Planning matters

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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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Gentrification – is a change in mind-set needed?
Gentrification is a divisive term that can make communities either shudder or jump for joy. The phrase was coined by Ruth Glass in 1964 while studying the movement of people in Islington, London. She described how many urban areas of London had changed, as ordinary run-down mews and terraced housing were turned into housing for the rich. A key part of her findings was noting that “once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed”. It was these final points that were repeated in later definitions and became key indicators that successfully generalised the broad process of gentrification – original resident displacement and loss of an area’s culture. A modern definition (2009) from the Dictionary of Human Geography does not include these indicators, simply describing gentrification as “middle class settlement in renovated or redeveloped properties in older, inner-city districts formally occupied by a lower-income population” (pg 273-274). Fast forward to 2018 and gentrification is seen by many, especially in the public domain, as a wholly negative process. This is due to its association with the undesirable consequences (mentioned above) of displacing residents originally associated with the area that is gentrifying and in doing so destroying the community culture built by those residents. While there is much evidence to suggest that these negative effects do occur (a recent example of this that attracted large quantities of media attention was the displacement of residents from the Heygate Estate, Elephant and Castle, during its regeneration), I do not believe it represents the whole story. Planning is all about balancing competing interests, and therefore while there are negative aspects of gentrification, it also can be, has been, and is a force for good – it’s about ensuring the positive aspects are understood by the community and decision-makers. Urban regeneration on the other hand is the attempt to address industrial and manufacturing decline by both improving the physical structure, and, more importantly and elusively, the economy of those areas. When comparing gentrification to the process of regeneration one realises how closely related they are. Broadly speaking, gentrification differs due to its association with the displacement of people, but they both attempt to make areas better, whether that is physically, socially, educationally…the list could go on! Gentrification is like regeneration’s forgotten older brother, the word has been tainted and instead, regeneration has been the buzz word of politicians and professionals in the property and construction industries in more recent years. Because of this shift, it might be assumed that gentrification is a type of regeneration when in fact I would argue that it’s the other way around. The negative connotations associated with gentrification stem from the widely accepted viewpoint that it is a niche process. Too many times gentrification is labelled as having occurred only when ‘creatives’ move to affordable but unattractive areas, slowly attracting ‘hipsters’ who in turn open new amenities in the area which in themselves attract wider attention, until eventually the area is in a state of increasing property prices, which then attracts developers. The middle classes come to buy and rent, compounding the now unaffordable property and rental prices, leading to the original community (including the creatives) being forced to move out and a potential loss of culture occurring. While this is somewhat a caricature of the process, many believe this to be what gentrification is, when in fact it is simply only one facet. I would debate that there are at least three main types of gentrification: Singular residential displacement – this process is the most similar to what is described above. It is often seen to be the most natural type of process. However, at the start of the process, residential displacement could be minimal because incoming migrants to the area may be occupying buildings and property that previously lay vacant and therefore no displacement occurs. State-led gentrification – Occurs with help from Government in kick-starting gentrification in a chosen area, building or entity and it is often promoted under the banner of regeneration. Types of initiatives within this group consist of the regeneration of universities, government buildings, hospitals, infrastructure and/or housing estates. These schemes almost always consist of partnerships or joint ventures between public bodies and private entities. Industrial regeneration – the replacement of industry and jobs with redevelopment – usually for residential use and development. While it is clear that regeneration and gentrification are similar, I believe that a change in mind-set is needed, in order for the latter to be seen more kindly and for the positives it produces to become more widely realised and discussed. It is inevitable that gentrification will always look to start afresh, moving from one area to the next, which is why it is not a process that we should be resisting. Like regeneration, it should be encouraged (with better solutions found for its negative consequences) as simply being just one process in the ever-evolving city. To finish, and as noted by the Mayor in his foreword to the Draft London Plan 2017, over many decades, London has evolved to create the built environment we see today. Love it or hate it, gentrification has had a profound impact on how and where we live, work, study and socialise with one another; and I for one hope it continues.   Image credit: Christopher Hilton / Geograph Project

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