Housing is the ‘crucial backdrop’ to poverty in the United Kingdom according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston. The withdrawal of domestic UK renewable energy incentives has seen a fall in clean, home energy upgrades that can help tackle fuel-poverty, and a loss of jobs in the sector. Together they’re a problem compounded and an opportunity missed.

Home energy use – largely for heating water and rooms – accounts for around 18% of the UK’s carbon emissions, and the built environment overall for roughly 40% of the total. About eight out of ten of the homes that people will be living in by the middle of this century have already been built. That means a huge programme of housing retrofit will be needed to improve radically their energy efficiency, together with re-imagining the way we design, build and use new homes to be ‘zero carbon’. Such a retrofit programme was the basis of the original Green New Deal, to help deliver a rapid, low carbon transition whilst bringing major employment and broader economic benefits. There are 26 million such homes that need retrofitting by 2050 according to a 2018 report by the Institution of Engineering and Technology and Nottingham Trent University. Adapting to the changing climate will impact on the design, construction, location, cost and operation of all new homes and other buildings in the next few decades.

Given the UK’s current housing market crisis – to which the government appears to have no visible solution – adapting our housing to climate change appears to be an insurmountable problem. But there was a time, only a few decades ago, when a battered and heavily indebted post-war Britain managed a response to an earlier housing crisis with an astonishing boldness, at scale and speed, and under administrations of both the political left and right.

Credit: 1950s Barton Hill redevelopment, by Paul Townsend (CC BY-ND 2.0)

In the early 1950s, the number of homes built annually by local authorities hit 250,000 – a rate we are unable to reach today, despite huge improvements in machinery and building technologies. What is perhaps more surprising is that this was done under a conservative government.

Even in the following decade, under the Harold Wilson Labour government, which took office in 1964, the UK government achieved a total housing target of 400,000 completions a year. The push continued under Labour between 1967-68, when social housing programmes saw around 200,000 homes built, with the private sector building a similar number. Mistakes were made of course, with fast building under pressure leading to an over reliance on high rise developments that proved unsuccessful in the long term. But the political will was strong and huge numbers of homes for people were provided in a remarkably short time.

But, public building programmes came to a grinding halt in the late 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher made selling council houses central to her social policy. The Housing Act of 1980 was popular with many, giving tenants the right to buy their homes for the first time, but the social housing stock plummeted and has remained low ever since. Today, we are falling far short of building the homes needed for new households. The reasons for this are complex and may provide other environmental benefits such as  environmental protection or conservation of green belts. However, the political will to build with government funds remains low.

In 2014-15, just 1,350 homes were completed by local authorities in England and even the private sector built less than half of the total it built during the mid-1960s. Recent efforts to open up land by relaxing development and enabling farmers to convert unused barns rarely results in social or affordable housing, as people aim to maximise their profits. In the postwar period, large infrastructure projects were successfully driven by governments of all persuasions in order to make change rapidly and at scale. If we are to house all those who need it today – and especially if we are to bring housing stock up to new high eco standards to reduce energy consumption – a similar commitment is needed. This is vital if we are to decarbonise the economy, because the residential sector currently makes up 17% of carbon emissions.

Wider relevance

This example is important, because it shows what is possible within a short period of time, given the political will and aligned planning policies. Housing completions are currently running at around 150,000-180,000 a year, mostly for sale or private rent. Weak regulation of the rental sector compared to housing markets in continental Europe and some American cities exacerbates a lack of access to quality housing. But, this figure falls far short of what is needed according to most authorities to keep up with demand from the formation of new households. In 2014 Dr Alan Holmans, a housing expert at the University of Cambridge, produced new estimates of the housing gap. His analysis suggests we need to build about 170,000 additional private sector houses and 75,000 social sector houses each year—in total, an extra 240,000-250,000 houses each year, excluding any reductions in the existing housing stock. Research commissioned by the National Housing Federation (NHF) and Crisis from Heriot-Watt University, identified a need for 340,000 homes each year to 2031 to make up the backlog, of which 145,000 “must be affordable homes”. This entails a big shift, as affordable homes currently make up only 23% of total house built each year. The new research also goes further than previous studies, breaking down exactly what type of affordable homes are needed:

  • 90,000 should be for social rent
  • 30,000 should be for intermediate affordable rent
  • 25,000 should be for shared ownership

Definitions of what constitutes ‘affordable’ have been criticised too, and the emergence of the London Renters Union are signs of pressure for change. Even so, today’s building rate is also about half the figure that the UK managed in the 1970s – though, on the plus side, there are also a great deal fewer demolitions. On the negative side, very few houses are now built by local authorities and very few are social or affordable housing. This is increasingly important as housing costs eat up a growing slice of the incomes of poorer families – as much as half their earnings in London and the South East. While demand remains so high, it seems unlikely that building more homes will actually reduce house price inflation without action against speculation and exploitative ‘rent seeking’ behaviour.

