Affordable Housing

By Lord Wei of Shoreditch on 2 November 2018
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for tabling this timely debate. I declare an interest as an adviser and director of various real estate related companies, as outlined in my register of interests.

For too long in this country, we have allowed ourselves to be trapped in a siloed way of thinking about creating new communities. The truth is that we need to come together across divides to innovate in every area. We need to recreate the bottom rungs of the ladder to owning not just property, but your own business, vehicle, and, one day, even robots, while recognising that rents are often too high, and that we need to increase supply in every possible way, both traditional and innovative.

I want to cover an area which perhaps gets less attention compared to discussions about the role of larger private and government sector involvement in house building: the potential for meanwhile use of underutilised and dormant, or even landbanked land, whether in the form of indoor warehouses—there are millions of square feet empty in zone 1 in London alone—or in the form of outdoor sites such as car parks, derelict or even moderately contaminated land, or the hundreds of thousands of rooftops that are underutilised or empty, or partially empty, homes.

Earlier in the week, I had the privilege of launching with the mayor of Bristol an attempt to find and showcase imaginative solutions to the need for both public and private affordable housing, through the Bristol Housing Festival. At any one time, in many cities, a significant proportion of land is unused, awaiting redevelopment, or underutilised, for example in car parks, roofs or even church buildings.

Working with Bristol city council, the festival seeks to unlock some of this land for up to five years at a time, or longer, and harness interim measures to enable the world’s most innovative modular-build companies and non-profit organisations to “pop up” in such sites, to provide housing for communities on waiting lists, for entrepreneurs and artists, and others living in transition. It represents a huge opportunity to learn, fail fast and figure out what could work in our future cities.

The festival will provide a way for companies such as ZEDpods, whose innovative prefab solution sits on top of existing car parks, using solar panels in the roofs above them to help charge electric cars below, to scale up and get the support from the likes of Homes England and other experts to overcome technical and regulatory challenges. It will also enable smart city innovation to progress, harnessing technologies such as blockchain and the internet of things to accelerate planning and consultation, and create meanwhile and longer term infrastructure.​

Working with and serving the needs of local communities, the festival seeks to create a less combative approach to local planning, enabling communities to “try before they decide” to turn a new village into a permanent feature, as happened with Boxpark in Shoreditch, in London. It asks questions such as how we might harness industrial buildings and land and create safe, creative spaces for young and older people to live and create in while securing property; how we can work with, rather than against, the major housebuilders who landbank, encouraging them to free up space for pop-up living while they work out what to do long term with their sites; and how new models of financing housing can be developed to enable people to co-own, fractionally own and crowdfund their housing journey more sustainably.

I believe that the work in Bristol is just the beginning. The dream is to see housing festivals established in every city and region in the UK, and globally; to unlock car parks in hospitals, schools, and government buildings; to enable nurses, teachers and others to access key-worker housing affordably, and to mix that housing with that of families, young entrepreneurs and creatives to avoid the ghettos of the past. In the UK alone, raised interim housing solutions on top of car parks could create accommodation for at least 200,000 people.

The key is to help engineer down the cost of different models and to find new and old ways of financing such pop-up villages, working with employers and social housing providers open to where they will be located over a minimum seven-year period. To achieve this will require all kinds of partners—in Bristol, throughout the UK and around the world—to replicate concepts such as the festival. There will be many legal, financial, marketing, engineering and cultural challenges to overcome.

I believe that there is room for hope about the future of our country, if we are prepared to be creative. It is time that we thought outside of the box. Will my noble friend the Minister and his colleagues be open to looking at this strategy as part of the mix in addressing the housing crisis?