In this blog, I want to take a more strategic look at our housing infrastructure and how we allocate space. I will touch on home efficiency but this is primarily about the need for shelter.
It will look at our housing infrastructure in a more holistic way. Do we need to build new homes at 50-100 tons of upfront embedded carbon. Or can we make better use of our current housing stock?
I will look at the embedded carbon of new homes and whether building new housing is affordable in a Climate Emergency? Are there quicker and less damaging ways to provide shelter for everyone? How can we make more economic use of the housing infrastructure we already have? And stop the unnecessary homelessness that blights our cities.
How can we stop sprawl, which has lead to ballooning car traffic on city streets. ‘In some California counties, two-thirds of emissions are from vehicles.’
And how can we stop green space (vital for carbon capture and biodiversity) becoming concreted over for new housing.
In order to solve the climate crisis, we have to solve the housing crisis
‘Fast, deep cuts in global emissions from energy, transport and food are needed to keep temperature rises in check and an analysis has shown this means the new generation will have lifetime carbon budgets almost 90% lower than someone born in 1950.’
The average European today emits 8 tons of carbon annually. So what does this mean for a child born today?
So what does this mean for housing strategy? Maria Saxton says When people move into tiny homes, they adopt greener lifestyles. She found that every major component of a downsizer’s lifestyle is influenced, including food, transportation, and consumption of goods and services. She says:
‘I found that among 80 tiny home downsizers located across the United States, ecological footprints were reduced by about 45 percent on average. Surprisingly, I found that downsizing can influence many parts of one’s lifestyle and reduce impacts on the environment in unexpected ways.’
This concurs with my own experience of downsizing from a four bedroom house to a one bedroom flat in London (35 sq m) A timely revaluation of what is important, what to prioritise and how to live well in your new space changes lifestyle choices. I also became more aware of the quality of public space as my ‘outdoor living room’.
Single person households
A third of EU households are now composed of a single person, according to new figures. Out of 220 million homes in the European Union, 33 percent were lived in by just one person. In Sweden that number was over half of households (52 percent), followed by Lithuania, Denmark and Finland.
There has also been a massive switch from family homes to single occupancy dwellings in the UK in the last 50 years. Partly as a result of divorce and single lifestyle choices. Often homes that would have accommodated a whole family are now occupied by a single person. This is clearly an inefficient use of the embedded carbon invested in our housing stock.
Some of our policies seem increasingly outdated in this context.For instance, currently one person living in a six bedroom home can receive a 25% single person discount on Council Tax. The rules just state that the property must be occupied by only one adult resident over 18 and it must also be that individual’s sole or main residence. This discount is awarded regardless of size of property or under-occupation.
If that person is in a one bedroom flat, this might seem like a sensible policy. But giving a discount to a single person occupying a 3 -6 bedroom dwelling or more, seems highly inappropriate when so many are homeless.
Take this example from the Daily Mail: ‘Jeannette Kupfermann has lived in her Home Counties house for 45 years. She says she is outraged by suggestions that she should downsize. She is proud to be a home blocker: and won’t move from her five-bed £850,000 house to make room for young families.’
Moving home and downsizing can be stressful. But ultimately liberating. This document describes how facilitating decision-making can help older downsizing homeowners.
‘Decision-making may be more stressful for some individuals than the actual move itself. We already know of some potential health and wellbeing benefits for older people receiving relocation support. Suitable support, advice and individualised personal facilitation sits alongside the current understanding of what is considered to be desirable and suitable accommodation for older people to move to.’
Many people have heard of the controversial Bedroom Tax. It is less well-known as the under-occupancy penalty.
However evidence for the Mayor’s Housing Strategy 2015 (Page 103) shows that under-occupation is far higher in private dwellings than it is in social housing. Approximately 1.2 million bedrooms are empty in London’s owner occupied housing, even allowing for a spare room.
The broader picture in England is that in 2014 to 2017, around 8.3 million (36%) of the estimated 23 million households in England were under-occupied (that is, they had at least 2 bedrooms more than they needed)
Based on these figures, we could nearly rehouse the entire UK population again in the spare bedrooms in our current housing stock.
