Time for a Big Idea?

Mar 11, 2020

I met an architect recently with offices at Salts Mill in Saltaire near Bradford, which was built 170 years ago by Victorian industrialist Sir Titus Salt as a model village for his mill workers and is now a UNESCO world heritage site.


Sir Titus Salt / Saltaire, West Yorkshire

Salt lifted mill workers out of the soot and slums of mid 19th century Bradford and provided them with clean houses, indoor tap water and a grammar school. Residents of Saltaire enjoyed bath-houses, a hospital and an institute for recreation and education incorporating a library, reading room, concert hall, billiard room, science laboratory and gymnasium.

Providing high grade housing for blue collar workers with amenities was almost unheard of at the time and gave Salt the means to attract and retain the best mill workers around. The original residents of Saltaire were a captive, no doubt grateful, workforce that would power Salt’s textile mills to greater success in the competitive global market of his time.

Fast forward to Menlo Park, California in 2020 where contemporary entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg plans to develop the neighborhood of Willow Village to help expand the Facebook campus there. The scheme will deliver over 1,500 new apartment homes, plus acres of new office and retail space, a hotel, grocery store, restaurants, town square and new parks and open spaces.

Mark Zuckerberg / Willow Village, California

Interesting that Titus Salt’s Victorian blueprint of providing great new places to live to support the growth of a free market enterprise still thrives today in the North American tech sector. It also raises the question though of who should provide the answers to Britain’s present day housing challenges?

In February the BBC published a comprehensive briefing on the state of British housing. It made sobering reading. Here are just a few examples which illustrate the scale of the problem.

  • The UK has an estimated housing supply gap today of around 1.2 million homes
  • An estimated four million extra homes will be needed by 2035 to meet rising household growth
  • In the year to June 2019, just over 170,000 new homes were completed – an 11 year high
  • 1 million more construction workers would be needed to meet the government’s target of building 300,000 new homes a year
  • There is a skills shortage in the construction sector

Resolving the UK’s housing situation looks like a gordian knot.

While modern day America still has the land along with the political and planning freedoms to grow company towns like Menlo Park, a modern day Titus Salt would have no chance of building Saltaire today,for any number of reasons.

What would Sit Titus make of today’s buildable land values, extensive green belt protections and protracted planning processes? And how would he feel about a country where 320,000 people are defined as homeless, 200,000 of them children, where only 7% of the towns are affordable for nurses?

I reckon he’d be a bit disappointed with how it was all turning out.

On economic grounds, while pro-Brexiteers see Britain’s future as a roaring lion on the world stage, the lack of affordable housing, of the right type, in the right places, will be a limiting factor on the growth of our economy at home. Housing unaffordability has a direct consequence on the labour market. Young professionals are less willing or able to move to take up the new job opportunities that may exist.

Looking back over history we have seen many different drivers transform the national housing stock. The rise of industrialisation; public transport networks opening up the suburbs; a political pledge to provide “homes fit for heroes” returning from war; the huge expansion of social housing; the creation of new towns and garden cities; the push for wider home ownership and the right to buy council homes.

So what is the big idea of our generation and where is it coming from?

Looking around today it is hard to discern a generational vision or unstoppable force that will dramatically reshape our housing landscape. HS2 is certainly a grand project, but upgrading the national transport infrastructure will not solve our housing needs, despite the multi-billions invested.

The growth of Build to Rent can only provide a limited part of the answer, but it is contributing significant stock and momentum to help address the UK’s housing shortfall, albeit targeting the upper end of the rental market. It would be good to see government initiatives that encourage the Build to Rent sector to address wider segments of housing need.

How about Build to Rent on a budget for instance? Could joined-up government policies help to make it worthwhile to develop managed accommodation schemes reserved for key workers in the areas of highest housing pressure? Could large scale employers in traditionally low pay sectors collaborate in such developments to help ensure they continue to have a local workforce to operate their businesses?

And what about loosening the green belt? Making even a small fraction of green belt land available for medium density Build to Rent development could deliver hundreds of thousands of additional new dwellings, targeting regions that could offer the greatest potential for economic growth. Needless to say, it’s far easier to highlight the complex problems we face than to suggest there are any easy answers – the social, political and economic challenges of fixing this imbalance are undoubtedly immense.

But that being said, surely it is long past time this generation of leaders came up with a bigger and better idea for housing in our time.

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