Business as force for good: Tackling the housing crisis

By Jez Sweetland, Project Director, Bristol Housing Festival

How a Housing Festival is tackling the housing crisis

The Bristol Housing Festival launched in 2018, inspired by festivals in Britain that historically celebrated and showcase innovation and led to cultural change. The most iconic festivals being the Great Exhibition, opened by Queen Victoria in 1851, and the Festival of Britain in the summer of 1951. We recognise that Bristol and the UK are suffering a severe and complex housing crisis, climate and ecological emergencies and a construction skills shortage. To tackle these requires system change that can only be achieved through innovation and collaboration, transformative approaches a festival can inspire.

The Bristol Housing Festival is a five-year project, hosting an ongoing conversation and incubating new ideas with the goal of finding scalable solutions. Essentially, we are a ‘think and do tank’ – running the lines to create shared vision, backed with the relational and political capital to unlock barriers to real world innovation. Housing is a human right, not just an economic luxury. This motivates our mission to embrace the opportunities of the moment, namely a new manufacturing-led housing supply chain – ‘Modern Methods of Construction’ and a move to ‘outcome led’ commissioning to bring this much-needed shift.

The systemic nature of the housing challenge

Over the last few years, we have been on a journey of learning, perseverance, and discovery around the systemic issues at the root of our current problems. One of the key things we’ve recognised is that we can build, build, build all the homes we think we need and still find ourselves in a housing crisis. This is because we’re experiencing a devastating systemic failure in the economics of housing provision. A failure that comes at a great human cost.

The problem has never really been a lack of money but a ‘capital market’ approach to cost and viability, which has been set up as the only means to deliver and finance the UK’s housing supply. Housing provision has been driven primarily through market forces with a necessary focus on land acquisition (the most crucial and most scarce resource) and planning uplift, which creates greater competition for land. In the face of inflationary costs, the high-quality, sustainable homes the UK needs are increasingly deemed, ‘economically unviable.’

This systemic failure is both a social justice and an economic issue, with the wider cost implication of insufficient and inadequate housing falling on our public services. However, I believe we now have the early foundations to fix the ‘structural deficit’ in our housing crisis. So, what might that look like?

Modern Methods of Construction

First, the UK is in the early stages of developing a new credible supply chain of housing that is predicated on manufacturing technology – Modern Methods of Construction (MMC). As this new supply chain matures it provides an opportunity to collaborate around a shared vision for housing focused on design principles that prioritise quality, sustainability, and affordability. This new supply chain is uniquely programmed for delivering new homes, at scale and at pace, with business models predicated on a known and continual flow of production. Now is the time to embed shared values and a partnership culture into this new supply chain to support system change.

Outcome Led Commissioning

Second, there is a move towards ‘outcome-led’ commissioning. National government has taken great strides to rethink the approach to procurement. The Social Value Act, the Construction Innovation Hub Value Toolkit and the Construction Playbook are all seeking to rethink the value of what we do, and move away from an equation that simply translates financial build cost equals value. This is a good start, but if we are to build good quality, sustainable homes that support biodiversity net gain, are net zero carbon in construction and operation and tackle energy poverty for the most vulnerable, we will have to double our efforts in this area.

Start with the purpose of housing

The purpose of housing is not just to provide shelter but to provide homes that improve the physical and mental health of the population and the health of the planet. We are working with local government and industry to help build that wisdom into the design, development and delivery of new homes. We are confident new thinking and a new supply ecosystem, can lead to powerful system change in how we build, finance and provide housing.

For more information about our organisation, our latest projects, upcoming events or to download our reports, please see our website.

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