A fifth of young people are homeless – you just can’t see them. People sleeping rough are vastly outnumbered by those whose homelessness we don’t see.
One in five young people in the UK have sofa-surfed in the past year and almost half of them have done so for more than a month. In London there are 13 times more hidden homeless people, than those who are sleeping rough
Demand for housing comes from the homeless but many young people are unable to leave their parents home. Or afford the high rents in cities like London.
More than a quarter of people aged 20 to 34 still living at home, new figures have revealed. Data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the percentage of young adults living with their parents in the UK has risen from just over a fifth (21 per cent) in 1996 to 26 per cent in 2017, rising from 2.7 million to 3.4 million in the past two decades.
Squatting and Communes
For many of us who lived in cities in the 1980s, this scene of young people squatting will be familiar. Much of our housing stock was in poor condition in the 1980s and young people made use of it. Empty properties found occupants. Standards of housing were lower, but at least there was a roof over one’s head.
The number of long-term vacant properties – those empty for at least six months – rose by 5.3% to 216,186 in the 12 months to October, according to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. It is the highest level since 2012, when 254,059 properties were unoccupied.
London has a total of 20,237 long-term vacant properties (2017). Many properties are bought by wealthy buyers who snap up homes as investments and leave them empty while waiting for the value to increase before selling them on. Tighter squatting laws have made it more difficult for local residents, and young people, to make use of empty properties. A friend has told me that a house next door to him in central London has been empty for over 8 years!
In Barcelona, Mayor Ada Colau has ‘declared war’ on ‘vulture funds’ who leave buildings vacant, even as housing has become scarce in the city. Fines of €2.8 million, were levied against two investment funds that each own an unoccupied building in Barcelona’s centre.
I believe opening up empty properties to be official communes would be a wise strategy.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has attacked foreign investors for using homes in the capital as “gold bricks for investment” following a Guardian investigation that revealed the UK’s tallest residential skyscraper is now more than 60% foreign-owned and is under-occupied. Building thousands of new homes a year in London will not solve the housing crisis if “they are all bought by investors in the Middle East and Asia for use as second homes or they sit empty”.
‘More than £100bn of property in England and Wales is secretly owned, new analysis suggests. More than 87,000 properties are owned by anonymous companies registered in tax havens, Global Witness reveals.
The analysis reveals that 40% of the properties are in London. Cadogan Square in Knightsbridge, where the average property costs £3m, hosts at least 134 secretly owned properties. Buckingham Palace Road is also home to a large number, with a combined estimated value of £350m.
Global Witness says its investigations have shown how criminals and corrupt politicians use the UK property market to hide or clean dirty cash, and to secure safe havens for themselves and their families.’
The shadow housing minister, John Healey, said the building had become “a symbol of the housing crisis” in which new homes are sold abroad as investments and left largely empty while fewer and fewer young people can afford to buy or rent in the city. He said that it “fuels people’s anger and sense of injustice”.
We now have a new ‘symbol of the housing crisis’ in the form of the Tulip Tower. It is like the Hunger Games on speed. Our limited Embedded carbon budget squeezed into gold bricks, whilst so many are homeless? Dystopian doesn’t cover it.
One in 10 UK adults, or 5.2 million people, own a second home, while four in 10 adults own no property at all, according to new research that highlights the stark divide in wealth that Britain now faces.
‘The analysis of data from sources including the Office for National Statistics found that half of these second homes are owned by wealthy baby boomers – defined in the research as those born between 1946 and 1965 – most of whom live in southern England. Another quarter are owned by the generation after them, those born between 1966 and 1980, who are known as Generation X. Millennials – those born since 1981 – own just 3% of second properties, the research found.’
Norway and Denmark limit second-home ownership, and in 2012 the Swiss voted to restrict second homes in places where they were most common. Australia has also clamped down on foreign purchases of residential property. In St Ives in Cornwall, where a quarter of houses are second homes or holiday lets, they have decided that newly built homes should be off-limits to non-residents.
