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Housing for Key Cities – where to start?

Cllr John Merry CBE
October 25, 2021
In our latest blog post, Cllr John Merry, Chair of Key Cities, reflects on a recent workshop where Key Cities members discussed some of the many issues associated with housing.

Providing good quality, affordable homes at the scale required is a perennial problem for our member cities, so it was no wonder that over 40 councillors and officers from across the network came together for the latest in our workshop series. Industry experts were invited to share their insights and advice, before the roles were reversed and members offered their own perspectives from the front line of housing policy and provision.

Sadie Morgan, Founder of the Quality of Life Foundation, outlined the importance of promoting wellbeing through the design and management of homes and communities. QoLF has published a framework to help people participate in the way their homes are created and cared for, based on the themes of control, health, nature, wonder, movement and belonging. Sadie argues that too much short-term thinking in the housing sector is limiting the creation of long-term value for communities, but by establishing quality of life principles at the outset we can collectively ensure better outcomes for all. I found the idea of design that ensures we always have a relationship to the outside particularly helpful, especially how it can encourage us to take the stairs more.

Maribel Mantecon, Senior Associate at HTA Design, then shared her insights on modular construction, which is arguably one of the most tangible solutions to our housing crisis. The offsite approach offers a myriad of cost, time and sustainability benefits, but is often perceived as having design or technical limitations. However, Maribel explained how it can result in better performing, more attractive buildings, as long as consultant teams are appointed early enough in the development process. For Key Cities, there is a huge opportunity for members not only to encourage the use of modular methods on schemes, but to accommodate associated manufacturing facilities within their cities.

Finally, Dr Janice Morphet from the Bartlett at UCL, offered insights on her latest report: ‘Local Authority Direct Provision of Housing’. The pandemic has accelerated local authority engagement in housing delivery (80% are now directly doing so compared to 65% in 2017), and an increased focus on the quality of space, long term solutions for homelessness, and the role of housing within wider place regeneration. Janice’s report concludes by suggesting Homes England should look to London for inspiration, echoing calls from our members to invest in local housing innovation.

During subsequent discussions, it became clear that our members have high ambitions for housing quality and delivery, but require greater support in order to create places that truly benefit people and planet. Many are frustrated by funding constraints; lack of powers and disparities between local, county and national policies; procurement options; access to skills; and environmental standards that are more of an afterthought than embedded in viability.

For Key Cities, that means it is more important than ever to leverage our role as the voice of urban UK to highlight the opportunities and challenges our members face and lobby those in power for meaningful change.

Some of the asks from government may well include increasing the focus on affordable rents and not just affordable ownership; giving councils more control over funding they receive and including skills within the funding envelope; considering the impact of lax environmental requirements against future retrofitting costs; and helping councils de-risk MMC. Then there’s Right to Buy. Aside from the need to remove constraints around the use of receipts, the scheme fundamentally fails to recognise that the needs of cities across the UK is uneven. If London is able to deliver above its housing target by managing housing funding, why not expect the same to be true in other parts of the country?


Cllr. John Merry CBE, Deputy Mayor, Salford City Council and Key Cities, Chair

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