Michael Gove recently announced that planning rules were to be relaxed so that more new homes could be built. His announcement wasn’t met with the usual nimby outcries you would usually expect, because the levelling-up secretary has proposed that instead of tearing up the countryside, more homes should be converted from empty retail premises in our city centres.
The Government is well short of its target to build a million new homes before the next election. House building has been pretty stagnant for decades, and the country’s housing crisis is deepening every year. New Government figures show 79,840 households faced homelessness in England between January and March 2023, the highest number on record and up 10% in just one year.
Developing the inner cities could be a win-win planning goal. Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Gove said building denser cities would create more "walkable, liveable communities" that cut commuting times to work. Critics cannot help but see this as an easy option for the Government and a way of winning over their rural constituents, terrified at the prospect of new build development on their doorstep. The Prime Minister said his government would not be "concreting over the countryside", adding: "Our plan is to build the right homes where there is the most need and where there is local support, in the heart of Britain's great cities."
Critics have also warned that such conversions could be a green light for low-quality housing. Polly Neate, head of housing charity Shelter, warned that plans to convert takeaways into homes risked creating "poor quality, unsafe homes" The horrors of Grenfell are still fresh in our minds and thousands of leasehold flat owners across the country are still in limbo with regards fire safety regulations, unable to sell their properties.”
The door is open for ethical property developers to rise to this challenge and build or convert 21st-century homes for 21st-century living. Certainly, City Centre living is popular, especially with the young. Take Manchester, for example, a city now unrecognisable from what it was 30 years ago and hailed as an example of an urban renaissance. The expansion in residential development has led to new communities springing up in the city. This, in turn, has led to new shops and businesses ensuring there is a 24/7 culture to meet the demands of city centre residents. Resembling a familiar scene in Liverpool, the city is currently undergoing significant growth with ongoing projects like Liverpool Waters. Regeneration initiatives such as this aim to seamlessly expand the commercial business district and waterfront, leading to substantial enhancements for both residents and visitors.
Ethical property investment should look to re-generate underdeveloped areas within our cities and breathe life into these areas. It should also learn from the mistakes of the past. Manchester’s notorious Hulme estate is a typical example of ill-conceived development. The brutalist concrete crescents were opened in 1972 and were, at that time, the largest public housing estate in Europe. Within 2 years, the council declared the houses unfit for families, and the estate became adult-only. Design and construction issues led to major problems, and poor insulation meant the homes were far too expensive to heat. The development failed and fell into rapid decline, eventually being demolished in 1993.
The demand for ethical property development in our city centre remains, and now that it has the backing of Government policy, it should flourish. The knock-on effect of creating buzzing communities in our city centres can also lead to a reduction in crime and greater civic pride. Whilst there is a fear of high-rise living post-Grenfell, ethical property development should set out to allay such concerns and address issues of sustainability. Whilst the younger generations are often most concerned with sustainability issues, we all must prepare for Net Zero. People generally want greener living and less commuting. Young renters are seen as the prime targets for city living, but ethical property developers should also address the needs of older generations. Retirement developments are becoming increasingly popular. Many older people are also looking at City living as an easier option, and it has been well documented that we have many more over 60s now opting to rent property.
Ethical property development has the potential to help facilitate all this - and provide a cleaner, greener future for all of us.