Stephen Hill, C20 Futureplanners: BIG, BOLD AND BEAUTIFUL… with soul!

Stephen Hill, C20 Futureplanners: BIG, BOLD AND BEAUTIFUL… with soul!

Or ‘It’s the Land Economy, Stupid’ Part 3.

This is a guest post by Stephen Hill, Director of C2O futureplanners. Stephen is a Churchill Fellow, and public interest planning and development surveyor. Since 2009, he has represented the RICS on DCLG’s Housing Construction Taskforce, Government/Industry Working Group on Self-Build, and Housing Sounding Board till it was disbanded in 2016, and is still RICS’ observer on the board of the Housing Forum. The views expressed are his own. A longer version of this blog has appeared on

Time for a civic housing revolution
In the age of fake news and hysterical tweets, let us welcome Shelter’s quietly spoken but undeniably revolutionary Manifesto for New Civic Housebuilding, published earlier this month.

The Manifesto calls for homes that are well built, environmentally efficient, and genuinely and permanently affordable, in places with a distinct community identity that are neighbourly, well connected, and properly stewarded over the long term. That doesn’t sound too much to ask…isn’t that the purpose of planning?

But, as the Manifesto asserts, it doesn’t often turn out like that. The main reason is the price of land, and the fact that much housing land in the UK has been financialised as a globally traded speculative commodity, divorced from the normal dynamics of local housing markets. At the heart of this transformation are UK firms of surveyors whose business model is “to get planning for our clients; promise as little as possible at planning, and sell for as much possible” (with their fee based on a % of sale price); normal business practice, perfectly legal, but not in the public interest, and a clear conflict of interest with the profession’s Royal Charter promise to ‘secure the optimal use of land…to meet social and economic need.’

That’s not just the verdict of the policy ‘experts’. Working with a Neighbourhood Plan Forum, just a few days ago, I heard exactly the Manifesto’s wish list of wants for the new developments now overwhelming their parish. Located on the outskirts of London, development pressures are now acute in an historically affordable and typically everyday place. The pressure is coming from Londoners looking to buy a more affordable home, but more often from Buy-to-Let ‘investors’. New family homes are being bought for letting into multiple house shares, changing the character of that community as you read this. “These new places have no soul!” That’s the verdict of the citizen ‘experts’.

Even here, new development appears to be so unviable that placemaking quality and affordability fall off the bottom of the wish list. The deficit of four decades of under-investment in infrastructure, (since 1976 and the IMF crisis), takes priority over the affordability of the very homes the infrastructure is intended to serve; whilst national planning policy now obligates the planning system to levy a ‘land value tax’ on the rest of us in the sum of public goods and infrastructure not provided, just so that it can enrich landowners for luckily being in the right place at the right time: land value capture for the already wealthy. “How did you get yourselves into this situation?” a Danish property investor recently asked me.

Little wonder that in this part of the country, the political narrative of ‘Taking Back Control’ now resonates more strongly even than last June. It’s plain to see that Brexit itself was only a small part of the control that citizens wanted back. Passionate concerns about identity and attachment to place and people feature strongly in discussions about the Plan: a rare opportunity to have a role in shaping the place in which they live, and more immediately achievable and rewarding perhaps than any post-Brexit Jerusalem.

Citizen Inspired Housing: one way of prefiguring the revolution
A Neighbourhood Plan only takes you so far. Making the plan happen is the next challenge, and in the absence of the market or housing policy meeting their needs, citizens are increasingly finding ways of doing their own housing developments:

  • The Confederation of Cooperative Housing and the Welsh Cooperative Centre have worked with the national government and housing associations in Wales to realise a pilot programme of 500 cooperative homes. A flagship project at Loftus Garden Village, in Newport, embodies all the fine ambitions of the New Civic Housebuilding Manifesto.
  • Self Help Housing’s leadership of the Empty Homes Community Grants Programme 2012-14 achieved impressive and quickly achieved impacts in bringing back over 2000 empty homes into use over two years.
  • Cohousing is the main innovator in new forms of housing for our ageing population. The Older Women’s Cohousing project, in Barnet, completed at Christmas, gets coverage in both the Daily Mail and Financial Times, with hundreds of thousands of website hits, every time there is new publicity.
  • CLTs have transformed the production of affordable homes in rural areas, sometimes significantly increasing the rate of previous supply, and now working with urban councils, to challenge the way land markets work in their areas.

Big, Bold and Beautiful
These are not small changes, though some organisations celebrate the idea that ‘small is beautiful’, without realising how that plays to the comforting assumptions held by policy makers and mainstream housing providers that community housing is a minority interest. Citizens invest their time and sometimes money, not to be an interesting but marginal addition to mainstream housing development. They want to change the mainstream.

The proper ambition of New Civic Housebuilding, and all the community housing traditions that could underpin its effectiveness, should be to help redress the imbalance of power in local governance and local housing markets. What is the point of housing policy being made just to suit the self-interests of the supply side? Nearly everything the government has done since the financial crash has been spectacularly successful in achieving the opposite of its stated objectives: by inflating house prices and keeping supply almost static.

Citizens would just like the political process and the market to respond to their everyday needs and demands. Not much to ask, surely?

Let’s hear it for New Civic Housebuilding…big, bold, beautiful and “with soul”!


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