Rethinking the housing crisis – three radical ideas to fix the current trajectory

Last updated: 13th June 2024

Dr Kayla Friedman, Course Director for the Master’s and Postgraduate Certificate in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE), with The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), showcases her ideas to address the housing situation the UK is facing.

First published April 15 2024 on the Construction news website.

With the UK election just around the corner, housing supply and demand is back in the spotlight. My home city of Cambridge has received a lot of attention recently with the announcement by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to establish a Development Corporation to oversee the expansion of the Cambridge region. Cambridge, home to around 150,000 residents, is in the middle of an area that has now been designated for expansion by 150,000 new homes – more than doubling the existing population. Cambridge City Council, already struggling to deliver the existing plans for 50,000 new homes by 2040, has expressed doubts about the viability of such a plan – and this is in what I would otherwise consider a ‘pro-growth’ Council environment.

For the over 20 years I have lived in the UK, I have seen a country obsessed with housing, but failing to make much progress on establishing a balanced system that actually works. When I moved to the UK, I worked primarily on the regeneration of council estates in London. I had a lot of learning to do. What was Right to Buy? What was affordable housing? What was council housing? What were housing associations and why did they exist? In the early 2000s, I entered a system of dilapidated housing, councils that didn’t have the funds to upgrade them, rising demand for affordable housing, and a property market that was fast outpacing income.

Despite being on every government agenda, for more than 20 years, demand for housing has continued to outpace supply. The reasons for this are many – from people living longer, to more single-person households. There is also the disproportionate pull of the south-east of England, creating pockets of high demand balanced against other areas of the country facing under occupation.

The climate emergency demands that we stop doing what we’ve always done. We are not going to solve the housing crisis by building more housing – especially not if this includes the unrealistic goal of more than doubling the occupation of some of the UK’s most overcrowded and resource-stretched areas. This is also unrealistic when thinking about the carbon costs of all of this new housing, which we also simply cannot afford.

We need radical reimagination of what good housing looks like, where people want to live, why they want to live there, and how governments can utilise existing stock and assets to help support and create thriving communities. Three completely radical ideas of mine include:

  1. Redesign the Help to Buy and shared ownership schemes to support retrofitting as acceptable outcomes. The benefits could include rehabilitating underutilised existing building stock, creating large-scale supply chains focused on retrofit and reuse, and partnering with housing associations and housebuilders to develop a skilled retrofit workforce.
  2. Instead of investing in housing, consider investment in infrastructure, schools, and services in underoccupied regions of the country, while supporting digital nomads and families looking for a different quality of life to move to these areas. 
  3. Crash the housing market while supporting homeowners who may find themselves underwater. This may mean providing relief for one or possibly two mortgages, while forcing the system to rebalance itself. This could be done through re-thinking taxes on non-resident owners or foreign owners. We have a real problem when, in 2021, places like Kensington and Chelsea in London report unoccupied homes of just over 25%.

Before you tell me that these are all impossible and give me the many reasons you think they won’t work, I challenge you to not accept the status quo. If these ideas don’t work, then what will?

You, who work in the built environment, are the experts, the champions, the ones (quite literally) shaping our collective future and the future for our children and our children’s children. We cannot afford in financial, material, or environmental terms to ‘just keep building more housing’ without pushing ourselves to be more creative, more innovative, and more resourceful in considering what that really means and why we are doing it. We don’t have to keep doing what we’ve always been doing, and the reality is we can’t. We do have other options, if only we are brave enough, and perhaps a little bit mad enough, to make them.

 

Delivering exceptional future-fit built environment projects requires the deep-skill discipline of many individuals sharing a collective vision and purpose. Our Sustainability Leadership for the Built Environment programmes teach global best practices through project-based learning, with a focus on collaboration and leadership throughout. Applications for 2025 entry to the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s (CISL) Certificate and Master’s in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment and associated scholarships and bursaries open in September 2024.



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