Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Caversham Heights Society

ON Wednesday, January 29, members of the Caversham Heights Society were made to think about an issue of growing concern, “Britain’s housing crisis”.

Professor Flora Samuel, from the University of Reading, gave an informative, critical and challenging account of the country’s housing crisis and asked what can, or should, be done about it.

She began by highlighting the real problems, especially for young people in London where the cost of the average property is now eight times the average salary and most people find it impossible to even get on the property ladder.

The situation is made worse because property in the UK is seen as an investment rather than a home to live in and many overseas investors buy up properties which they then leave empty for long periods of time, thus preventing ordinary Londoners from even renting them, let alone buying them.

The problem is made even worse by developers who buy up land for future use or for rent and by the legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s policy of allowing people in social housing to buy their homes which they then sold on, often to developers.

In this way 40 per cent of social housing has been lost. (In Wales and Scotland the scheme has been abandoned.) The result is that 1.5 million people are in search of housing.

Furthermore, the private rental market, where astronomical rents are charged for substandard housing with appalling living conditions, is responsible for buying up properties that are not now available for sale.

Many of the newer properties which are for sale are being built on overcrowded estates with very few open spaces or civic amenities and are too small for an average family.

As a result, too many of these estates become havens for antisocial behaviour.

Indeed such is the demand for housing that many local authorities have resorted to buying up unoccupied office blocks to convert into social housing with many of the problems that this entails.

Homelessness becomes a side effect of these housing shortages.

What can be done to improve the situation? Prof Samuel suggested that there should be greater integrated co-ordination and planning between developers, local authorities, town planners and government.

The whole lengthy issue of contracts needed to be simplified in order to reduce the costs and inflated earnings of lawyers.

And, given the urgency of climate change, all housing developments should not only take into consideration the economic benefits but aalso the social value of local amenities, community facilities, sporting and retail outlets and, above all, the environmental impact and benefits such as woodland, ponds and nature reserves.

Because Britain needs between 240,000 and 380,000 houses to be built annually just to keep up with the demographic changes, the need and opportunities to develop new approaches to housing are enormous.

We were shown some of the new approaches that are being developed in China, Sweden and the Netherlands. These range from factory- built houses that can be quickly made and assembled to computer-designed housing that can be mixed and matched to provide degrees of variety and houses built on stilts to avoid flooding.

In some ways we were given too much information but we were all made to think afresh about solutions to the housing crisis.

The society meets at Caversham Heights Methodist Church hall every other Wednesday, beginning with coffee at 7.15pm, preceding a talk on different topics. New members are always welcome. For more information, visit www.cavershamheights.org

Keith Watson

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