Could self-build help tackle homelessness in the UK?

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by James Andrew Cox

A lack of affordable, good quality housing in the UK is affecting everyone; thousands of people are being priced out of their homes every year. For more than 78,000 households (a city the size of Wolverhampton), this means living in temporary accommodation — and for many more, on the street.

With a record number of homeless people dying on the streets or in temporary accommodation (a figure which has doubled in the past five years), its critical to look at innovative approaches to help alleviate homelessness. One approach is to explore the potential of self-build accommodation, supported by additional social infrastructure and training.

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A common misconception of homelessness is that lifestyle choices are a fundamental cause. According to recent research undertaken by Homeless Link, in England some 4,750 people sleep rough on any one night, an increase of 15% since 2016 and 73% in the last three years. This steep rise in homelessness reflects structural changes relating to housing provision and welfare reforms, including but not limited to the end of assured shorthold tenancies (2010), the introduction of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ (2012), the tentative rollout of universal credit (2015), cuts to young people’s housing benefits (2017), a shortage of affordable housing more generally, and ever-soaring rents.

Despite this inexcusable rise, responses are slow, as we have seen with the £28m rough sleeping fund still remaining unspent and recent comments made by the new homelessness minister, Heather Wheeler, that she ‘does not know’ why numbers are up.

As professionals in the built environment, we can use our influence to create homes, places and cities that are designed to work for everyone. This belief was the main driver behind my post-graduate research project, ‘Forgotten Land, Forgotten People’, at The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL.

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In partnership with Trident Group, a Midlands-based organisation which aims to help the most vulnerable by providing good quality affordable homes, services and support, my thesis proposed a new way in which housing associations could better use small under-utilised pieces of land within their ownership (for example garage sites), as self-build sites for groups of ‘self-build ready’ homeless individuals and families.

With the pressures currently faced by housing associations (such as the 1% Rent Reduction, Right to Buy Extension and introduction of the Value for Money Standard) alongside the need for more affordable, adequate and secure housing, self-build may present an innovative solution for tackling homelessness through the built environment.

The process of self-building also has the potential to help alleviate many of the consequences of homeless­ness; it can equip participants with tools and skills that can enable reintegration into the job market. New technologies and systems such as WikiHouse have the potential to help support this outcome, through lowering the skills’ thresholds needed and the costs involved in building homes.

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The process of taking a ‘self-build ready’ group and enabling them to build their own homes is not a short-term quick win for housing associations. However, the benefits would be felt widely across the both the development and health sectors — and beyond — through providing new homes and opportunities for homeless people, cleaning up a previously under-utilised or unused and resented site, and delivering a marketable ‘product’. Whilst my project focussed on garage sites for permanent homes, further discussions indicate that this prototype solution could work for many stakeholders even if only on a temporary basis, for example as a meanwhile use for a development site which aligns with the new Draft London Plan policy (H4) on meanwhile use for a development site that responds to local need.

James Cox is a senior planner at Lichfields UK and recently completed a MSc in Urban Design and City Planning at The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. This blog post is an edited extract of a post originally published on Lichfields’ Planning Matters blog

 

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