This post is by Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central. It is one of a collection of essays to be published later this week by Green Alliance, titled Green social democracy: better homes in better places. Similar collections are also being published under ‘Green liberalism’ and ‘Green conservatism’ projects, as part of our Green Roots programme, aiming to stimulate green thinking within the three dominant political traditions in the UK. A version of this piece has also been published on Labour List.
In 2006 the Labour Government introduced a ground-breaking policy for all new homes to be zero carbon from 2016. Zero carbon homes attracted wide support from businesses and charities, unleashing a wave of innovation across the construction sector and beyond. Community self build has an even greater potential, because as well as generating innovation it could also increase the supply of housing and deliver homes that are tailored to local and personal needs, and also high quality and green.
Britain is facing the biggest housing crisis in a generation. House building is down. Homelessness and rough sleeping are up. Week after week, housing is consistently the number one issue that constituents raise with me. Recent changes to benefits, like the bedroom tax, have caused further distress. Every time I am out on the doorstep, I meet someone who is having to pay the bedroom tax, although there are no smaller properties available for them. That is why I have been running a campaign for more access to affordable housing in Newcastle.
Good quality, affordable, sustainable homes are needed
There are 4,000 people on the waiting list for housing in Newcastle. Yet less than 400 new homes were built last year by the council, housing associations and private developers. The lack of affordable housing is why Labour has committed to invest in house building to tackle the crisis and kick start the economy. Across the country, Labour councils continue to build five times as many social homes as Conservative councils. The last Labour government did invest in building new social housing and in improving existing public housing, but the pace of change has been too great. We need more affordable, good quality, sustainable homes.
We are now in a situation where we have a rapidly growing private rented sector, meaning people lack security and are having to pay record high rents all while suffering poor quality accommodation. Ed Miliband recently summed up what the response to this challenge must: “today the welfare state, through housing benefit, bears the cost for our failure to build enough homes. We have to start investing in homes again, not paying for failure.” However, we do not just have to follow traditional models for doing this.
Self build and social enterprise projects are rooted in community
As the shadow cabinet office minister responsible for social enterprise, I see many parallels in the way both self build community projects and social enterprises are rooted in their communities, delivering bespoke services. Both are alternatives to the old ways of doing things in business and house building. This is vital when those old ways are not working for everyone. Too many home building projects are done against communities and are done to suit the developer, not the people who will call it home.
Custom built housing has the potential to change the way we build in the UK. Less than one in ten new homes built in the UK this year will be self built, and most of those are being built by architects, builders, or more affluent and older people, the stereotypical Grand Designs participant.
In Europe the picture is different. 38 per cent of new homes in France are custom built, and the figure is more than half in Hungary. Encouraging more custom built projects, especially those by groups of residents, is an opportunity to promote more local choice, spur innovation and build sustainable communities.
Making it easier
It’s not for everybody, but it has the potential to boost house building numbers. If ministers and local authorities can make it easier for communities to design their own housing projects, then they should. That’s why Newcastle City Council is taking steps to promote a city wide awareness of self build in its many forms as well as running workshops and bringing down barriers to self builders, including making 40 plots of land available in Gosforth.
A few months ago I went to a self build workshop organised by the council. The challenges of self build and co-operative house building were not ignored. There are issues with funding, organisation and skills, but opportunities were also emphasised. It encouraged local people to think about self build as a housing option and to think differently about where they live. Council officials, architects and self build experts spoke about how ordinary people could group together in self build schemes.
Ouseburn Trust spoke of their aim to work with local residents to use the site of a former canvas factory in the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle for six self finish ‘live-work’ units. The hard, but ultimately successful, path to 22 self-build houses in Bruntons Manor, Middlesbrough, was described in some detail by the architects Constructive Individuals.
Housing development must meet the needs of the community and be of good quality. Self build projects meet the first criteria by definition and the second by design. Community self built homes tend to be built to very high standards, and meet custom needs. So why are we not doing more to support communities who want to go it alone?