BRE gathers policy-shapers and senior building experts in Manchester to debate “How can Britain’s Built Environment Tackle Social Exclusion?”

Added: Over a year ago by BRE Group

Niall Trafford, CEO of BRE and colleagues, Gwyn Roberts, Homes and Communities Lead, and Simon Nicol, Director, Housing, welcomed more than a dozen senior policy-shapers, key building experts, academics, and commentators to the third in its roundtable discussion event series at the Co-op’s new HQ at 1 Angel Square in Manchester last month. The theme for the debate was: “How can Britain’s built environment tackle social exclusion?”

Opening the debate, 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.

“However, there is no relationship between rents paid by public subsidy and the quality of the product on offer. This dynamic, and the perverse incentives on offer for landlords to cram vulnerable people into poor quality accommodation, has led Blackpool to become the single most deprived place in the UK under any single measure of deprivation.

“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.

“However, the cost of intervention is prohibitive. We can buy property using our cheap borrowing powers over 30 years which means for every £200,000 borrowed at 2% we can create three quality apartments out of a failing house in multiple occupation.

“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 £39 billion for investment in an improved East/West rail network and a £250 million 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.

“Devolution is the key to unlocking the full potential of the Northern Powerhouse and we’re strongly supportive of elected mayors,” he said. “Locally elected officials are far better placed to deliver what we need when it comes to housing, transport, education and many more critical areas. The power, authority and responsibility to ensure the correct housing and rental mix is provided for everyone can’t reside in central Government.”

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,” she said. “The homeless need not just housing, but community spaces where they can help themselves.”

Amina Lone, Co-Director at The Social Action and Research Foundation (SARF), noted that ‘in-work’ poverty is getting worse. “People are working but they cannot afford to pay the rent. There is much talk about affordability, but affordable for whom? I sat as a councillor on Manchester City council and we had endless debates, but you cannot say ‘social housing’ in certain parts of that organisation. They don’t want it. And at the end of the day [property] developers want profit.”

David Rudlin, a 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, a 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.

“Progress is possible and is now evident, albeit in the margins. We and a few others follow self-imposed regulations and policies with the aim of delivering the best possible developments. For example, BRE’s Home Quality Mark and the Building For Life benchmarks are being ingrained within igloo’s Footprint® approach to development to help ensure that objectives relating to sustainability and quality are being achieved and robustly monitored.”

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.

“There is some forward thinking within government, especially around the NHS. Its 10-year plan demonstrates a realisation that it should have a say in the housing that is being built. BRE has long made the connection between the cost of healthcare and poor housing. We now need to think about this positively with new homes so that they will not be the “poor housing” of the future.

Niall Trafford concluded the roundtable by emphasising that BRE is focussed on quality and impact in housing, and the wellbeing outcomes that should lead to better homes for everyone. “Our aim with these roundtables is to go out around the country and listen to those we don’t normally interact with, and to demonstrate BRE’s leadership: providing the knowledge and data necessary to support the quality housebuilding that’s necessary to foster the communities people want to live in; playing a key role in ensuring those who build and work in the wider construction industry are properly trained so that they can deliver quality homes.”