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Estates Gazette ESG Summit 2023: Empty Spaces to Homes

Davitt Jones Bould and M&G joined Habitat for Humanity on stage to present the Empty Spaces to Homes project to representatives from Central Government, Local Government and the private real estate sector.

Earlier in the year, Habitat for Humanity, the UK arm of the group associated with former US president Jimmy Carter, launched an app for people to identify empty office and retail spaces that could be turned into homes. It also launched a new tool kit, allowing other groups to replicate its conversions.

Davitt Jones Bould has supported Habitat for Humanity on this project since its inception in 2020.

Christopher Kerr, Head of ESG at Davitt Jones Bould, was asked a series of questions on the project, in particular about how it can be reconciled with the permitted development regime which has had mixed outcomes.

He said: "We have to remember that, when solving the housing crisis, building a house is only the first challenge.  That house is of little use if a person cannot afford to keep or run it or buy the provisions that they need to sustain their life there.  And primarily in the UK, the income to achieve that comes from employment, which in turn requires a strong local economy.  And as much as they are struggling, the data from organisations like Centre for Cities, show that our town and city centres are still key drivers in both of these things, not to mention they also provide residents with the vital infrastructure they need to survive – like GP surgeries, schools, grocery shops and so on.

As we saw in Liverpool, if that balance isn’t struck, people will leave their homes, leading to disrepair and abandonment, so the housing crisis isn’t really solved at all.

To avoid this scenario, I’d like us firstly to rethink how we measure success in housing delivery.  At the moment, our KPI’s at a national, local and even housing association level tend to be around the number of houses we build.  And whilst this is really important, we also need metrics to ensure that they are built in a way that causes local economies to thrive, and consequently local people and communities to thrive also. 

Then I think, as your question ultimately is about placemaking, we need to greater control back to local authorities about what is developed in there towns and where.  Not only do they have the most holistic overview of their town, but they also understand the minute details of it too, making them by far the best placed to strike the best balance. 

That obviously opens up the debate around permitted development rights, as they have reduced local government’s ability to retain control of placemaking, but do we want to go back to requiring full planning permission because there is no doubt that has and does slow down house building.  I’d like to explore the idea of Government helping local authorities to produce local development plans via increased funding, resourcing and guidance because that could be a good compromise but certainly I do think we need to give local authorities greater directions over where conversions can take place.   

If we get that balance right then far from making town centre identity weaker through residential conversions, I think we can make it stronger." 




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