Affordable housing on a brownfield site.

+ To overcome the lack of affordable housing in the UK, schemes need to embrace the wider social benefits of development.

A long-term lack of house building, and a particular shortfall in the availability of affordable homes, is having a detrimental effect on UK society. Only if we improve the commercial viability of brownfield sites will house building increase. To achieve this I believe schemes must include the wider ancillary benefits of development in viability assessments and business case justifications.

As housing charity Shelter has claimed, the current situation often leaves families struggling with the insecurity of private rents on short-term contracts, and children whose education is often interrupted by constant changes of address. The UK Government has made some efforts to tackle the shortfall in house building. The 2016 Housing and Planning Act implements a number of reforms to ease the path from potential site to completed housing development. But basic economics dictates that affordability issues will only start to ease as the availability of suitable, affordable properties increases.

How then should land be made more viable for housing development? Although there has been an increase in the amount of land freed up from within the UK’s green belts, it is a contentious issue and brownfield sites, including government-owned sites, create opportunities for more house building. 

Due to the need for land remediation, ecological mitigation and improvements to transport connectivity, utilities and public realm, many land parcels in long-term, inactive public ownership are deemed “difficult” and therefore fail on commercial viability.

But by looking at the wider potential value of a site, the housing aspect’s fortunes can improve. For example, a housing development on a currently fenced-off, contaminated parcel of former railway sidings may not break even. However, if it was effectively integrated with neighbouring areas when built-out it will provide improved connectivity for the wider community in addition to new homes – a double win.

Although the wider ‘societal’ benefits can often be monetised, this commercial gain doesn’t always generally accrue to the developer and is therefore unlikely to encourage their investment. This is often a double loss, as ‘difficult sites’ are often located in areas that desperately need built environment investment to overcome years of decay and related socio-economic problems. So another way to boost a development’s chances is to help developers recognise that better connectivity and modest place-making within the scheme can increase the property’s overall commercial value. 

There are also moves afoot in Government to move toward direct investment and construction of homes on publically owned sites. There are clear advantages linked to this approach, including the potential to reinvest money usually ring-fenced for profit in market led developments to improve the quality of homes, whilst maintaining levels of affordability.

Finally, we shouldn’t forget the key role played by housing associations, particularly those that embrace innovative approaches to land development. In their dual role as house builder and landlord they arguably have greater insight into a project’s wider benefits for residents, developers and the surrounding community.

If you’ve encountered any enlightened examples of ‘difficult’ yet successful affordable housing projects, do mention them in the comments below.