A major deficit in social housing is now Britain's future
The problem with having the ‘Right to Buy’ social housing is that once it’s been sold you don’t have social housing any more. Last week’s expansion of the Right to Buy scheme extends this right to tenants of housing associations —approximately 2.5 million people. The government has pledged to replace each and every property sold.
I’m an architect: my job is to deliver homes. I’m not so sure about the government’s plans. The scale of social housing replacement that could result from this may be be hundreds or thousands of homes a year, and housing development on this scale is not straightforward.
Assume that when a local authority or housing association has sold off some of its social housing it has found enough land that can be developed, or developers to deliver social housing as part of a larger scheme to replace everything it has sold. This is a big ‘if’.
The next hurdle is the planning process. That’s tricky enough for a loft conversion — but as a development gets more complex so does the planning process. First homes, hopefully of high quality, and a like-for-like spatial replacement of those sold, need to be designed, structure and building services designed in principle, coordinated with building regulations, local planning policy and, possibly, the new ‘Gateway One’ in the Building Safety Bill.
Also necessary are the studies into the site and the impact of the development — this may include environmental, transport, contaminated land, daylight, party walls and more. The local community and neighbours must be consulted and their comments considered so negative impacts of the development can be mitigated. Once this is all complete applications can be submitted to overstretched planning departments. Decisions are meant to come within eight weeks, but this is very unusual.
Assuming again the scheme sails through planning with no objections it must then be drawn for construction — it will be detailed and coordinated with a large team of architects, engineers and specialist consultants to make it beautiful, and safe to build and to live in. This sounds straightforward; it rarely is.
During this process a contractor will begin to be involved and the project is tendered and contracts negotiated and signed. Conveyancing on a house feels like it can take some time, but pales in comparison to the process of contractor and developer negotiating a large building contract. There may be some Planning Conditions which then need to be signed off before construction can start.
Let’s still assume this has all gone smoothly with no halts, no funding problems, nothing unexpected. If the project has got this far within two years it’s moved at lightning speed. So far there isn’t even a hole in the ground.
On site, let’s assume there are no subcontractor issues, no material shortages or price rises, no construction problems and no one makes any changes to the design as it is built (this almost never happens). There is no snow or heavy rain, no accidents on site and on the days a crane is needed there are no high winds. Perhaps it finishes in eighteen months or two years.
Assuming all this miraculous level of good fortune there are still around three or four years in which the local authority has had a deficit of social housing, during which time it may have been selling off more. Technically it has replaced every property sold, but the family at the top of waiting list is watching their children grow up in temporary accommodation while the local authority navigates the development process.
This is a good news story, but an even better one would be the announcement by the housing associations and local authorities of all the developments they already have in the pipeline in anticipation of the coming deficit in homes.