Anne Power: meeting the housing challenge

A confession: when in my last blog I described the Green Alliance collection on housing as ‘very interesting’, I had not actually read it.  I have now, and it really is very interesting.  I will write another blog later in the week about some of the pieces in it, but for now I want to reproduce the great Prof. Anne Power’s essay, Meeting the housing challenge.

Anne spoke at a CPRE debate on suburbia last year and challenged us to come up with a vision for revitalising and densifying suburbia.  In her Green Alliance essay she emphasises the potential of the small brownfield sites that are always ignored when people call for more greenfield land to be released for housing.  She reinforces the argument CPRE made a few years ago in Untapped Potential, a report on micro-sites which revealed, to quote Lord Rogers’s foreword, that ‘there is a wealth of brownfield potential that remains untapped, but also proven steps that can be taken to make it more likely that this potential will be realised’.

Here is Anne Power’s essay.  I have highlighted a few passages. 



There are five current challenges in our built environment: the scale of urban sprawl; the need for more homes within existing built up areas; the character, age and decline of our existing stock of homes; the level of energy waste in our built environment, particularly homes; and, the fact that under occupation of housing has risen steeply in recent times.

There are also big challenges in the changing shape of households and social structures: single person households are increasing fast; the population is ageing and many elderly people live alone; and families form a minority of households and are increasingly squeezed.

We cannot meet one of these challenges without meeting them all. Yet the built environment changes slowly and is expensive to adapt or add to. So we need to understand the starting points, where we are now.

We live in a densely populated, highly urbanised and extremely built up country with over 250 years of industrialisation and intense environmental damage behind us. In Britain we have a large supply, around 26 million, of ageing homes, mainly houses. Only one in six of these homes, just over five million, are flats. Over half our homes were built before the 1960s and six million are Victorian terraced properties. However, we build about 130,000 new homes a year, adding a million new homes every decade, although this is far less than government targets suggest are necessary.

Less than one per cent of our total stock is added each year. In other words, over 99 per cent of all homes at any one time are already built. They are almost all located within 12,000 existing communities. Over 80 per cent are in or on the edge of towns and cities and the vast majority are in large cities.

We are an urban society and becoming more so. Our sprawling conurbations have been restricted by green belts because of the risk in the 20th century of them literally spreading into each other. Although it is true that most of our land is literally green, at least 75 per cent is under the impact of development of some kind: from transport, power lines, agriculture, warehousing and logistics, water supply and the treatment of waste.

Our environmental ‘sinks’, the land we need for our vital ecosystems to survive, are under intense pressure. The risk of flooding outside built up areas, due to the level of existing development, is now so severe that many areas of potential development will not be insurable, according to industry experts. We have no choice but to change track.

Land is finite: we are an island, surrounded by sea, and most of the remaining land is protected, spoken for or in a flood plain. Therefore, it is very hard to relax planning restrictions, and to build more homes, without causing major environmental damage. We now have major infrastructure blockages, such as water supply and treatment, the worst road congestion in Europe and citizen conflict around almost all major developments. It is impossible in a densely built up island to expand the supply of land without the risk of serious flooding, erosion, water and energy shortages, further unmanageable congestion and social fragmentation.

England’s dense population continues to grow, thanks mainly to new immigration and higher birth rates among the younger, more recently arrived settlers. Yet the rate of household growth and, therefore, housing demand, far outstrips population growth. The number of single person and two person households has raced upwards to form 63 per cent of all households. This not only accelerates demand and pushes up house prices, it is also energy intensive and fuels demand for sprawl, building for families who are often pushed out of city homes due to high prices. Shrinking households have also helped to fuel the rapid growth in under occupation.

Over four million households have two or more spare bedrooms; the vast majority of them are owner occupiers and over half of all expensive homes coming onto the market in London go to foreign investors, who often keep them empty, a gross form of under occupation. We have a big problem of unequal access to housing because of wide income inequality and property speculation. This causes housing shortages at the bottom and a large surplus of spare capacity higher up the housing ladder. So what can we do?

We have capacity within existing communities to create all the new homes we need. Small available sites of under two hectares within built up areas are rarely counted; but this means a lot of new homes. Micro-sites of half an acre or less, or one fifth of one hectare, are literally too numerous to count. Yet it is estimated that, even in inner London, where population density is highest and land is scarcest in the country, there are enough micro-sites to supply all the new homes we need for the next 25 years. In towns and villages throughout the country it is even more true. There is a constant flow of small sites and old buildings that potentially can meet all our foreseeable needs.

Buildings produce over half of all CO2 emissions and generate traffic which uses another 25 per cent of energy. Each new home we build uses up as much energy as it takes to run all the heating and electricity in that home for forty years. Yet existing homes offer our biggest potential energy saver, using one tenth of the energy of new build to retrofit and more than halving energy use. By insulating roof spaces, walls, whether cavity or solid walls, windows, doors and floors, we can cut energy use in existing homes by 60-80 per cent. If we add solar water systems, heat exchangers, ground or air source heat pumps, more efficient heating and hot water systems and appliances, we can save up to 80 per cent of our energy in most existing homes. Along the way we can renew existing homes, restore neighbourhoods and make existing areas attractive enough to add homes in the millions of small sites that go unnoticed and uncounted because we undervalue existing areas.

By retrofitting and converting existing homes, upgrading and remodelling other empty buildings, and building cleverly on infill sites, we can produce all the homes we need while protecting the countryside, saving energy, reducing flood risk and helping social integration. Such an approach would allow us to restore existing communities, upgrade our homes and neighbourhoods and stop divisive sprawl. It may be our only way forward as a small, pressured island.

2 Responses to “Anne Power: meeting the housing challenge”

  1. 1 Tim Lund September 23, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    “Over four million households have two or more spare bedrooms; the vast majority of them are owner occupiers and over half of all expensive homes coming onto the market in London go to foreign investors, who often keep them empty, a gross form of under occupation”

    And is dealing with this problem in expensive homes any more realistic politically than in social housing? Compare and contrast “spare bedroom tax” and “Bedroom blocking” –

    I think this point is a distraction. If the rich want to overinvest in property, why not welcome it as a type of Keynesian stimulas which does not cost the public?

  2. 2 Arthur Franks September 23, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    The quicker a government starts with social (council) housing the better. Many people will never be able to buy and if they are paying private landlords the rent is going in all sorts of directions. If the rent was going to the LA any profit could be used for the betterment of existing housing stock or to reduce council tax. I know this is a political hot potato but some one has to grasp it. As an side on the bedroom tax new old peoples housing is being built locally with probably single occupancy but with two bedrooms ‘in case someone needs to stay’ The occupier is having to pay bedroom tax.

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