite happening. Government must ensure that where it spends its money, it helps the housing sector overall, and that means getting the basics right for all.”

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