Building capacity in housing

Edward Nash says there is huge scope to diversify housing stock in under-performing suburban areas while justifying new investment in place-making.

For those of us in the business of designing and supplying housing, the supply story is often presented as the reluctant release of green fields to demonstrate a ‘five year land supply’. Little is said about understanding the rise and fall of established neighbourhoods as employment, demographics and tenures change.

The seeds of place-making change

At this apparent leading edge of supply, a de-facto conspiracy of convenience exists between how site allocation works and the interests of speculators and housebuilders. The latter speculate on particular sites and, when allocation comes, the builder is there to deliver. Their products, sometimes good, service the needs of narrow bands of buyers but, over time, each house adds to the challenges of a monolithic suburbia without the seeds and the intrinsic fertility to grow a capacity for economic, social and environmental place-building thereafter.

But now, something else is going on in our cities and towns that offers a different outcome for reducing housing access inequality, one illustrated by the housing offer of latter 20th century greater Bristol.

Bristol’s fringe

Between Bristol’s major fringe sites and centre lie literally miles of mono-cultural suburbia. Except in areas where a local employer is strong or a transport node, good school, or good amenities dictate, much of this housing is now passing into its 5th or 6th generation of ownership and is visibly on a pathway to decline.

The 2011 census showed up a massive shift towards ownership for rental rather than occupation in these areas and will have grown apace in the five years since. If poorly managed, there will be a clear differential between the neighbourhoods owner occupiers want to live in and those renters can live in. At the same time, the larger commercial private rented sector (PRS) operators are strongly aware of the quality agenda necessary to avoid being caught in a ‘race to the bottom’ for their income model to work over 30 or more years.

Behind the front doors of established housing, change is going on all the time, as occupation passes from one generation to another and employment or tenures change. One piece of work we did compared houses of the same size and type in differing parts of the city, which we found vary in price by over 320% according to perceptions of neighbourhoods. This value gradient is a potential energy to be worked with in making such places perform better in mix, size, condition and tenure for new demographic layers willing to invest in them.

In these areas, there is huge scope to diversify housing stock by building up their run-down district centres, building flats over shops, and incentivising affordable sector providers to accumulate small sites for a better mix in years to come. Through this, investment in new community amenities and place-making can be justified.

For decades, it had seemed the fragmentation of plot ownership would mean this could not happen. But now, perhaps the accumulation of such housing in new small-scale commercial hands means creating pockets of dynamic change is foreseeable. It might be the precursor to their revitalisation as the seedbeds of major intensification for a much more diverse population of both owners and renters.

If so, it will not be the large housebuilders who deliver this but the smaller operators, householders, builder developers, affordable sector providers and local charities. Change is a constant throughout the builtenvironment, whether this is manifest in what we see or who lives behind the door.

Read more articles from Nash Review here