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Self-Build: an innovative solution for ending homelessness in the 21st Century
A lack of affordable, good quality housing in the UK is affecting everyone; thousands of people are being priced out of their homes every year. For more than 78,000 households (a city the size of Wolverhampton)[i], this means living in temporary accommodation, and for many more, on the street. With a record number of homeless people dying on the streets or in temporary accommodation (a figure which has doubled in the past five years)[ii], its critical to look at innovative approaches to help alleviate homelessness. My approach, as detailed below, would be to explore the potential of self-build accommodation, supported by additional social infrastructure and training. A common misconception of homelessness is that chaotic lifestyle choices are a fundamental cause. According to recent research undertaken by Homeless Link [iii], in England some 4,750 people sleep rough on any one night, an increase of 15% since 2016 and 73% in the last three years. This steep rise in homelessness reflects structural changes relating to housing provision and welfare reforms, including but not limited to the end of assured shorthold tenancies (2010), the introduction of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ (2012), the roll out of universal credit (2015), cuts to young people’s housing benefits (2017), a shortage of affordable housing more generally and ever-soaring rents[iv]. Despite this inexcusable rise, responses are slow; as we have seen with the £28m rough sleeping fund still being unspent[v] and recent comments made by the new homeless minister, Heather Wheeler, are causes for concern[vi]. As professionals in the built environment, we can use our influence to create homes, places and cities that are designed to work for everyone. This belief was the main driver behind my post-graduate research project, entitled ‘Forgotten Land, Forgotten People’, which formed part of my MSc Urban Design and City Planning course at The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. In partnership with Trident Group[vii], a Midlands-based organisation which aims to help the most vulnerable by providing good quality affordable homes, services and support, my MSc thesis proposed a new way in which housing associations could better use small un­der-utilised pieces of land within their ownership (for example garages sites[viii]), as self-build sites for groups of ‘self-build ready’ homeless individuals and families. ‘Forgotten Land, Forgotten People’ builds on the international success of Housing First[ix] and ties together the benefits of self-building, the pressures currently faced by housing associations (such as the 1% Rent Reduction, Right to Buy Extension and introduction of the Value for Money Standard) and the need for more affordable, adequate and secure housing to present an innovative solution for tackling homelessness through the built environment. To fully explore the potential of the idea, my research looked at new self-build housing in the form of a physical intervention in a series of garage and garage court sites on a post-war housing estate in Birmingham. The physical scheme was based on specific criteria (set out below) and sought to respond to the many issues faced by homeless people, including the physical and mental health problems they often face. Looking beyond physical place-making, the project aimed to seize some of the opportunities that lie in creating the built environment. The process of self-building also has the potential to help alleviate many of the consequences of homeless­ness; it can equip participants with some of the necessary tools and skills to help integrate them back into society. New technologies and systems such as WikiHouse[x] can help to support this outcome, through lowering the skills’ thresholds needed and the costs involved in building homes. For a project such as this to work, it has to overcome barriers and provide incentives to convince all stakeholders it can work for them. This is vital to ensure they are willing and able to take on the risks of a project potentially causing tenancy sustainment concerns, a need for intensive support and ongoing management requirements. The process of taking a ‘self-build ready’ group and enabling them to build their own homes is not a short-term quick win for housing associations. However, the benefits would be felt widely across the both the development and health sectors - and beyond - through providing new homes and opportunities for homeless people, cleaning up a previously under- or unused and resented site, and delivering a marketable ‘product’. Whilst my project focussed on utilising garage sites for permanent homes, further discussions indicate that this prototype solution could work for many stakeholders even if only on a temporary basis, for example as a meanwhile use for a development site which aligns with the new Draft London Plan (Policy H4, Meanwhile Use)[xi]. Following conversations with other housing associations and local authorities including Clarion Housing Group, Birmingham City Council, the West Midlands Combined Authority and more recently MHCLG, the GLA and the Y:Foundation, I believe my project could be an important part of the solution to end homelessness. I want to continue the conversation, take the concept forward and ultimately, finding a partner or two to help deliver a pilot scheme. Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you are interested. james.andrewcox@lichfields.uk | @JamesCox94   [i] https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/homelessness-monitor-england-2018[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/apr/11/deaths-of-uk-homeless-people-more-than-double-in-five-years[iii] https://www.homeless.org.uk/facts/homelessness-in-numbers/rough-sleeping/rough-sleeping-our-analysis[iv]http://england.shelter.org.uk/campaigns_/why_we_campaign/the_housing_crisis/what_is_the_housing_crisis[v] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/28m-rough-sleeper-fund-still-unspent-qrgvfjsnd[vi] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/18/homelessness-minister-heather-wheeler-rough-sleeping-housing-first[vii] https://tridentgroup.org.uk/[viii] Garage sites provide a huge opportunity for residential development and this has been recognised by the Mayor of London in the new Draft London Plan and the ‘Small Sites, Small Builders’ program launched in February 2018, to bring forward small plots of publicly owned land.[ix] https://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2017/mar/22/finland-solved-homelessness-eu-crisis-housing-first[x] https://wikihouse.cc/[xi] Draft London Plan  

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Over the past two years, a significant proportion of my time in planning consultancy has been spent working on major, mixed-use town centre regeneration proposals.  This has involved projects for retail, commercial leisure, food and beverage uses, and purpose-built student accommodation in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire and in Kirkby, Merseyside.  The two town centres are very different, with Newcastle-under-Lyme being a traditional market town and Kirkby being relatively new, having been purpose-built in the 1960s.  Because of this project work, it has been possible to identify 5 key actions by landowners and developers that could help lead to more positive outcomes for all stakeholders.   Proposed purpose-built student accommodation and retail development in Newcastle-under-Lyme.  Image credit: Stride Treglown  Proposed retail and leisure development in Kirkby.Image credit: Saunders Take full account of site characteristics and contextEnsure that the proposal responds to the features of the site and its context, such as its size, topography, vegetation, natural features, access, conservation / heritage assets, the uses of neighbouring buildings, and existing on-site buildings.  Designing a proposal to fully take account of the existing features of the site and its context will go a long way towards ensuring a positive outcome is achieved.  Include strong links and connectionsMake sure that the proposal includes strong physical and visual links to the wider town centre, even if the application site is in an existing Primary Shopping Area.  Strong links will: encourage linked trips; provide spin-off benefits to the wider town centre / existing businesses; maintain / improve the legibility of the town centre; and provide a pedestrian-friendly environment.  Get to know the key issues for councillorsGet to know likely key issues for councillors, by analysing recent decisions on similar proposals at Planning Committee and those which were taken to appeal.  In Newcastle-under-Lyme town centre, one of the key issues for councillors is that developments should not cause on-street parking problems in nearby residential areas.  This issue is addressed through requiring a financial contribution from applicants, which is to be used to fund parking surveys and for the introduction of Resident Parking Zones in the event that it is found that the development is resulting in more on-street parking pressures.  Design the scheme with the likely operators in mindA scheme needs to be designed to meet the requirements of future occupiers, including the up to date needs of modern retailers, and commercial leisure operators.  Important aspects of targeted design include the configuration of floorspace (i.e. proposing the right size of unit), the inclusion of a mezzanine level, providing maximum accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists alongside adequate surface level car parking, the inclusion of space for anchor tenant(s), the provision of trolley bays, orientation of retail floorspace and satisfying any other specific operator requirements.  If a development does not suit retailers’ requirements, they will not sign up to a proposal.  Designing to suit occupiers’ needs to be apparent during the pre-application process, including if and when a scheme is to be considered by a design review panel.  Ensure the local community is engagedEngage the community at an early stage, take on board comments received where possible and ensure that the final proposal benefits the local community, but know that it is impossible to please everybody and make it clear that compromises will need to be made.  It is important that proposals are designed in response to their context, to ensure that a new development is a ‘good neighbour’.  Job creation is a very important benefit, often stressed by local communities in their comments on proposals.  Conclusion Lichfields led negotiations in arriving at a positive recommendation for both proposed developments referenced in this blog. Planning permission for the Kirkby proposal was granted in November 2017. Also in November 2017, the local planning authority in Newcastle-under-Lyme reached a resolution to grant planning permission for the scheme in that town subject to conditions and the completion of a legal agreement. Drafting of the legal agreement continues. Lichfields’ experience and track record of success means it is very well placed to lead on planning for high-profile town centre regeneration schemes.   

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