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The housing crisis continues to worsen. What can be done about it?

Head of ESG, Chris Kerr explains:

Of particular concern to placemakers is the current housing supply deficit. There are not enough homes to meet demand, meaning people on low incomes are finding it increasingly difficult to access secure, decent housing.

With a general election coming, we expect later this year, and recent media coverage documenting the housing crisis, the spotlight will once again fall on developers, investors, housing associations and local authorities and the steps they are taking to address the shortfall.

The primary solution to the housing crisis remains to increase the supply of housing, particularly affordable homes. However, according to the Centre for Cities, even if we meet the Government’s current target of building 300,000 homes per year, which we are not, it will take over half a century to close the deficit.

That’s why we urgently need to consider supplementary ideas which can increase supply at a much quicker rate. Homebuilding charity Habitat for Humanity Great Britain and real estate company M&G have launched one such initiative, which Davitt Jones Bould has supported from the very beginning.

The Empty Spaces to Homes Toolkit provides a blueprint for converting disused office and retail space into high quality, affordable housing. It is estimated that 19,500 homes could be created from derelict commercial property owned by local authorities alone. The charity has already completed conversions in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and now plans to scale up nationally.

Of course, there is a delicate balancing act to achieve when repurposing commercial property into homes. 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 have seen with some cases of permitted development right housing, if we don’t achieve that balance then people will have to leave their homes, leading to disrepair and abandonment, so at best the housing crisis isn’t really solved at all and at worse we see people pushed further into poverty.

The second concern if you like around commercial to residential development is ensuring that the conversion is sufficiently high in quality. We can’t be building homes of low standards in 2023 – there are so many studies that show, beyond any doubt, that the state of our home impacts our physical and mental health. And by building low-quality stock we are not only exacerbating the housing crisis but we are contribute to making others worse too – for example the National Federation of Housing estimates that poor quality housing is costing the NHS up to £2bn per year.

I’d love to sit here and say, in this modern age, we don’t need regulation on this but sadly the evidence suggests otherwise. If we look to PDR conversions, our friends at UCL, found that just 22% of PDR conversions met minimum space standards, only 3.5% of them had communal space, and 72% of them had single-aspect windows. A large proportion of PDR properties were also built in places cut-off from basic amenities and community too. And all of that certainly contributes to poor health.

Now, it had looked like the Regeneration and Levelling Up Bill was going strengthen existing quality standards, adopting the Town and Country Planning Associations Healthy Homes standards, but disappointingly this was read out of the final Act.

We – the Coalition and other expert bodies – contributed to the joint report produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s for Housing Delivery and for Ending Homelessness on this very topic, and this covers proposed solutions to those challenges which, if achieved, will make the Habitat for Humanity’s Empty Spaces to Homes concept a very powerful tool in the toolkit for solving the housing crisis.


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