But the fact that the UK was once – as a nation – able to shift resources to building homes on the scale that is needed is evidence that the country could act on retrofitting and zero carbon new building with the same level of ambition. A new consensus is emerging across the political spectrum that an ambitious social housing building programme is one of the most efficient ways to solve our housing crisis. It also gives us an opportunity to ensure that any new housing is built to high environmental standards. Other efforts such as reducing the number of second homes, stopping property speculation, preventing developers from sitting on land banks, and careful development of brownfield sites of low urban wildlife value can all contribute.

Context and background

The nation emerged from the Second World War nearly bankrupt and short of about 750,000 homes, destroyed by bombing. The 1946 Housing Act  enabled subsidies to be poured into providing houses at top speed, while the immediate pressure was relieved by ‘prefabs – industrial housing units intended to be temporary. Governments of both parties were aware that, to survive politically, they must find ways of speeding up the building of homes, and especially those for local authority rent. By 1950, more than a quarter of the population were housed by the local council. The result was a kind of inflationary spiral of political housing targets, starting with the Conservative governments in the 1950s which promised 300,000 houses a year, and rising up to half a million – a promise made by the Wilson government in the 1960s (although ‘only’ 400,000 a year were built in practice).

The man most responsible for ratcheting up the numbers was arguably the Conservative housing minister and future prime minister, Harold Macmillan. He provided grants for high-rise tower blocks in order to accelerate building. As Prime Minister, he also defended the quality of new homes with the 1961 Parker-Morris standards. All the same, the quality of building was seriously problematic, leading to the collapse of the tower block Ronan Point in 1968 following a gas explosion and the start of the fall in popularity of the high rise as an answer to social housing needs. There is a good lesson here – building rapidly must not be at the expense of safety or environmental standards: a point poignantly underscored by the Grenfell disaster in London in 2017 where highly flammable cladding on a high rise building caught alight leading to the deaths of 72 people.

Enabling factors

A rapid transition happened in UK housing post war because the need for homes reached the top of the domestic political agenda. The devastation and depression of the war years brought forth a feeling of idealistic rebirth in the 1950s  – new designs for living, a flowering of modernist design – that assumed slum clearance and urban improvement was desirable and achievable. The “New Towns” agenda (The New Towns Act of 1946 laid out plans for suburban towns with plenty of green space to relieve the inner city squalor and devastation) followed on from a temporary victory by the garden cities. In its turn, this gave way to the emerging high-rise lobby – simply because high density buildings were a faster way to make up the numbers. There was allegedly a tacit alliance between suburban more conservative areas and inner city more socialist cities to keep low income households in their existing neighbourhoods. This laid the foundations of other problems as the poorly designed and cheaply fabricated tower blocks quickly became run down, low status places to live, creating ghetto-like areas with little shared community.

The failure of this policy, which reverberates today with the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, set back high density house building in the UK for decades. Many of the most notorious concrete ‘bastilles’ for the poor were demolished during the 1990s – often before the loans had been paid off. It was a story of hitting the target but missing the point. The challenge today is how to approach solutions to the housing crisis with the same sense of ambition and determination to act, but with more respect for an architecture that is good quality, humane, prevents damaging and socially divisive speculation and landlordism, while minimising environmental impact and being zero carbon and that allows communities and local economies to flourish. Eco housebuilding exemplars such as Bed-Zed in London and Passiv Haus have not been scaled up to date and their methods are not used in mainstream UK housebuilding. According to the Committee on Climate Change,  just 1% of new homes completed in 2018 were built to the highest Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) Band A. The way new homes are built and existing homes retrofitted often falls short of stated design standards. This deceives householders and inflicts new costs in the future. Closing the ‘performance gap’ could save households in new homes between £70 and £260 in energy bills each year. The good news is that gas boilers and hobs will no longer be installed in new houses from 2025, which will force the use of heat pump technology. However, this will take a long time to have any effect on overall housing stock of 25 million homes.