In Berlin, residents are seeking to keep rent prices down with another strategy: by starting a formal petition calling for the city to break up rental companies that own more than 3,000 flats. (One company, Deutsche Wohnen, owns approximately 115,000 across the city.)
The carbon emissions of new homes
It takes over 50 tonnes CO2 to build an average UK house
Upfront Carbon Emissions, or UCE are released in the making of materials, moving them and turning them into stuff. Given that, according to the IPCC, we have to cut our carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030, it is important that we measure and account for these Upfront Carbon Emissions in everything we do.
What your house is built from also has a huge effect on its carbon footprint. Most houses in the UK are built out of brick, with a concrete foundation. It takes a quarter of a tonne of CO2 to create a tonne of brick, and even more for steel and other house elements. 50 to 80 tons for the average home. Of course executive home will be far higher and a 2 bed flat lower.
‘To put that in context, the average person in the UK has a carbon footprint of five tonnes of CO2 per year- so building just one new house emits as much CO2 as someone living an average lifestyle does over a decade!
The current theory is that the solution is to build new houses with materials that store carbon, rather than require carbon to produce.
“Timber does exactly this, and is also an excellent insulator, conducting far less heat than brick or steel. That means building new timber houses emits only a small fraction of the CO2 generated by building traditional masonry houses.”
However here seems to be a lack of consensus on whether timber is actually a climate solution?
Location and density
If your home is in a city centre location (near your work) then your carbon footprint from transport will fall considerably, potentially more than halving your carbon footprint because of the home you’ve chosen.
This is why reducing under-occupation and unoccupied buildings in cities and densely populated areas is crucial. We need key workers living near their work. Not commuting for miles to their place of employment.
In British town planning, the green belt is a policy for controlling urban growth. The idea is for a ring of countryside where urbanisation will be resisted for the foreseeable future, maintaining an area where agriculture, forestry and outdoor leisure can be expected to prevail. The fundamental aim of green belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open, and consequently the most important attribute of green belts is their openness.
Meanwhile the call from property magnates and housebuilders to build on the green belt gets louder and more aggressive. Loss of biodiversity at a time of ecological collapse would be suicidal. Loss of carbon capture from fertile soil? Loss of food security and the potential for reforestation?
Scientists say half the planet should be set aside for wildlife – to save ourselves
If we want to avoid mass extinctions and preserve the ecosystems all plants and animals depend on, governments should protect a third of the oceans and land by 2030 and half by 2050, with a focus on areas of high biodiversity.
We need to protect more land from development
Tiny homes that increase sprawl will not address this issue.
2.7 tonnes of CO2 is emitted every year from heating your average home. So by switching to a highly efficient home where all of your heating needs can be provided by renewable electricity, your carbon footprint will be reduced dramatically. The current thinking is that we need to build ‘efficient homes’ but refurbishment can be more efficient.
Take these London examples in Southwark inner city :
‘Heygate apartments were structurally sound and enough investment in maintenance and some enhancement to energy efficiency would have made them splendid homes for the community that was rubbing along despite some hiccups’
‘yep – same re Aylesbury Estate – council admitted it could be refurbished for £250m’
Can we afford the high embedded carbon of new ‘efficient’ homes or is retrofitting the way forward?
All housing infrastructure is embedded carbon
Wasteful use of that embedded carbon is not aligned with a sustainable low-carbon future
Current policy to keep building new homes is not sustainable. Upfront Carbon Emissions are too high
We need to tax space in privately owned dwellings
We need to apply a bedroom tax to under-occupied private dwellings
We must give clear tax advantages (or even pay people) to have lodgers
We must facilitate decision-making that can help the older homeowner downsize
We must create squatting laws / legal communes that give people immediate access to unoccupied dwellings (in a suitable legal framework)
We must ban second home ownership
We must fine unoccupied home owners
Keep homes for residents
Encourage and reward communal living