Charles Fifield is a Chartered Surveyor and a former councillor in Cheshire West & Chester. He is the Policy & Engagement Officer for the Almshouse Association.
In July, the Government renewed its pledge to increase house-building and Michael Gove made specific reference to “communities taking back control” and “building beautiful everywhere” with the establishment of the Office for Place.
As a Chartered Surveyor with 12 years experience as a councillor in Cheshire West & Chester, including service on the Planning Committee, I know most people agree that we need to build houses however they disagree on where and what should be built.
This is often characterised as “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) in the media but the reality is somewhat more complicated. Usually, this is a mixture of the traditional NIBMY viewpoint from some but from most there is often the acceptance of the need for development but opposition to a proposal due to a desire to see something better, smaller and more appropriate to the local area. I have adopted the phrase “Something Logical In My Back Yard” or SLIMBY as an acronym.
That “SLIMBY” spirit is at the heart of community housing, if we don’t build new houses somewhere, many of our communities will have wide gaps in demographics, as only older, wealthier people can afford to buy or rent there and younger families will be priced out of the market and go elsewhere.
The wider impact of this means closures of schools, shops, pubs, places of worship and other community facilities, further impacting on communities. Too often we protect the built environment at the expense of the local community demographic.
Politically this matters. The single biggest purchase most people make in their lives is a house. For far too many young people who are looking to get on the housing ladder, the lack of truly affordable housing can seem a failure of not just the market but even of capitalism itself.
As such we must continue to do more and work on the progress we have already made, with 2.2 million new homes since 2010 and meeting our 2019 commitment to build a million over the course of this Parliament.
The existing policy of Neighbourhood Plans is a good one, it means a local community has to grasp the nettle in relation to the tricky decision of “shaping not stopping” development and be proactive on the issue. The use of the Community Infrastructure Levy in place of Section 106 funding could also help ensure developments fit in better with existing communities.
With an increasingly ageing population, communities might wish to pro-actively look at encouraging more bungalows and smaller housing units, so older people have the opportunity of downsizing within their own community and free up larger homes for younger families.
Housing associations are in a position to do this and for smaller residential schemes so too are some types of Almshouses which as charities have specific charitable aims often allowing them to be more focused on a specific demographic or community than housing associations.
I would also recommend the adoption of Building for Life (BFL) Standards for all schemes where possible. BFL encourages developers to try and integrate new developments more carefully into existing settlements, so they appear more organic growth than imposed.
Whilst large brownfield and greenfield sites will be required to meet the housing supply deficit, one area of potential housing development which should be considered is conversion of redundant commercial property, which councils and communities should be proactive about.
With an increasing elderly demographic and a reduced public sector, there is likely to be a growing supply of unsuitable office accommodation e.g. offices on upper floors in buildings with no lifts, in town centres which if converted to flats would appeal to younger people.
There has also been a fundamental shift in retailing due to the growth of internet sales, which even post-pandemic now represent 25 per cent of retail sales.
This means retailing areas in most towns and cities have shrunk permanently, is it not better to accept reality and allow the periphery retailing areas to convert, indeed upper floors in the main retailing areas may be suitable for conversion.
Making it simpler in planning legislation to change use from commercial to residential is sensible. I often recommend consideration of the option of commercial to residential conversion to clients as a more logical long term viable solution.
All communities need to become SLIMBYs and pro-actively look at the housing needs in their areas, adopt a neighbourhood plan, insist on BFL as being part of the conditions they would look on new development in their area and pro-actively encourage conversion of redundant commercial buildings.
A good local concept of community housing, what the local community actually wants is the key to encouraging more house building.