Creative thinking in Lewisham will help allieviate housing need
Councillor Damien Egan, Cabinet Member for Housing, Lewisham Council & Jeff Endean, Housing Strategy & Programmes Manager, Lewisham Council, 27 May, 2015

The Housing Crisis has driven us at Lewisham Council to explore innovative & cost-effective ways to provide housing for our residents.

Close to 600 families from Lewisham will spend tonight in a B&B – it’s a similar picture in all councils across the capital. The social costs are enormous as families are often placed in emergency accommodation far from family and friends, far from where they work or where children go to school. The financial costs to authorities are enormous too; in Lewisham we’re looking at a £3m bill annually, set against budget reductions in our general fund of £85m.

Low housing supply hits all tenures and at the bottom of the supply chain the impact has been most acute with homelessness. Rocketing prices in the private rented sector combined with changes in welfare have created a perfect storm where the most vulnerable in our communities are priced out of housing.

The challenge to authorities is immediate, and while there is widespread agreement that we need to increase housing supply, as a country we are notoriously poor at delivering it. So for Councils this creates a particular issue and we need solutions that can deliver urgently.

Our officers at Lewisham were challenged to come up with creative ideas to help us meet our homelessness challenge. We’ve started buying property on the open market to convert into hostel accommodation; this has included former nursing homes which provide more secure and better quality living space in comparison to private B&Bs. We are building “Council Houses” again: 500 over this administration. But while we can start these programmes straight away, they’re still reasonably long term in terms of when a family actually receives the keys to their new home.

This is why the idea of our “Pop-up Village” for us as an authority ticks so many boxes. As a large land owner we are likely to have at least a couple of vacant brownfield sites at any one time. It takes time to bring forward plans, and even longer to bring forward ambitious regeneration plans in conjunction with residents and community groups, which is what we prefer to do. This can mean that valuable land sits empty while we make plans for it.

At the same time we will always have a responsibility to house families in need, and we don’t see demand falling any time soon. So as a Council we asked ourselves: can we find a way to use land on a temporary basis, without slowing or changing our long term plans for a site? We think the Pop-up Village may show the answer is yes.

We already have planning permission for the village, which has been designed by Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners. The design is deliberately bold and striking to create interest in the area, drive up footfall, and set a high standard for the permanent development that will follow in due course. We will shortly announce who will build the village, but have set a brief that requires the use of modern methods of construction. This means the homes can be built rapidly and cost-effectively in factory conditions and subsequently assembled on site over a period of just a few weeks.

This is not a new approach to building homes, but it is not one that is yet used at scale. We hope to show is that we can build high quality homes more quickly and more cheaply. Crucially, we can assemble and disassemble these homes and move them to the next vacant site. With the scale of the housing crisis, the need for us to innovate and to find ways of building homes more quickly, we have every reason to do so now.

What’s more, this makes very good commercial sense as well. The pop-up will house 24 families who would otherwise be living in temporary accommodation. The Council would pay landlords for that accommodation, which is always expensive to the Council and often low quality. With the Pop-up Village we get a double benefit. First we get the rental income from the flats, secondly, and more valuably, we also save the money we would otherwise have spent in housing the families elsewhere. Add in the eight commercial properties that we will build and let in an increasingly popular area of the borough, and this is a sound investment. We believe our Pop-up Village will pay for itself in just eight years – and that includes the cost of moving the pop-up to a second location.

We have to hope that over time the housing crisis in the capital will dissipate. Our hope is that we’re coming up with solutions in Lewisham that have value to the authority whatever the conditions in the market. What is clear to us is that while we need to be thinking long term for the authority, our challenge is in the here and now. It could just be that our Pop-up housing plays one small part in meeting the housing challenge that other authorities may wish to follow.