According to the 2018 report by the Institution of Engineering and Technology and Nottingham Trent University, retrofitting housing in one go – rather than in incremental stages, which is the government’s current plan – has been proven to be successful in reducing carbon emissions quickly. The pioneering Dutch “Energiesprong” model – Dutch for “energy leap” – involves a major, whole-house retrofit to achieve a near net-zero energy home, typically including the fitting of an external “wall envelope” for insulation, as well as rooftop solar panels. This technology is now being trialed in Nottingham in the UK. According to the report, Energiesprong estimates around 9m UK homes – a third of the total – would be suitable for its deep retrofit with today’s technology. (Older housing stock, such as Victorian-era homes, would come at a later stage and have internal rather than external cladding added to them).

The fact remains that the delivery of more than 200,000 homes per year in England has, since 1939, only happened largely because of major public sector (local authority) house-building programmes. The Shelter and KPMG report Building the homes we need: a programme for the 2015 government (2015) states that, since World War II, private house-building has been through three major periods of expansion followed by contractions. After each crash the recovery has been slower, with the result that: “…for more than half the period, private house building has either been contracting or stagnant, and total output has ratcheted steadily down with each cycle”.

Scope and evidence

  • The United Kingdom needs to retrofit 26 million homes in the next three decades at a rate of around 1.5 every minute according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology and Nottingham Trent University.
  • The pioneering Dutch “Energiesprong” model – Dutch for “energy leap” – involves a major, whole-house retrofit to achieve a near net-zero energy home, typically including the fitting of an external “wall envelope” for insulation, as well as rooftop solar panels. This technology is now being trialed in Nottingham in the UK. Energiesprong estimates around 9m UK homes – a third of the total – would be suitable for its deep retrofit with today’s technology.
  • According to the Committee on Climate Change,  just 1% of new homes completed in 2018 were built to the highest Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) Band A.
  • The way new homes are built and existing homes retrofitted often falls short of stated design standards. This deceives householders and inflicts new costs in the future. Closing the ‘performance gap’ could save households in new homes between £70 and £260 in energy bills each year.
  • The man most responsible for ratcheting up the numbers for postwar housebuilidng was arguably the conservative housing minister and future prime minister, Harold Macmillan. He provided grants for high-rise tower blocks in order to accelerate building. As Prime Minister, he also defended the quality of new homes with the 1961 Parker-Morris standards. All the same, the quality of building was seriously problematic, leading to the collapse of the tower block Ronan Point in 1968 following a gas explosion.
  • Under the Harold Wilson government, which took office in 1964, the UK government achieved a total housing target of 400,000 completions a year.
    The delivery of more than 200,000 homes per year in England has, since 1939, only happened largely because of major public sector (local authority) house-building programmes.
  • The Shelter and KPMG report “Building the homes we need: a programme for the 2015 government” (2015) states that, since World War II, private house-building has been through three major periods of expansion followed by contractions and after each crash the recovery has been slower, with the result that: “…for more than half the period, private house building has either been contracting or stagnant, and total output has ratcheted steadily down with each cycle.
  • Social housing, and its definition, varies across Europe where housing markets vary greatly, with the rental sector far more controlled in most countries compared to the UK.  The Netherlands is on the top of the list with 30% of the overall stock being social, followed by Austria (24%) and Denmark (20%). The share of social housing in the UK is 17% (down from around 30% in 1979). Germany has just 3.4% social housing, where controlled rents in the private market are common.
  • By 1950, more than a quarter of the population in the UK were housed in the public sphere by local authority built and operated homes.
  • Public sector-led building programmes came to a grinding halt in the late 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher made selling-off social housing central to her social policy.
  • In 2014 Dr Alan Holmans, a housing expert at the University of Cambridge, produced new estimates of the housing gap. His analysis suggests we need to build about 170,000 additional private sector houses and 75,000 social sector houses each year—in total, an extra 240,000-250,000 houses each year, excluding any reductions in the existing housing stock.
  • Research commissioned by the National Housing Federation (NHF) and Crisis from Heriot-Watt University, identified a need for 340,000 homes each year to 2031 to make up the backlog, of which 145,000 “must be affordable homes”. This entails a big shift, as affordable homes currently make up only 23% of total house built each year.

Lessons for a rapid transition

  1. Tackling climate change means a revolution in approaches too: a huge, urgent and rapid programmed of retrofitting existing homes is needed, which could create jobs, improve quality of life and lower fuel bills for tens of millions of people. How we provide for the future also means rethinking housing policy and building zero carbon homes. But, history holds important lessons about what bold visions can achieve.
  2. Big infrastructure challenges can be addressed very quickly with ambitious policy and funding commitments – and can bring multiple additional social and economic benefits – but care is needed to avoid past mistakes by listening to communities and ensuring good design.
  3. The current housing crisis in the UK offers an opportunity to build affordable, low carbon housing integrated with low carbon infrastructures to help the UK achieve its climate targets.

References