2017 Housing Perspectives #9: ‘We must build communities, not just new homes’
by Ruth Davidson
In the latest of our exclusive articles, compiled as part of the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, Ruth Davidson from the National Housing Federation explains creating communities, and not just building homes, is crucial to tackle poverty.
We need to build many more homes. Not a few more, many. And thankfully it appears we at last have some political and public consensus on that. As long as that consensus holds and is met with real action on the part of Government and all the players in this sector – especially Government, who for far too long, no matter which political party was in power, did far too little – we might get somewhere.
Building homes when we have a massive housing shortage is a precondition to building strong communities: children in hostels may be safe but they have no home, no nest from which to successfully psychologically fledge. Without building homes, we store up greater problems for the future.
Housing associations, who built 40,000 homes last year, have pledged in the sector’s vision, ‘Ambition to Deliver’, to do their part and treble that number by 2033. It’s an ambitious pledge and housing associations will need to quickly demonstrate how they will deliver it.
How those homes are built, where, and the design of the public realm, have an impact on the lives people lead in those buildings; those homes and public spaces. The research on design quality is unequivocal and Professor Roger Ulrich has proved that, in healthcare settings, design quality can aid or degrade not only our sense of wellbeing, but our health and chances of recovery. How much more important then, the stage on which we play out or day to day lives? And it should go without saying that homes should not only be designed well but built well – to withstand wear and tear and shield us from the elements. Homes that are well insulated cost less to run and are a boon to all, particularly those on low or marginal incomes.
The poorest fifth of UK households spent 11%, or £88 monthly, of their disposable income on household energy in 2014, whilst the richest fifth spent more than £50 a month more than that (presumably they don’t feel the cold more) – £144 – yet this amount accounted for just 2% of their disposable income. And homes should be built close to amenities, jobs, and public services as on average, transport costs are the second biggest expense to UK families behind their housing costs, at £75 weekly. Again, the poorer you are, the higher proportionally, the cost.
So, let’s build the homes, design and build them well, and not just throw them up in a field. But if we are in the business of building strong communities then I think we need to think about the people who will live in them too. Buildings alone do not make for strong communities make. People make communities. And here I’m talking about mixed communities.
Strength is about resilience. The dictionary tells us that strength is being “able to withstand, force, pressure or wear; not easily affected by disease or hardship; not easily disturbed; firmly established.” Whilst many people living in poverty are, by necessity, hugely resilient, poor places are bad for the people who live in them. Fact: they have (much) worse public and private services than affluent areas (access to public and private services, PSE study). Educational attainment is lower, people die earlier. And not just a little lower – there is a 27% point difference in GCSE grade A-C attainment between those on free school meals and those not and those in the 10% least deprived areas live a full 19 years more than those in the 10% most deprived areas. Poor places don’t make people more resilient – they push them over.
What we need is to perpetuate communities where people with a range of incomes in a range of housing tenures (and a range of ages and world views) live alongside each other – and many such successful communities exist. Places where there is sufficient economic and social capital to get things done. In short, places where people have the time, talents, cash and know-how to demand improvements to services and to support vital businesses and enterprises – which in turn bring employment opportunities. Visit poor places, especially poor estates on the edges of town and not only are there few, or no, jobs, many are food ‘deserts’ where there is no ready access to fresh foods.
So, I hear you say, that’s all well and good, but there’s no evidence that mixed communities work. By which people mean academic evidence. A review of the research on mixed communities shows only a marginal improvement in perusing this strategy for poorer people against doing nothing. One scholarly article claims that the only provable ‘thing’ is increased interaction amongst different social groups, but only in the form of a neighbourly nod and pleasantries. To assert this is to miss the point. The ‘mixed communities’ research is focused on a programme of the same name launched by the Labour government in 2005. It was established as a long term, public-private approach to regenerating already poor or desperately poor areas. That’s hard work – though not impossible. I’ve seen many examples of areas where interventions have lifted a place, even a little (and sometimes a lot) whilst working with housing associations.
But I’m talking about seeking to replicate the really successful places we know that already exist. Truly do we doubt the evidence of our own experience so much? The empiricism of seeing, experiencing, mixed communities at first hand? Places like the place I live, where 45% of the stock is social or affordable, 34% owner occupied, 20% privately rented and most of the children go to the same local schools – all ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ by the way.
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I am a collector of bon mots of wise one liners. The dictionary of quotations was invented for me. I am not sure where I heard: “The plural of anecdote is not evidence,” but I have deployed it many times since. And, of course it is also true that as a species we place too much confidence in human judgement, in our experience and judgement, searching for patterns and building them into random experience as the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky has shown. Do I dismiss the research as limited because it doesn’t tell the story I want it to? Doesn’t prove the case?
Were I ever to have the cash to commission a longitudinal study to examine the benefits to all of mixed communities, I would. But if we know, actually know, that poor places have worse public and private services – and worse outcomes for the people who use them- what more incentive do we need to break up and further, never build, mono-tenure estates and hard-wire mixed communities into our public policy? And yet, not only are developers still managing to ‘off-site’ their affordable homes contributions – building them in some cases literally miles from their new luxury homes or blocks – they’re managing not to build them at all. The Government’s own statistics show a massive 72% jump in payments to councils by developers in lieu of building affordable homes – from £1.2bn in 2013/14 to £3.2bn in 2014/15. That’s more than the total value of the affordable homes programme that year. And developers are candid in many of the documents lodged with councils that it’s to prevent their overall scheme being de-valued by having affordable homes and their tenants close by.
Patrick Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, recently told the World Architecture Festival in Berlin that it was a “tragedy” that social housing tenants had a right to “precious” city centre properties. In his dystopian eight point plan he suggested not only abolishing all forms of social and affordable housing, but privatising all public space – the final act of enclosure. Of Hyde Park he said: “we need to know what it costs us”. Well here’s another little quote: a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
His is a future I don’t want to contemplate. A future of ghettos. A future where the demos is further fragmented and alienated one from the other. A future we don’t have to seek to create through adopting a dystopian plan, rather one we will sleepwalk into if we don’t act now to prevent it.
Ruth Davidson is director of policy and external affairs at the National Housing Federation.
This article was written for the Webb Memorial Trust and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty as part of the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report and is part of a series of articles we will be running in the coming weeks.