October 14, 2008
My friend is getting mangled by the credit crunch.
He’s built a couple of houses, can’t sell them, and the loan repayments are crippling him. There is plaintive despair in his voice, and his weight loss suggests restless nights.
Meanwhile, the person largely responsible, a certain Gordon Brown, tucks in to eight-course dinners before telling us to be more careful when shopping. Tighten your belts, he preaches, as he slackens his and forces in the last wafer-thin mint.
You may think it unfair to blame our PM for an individual coming unstuck when taking a risk: no one said that the housing market was a sure thing. But the former chancellor, and his array of treasury experts, knew that the housing bubble was going to burst at some point – yet they encouraged everyone to borrow, borrow, borrow - to get on that housing ladder, no matter that you were living off credit, with nothing left to invest in a pension or put aside for a rainy day.
The big bad wolf of negative equity is about to blow away the dreams of thousands of people who borrowed when prices were high and interest was cheap. When front-loaded sweetener mortgage deals end, and jobs start getting lost, the prospect is grim.
Meanwhile, the mass house-builders who, like the wise piggy, thought they’d be safe with their Brookside-banal brick, tiles and bitmac – are facing the butcher’s machete. When houses are worth less than they cost to build, it’s no wonder that banks are now refusing to lend money and marking down assets.
The business model developers followed depended on increases in land value, not the bricks and mortar, with investors getting a quick return. So for the foreseeable future, as the market bumps along the trough of the 18-year housing cycle, this model is dead. Noddytown is finished.
It would be a bit unfair on the guys losing their jobs to call this a silver lining within the gloom – but it’s got to at least be seen as an opportunity to take stock. We do, after all, still have to deal with a housing shortage and a government target of building 35,000 houses a year.
So can we use this hiatus to find a means of not only building, but developing places and communities that are much better than we’ve been doing?
When public money is tight and banks have pulled down the shutters (and we can’t get the Highland Housing Fair off the drawing board), how do we find the means to build the equivalent of a new Inverary or Edinburgh New Town, where value is built-in to the bricks and mortar?
A clue may be found in an unlikely place - the Ministry of Defence, usually noted for wasting vast amounts of taxpayers money on failed computer systems and unusable nuclear bombs. My pal Sandy’s practice was involved in designing housing for soldiers, to be done to a PFI model, funded by a high interest loan from the bank. After 25 years, the MOD would own the property, just when the buildings were coming to the end of their useful life and had to be replaced.
Then a bright chap in the ministry was struck by an idea. Rather than housing being built which decreases in value, why not design a high-quality community, so that in 25 years there is a huge uplift in property value, which both the bank and the taxpayer own? Why not follow the examples of market towns and planned villages, where good design results in high value?
So the bank is lending money cheaply, and the MOD is investing in quality, with the knowledge that their equity shares will yield a lucrative return. And, most importantly, the soldiers, and future generations, are getting a wonderful place to live.
But can this idea be transferred to Civvy Street ? People in the apparently sleepy Perthshire village of Comrie think so. After noticing that vital local services were being lost to high-end housing, the community realised that their community would have not have a future if things continued as they were – other than as a commuter belt village and lifeless holiday resort. So they set up a trust – an organisation that has dual limited company and charitable status.
They now have a development plan which sets out ambitions for their community for the next thirty years. The community has identified themes, then projects, then actions. And because, like the MOD model, there is a vision of a community improving and gaining value, they have found funding easy to access.
They are now well on their way to restating vital services in their village, giving opportunities for business to expand, and providing housing for old and young alike. Local landowners, whether private or public, are buying in to the masterplan. Strategic support is coming from the planning department and service providers. And capital is pouring in from housing providers and private investors.
But most of all, it has the backing of a community where long-term regeneration and sustainability have become core values.
All of us share this aspiration: these are the buzzwords of politicians and architects alike. But Comrie is actually delivering. If communities could decide how they should develop, they would all choose to be beautiful places, with good services and attractive housing.
We would not allow our councils to flog off land to developers, meaning that we lose control of our assets. We would not impose local plans which have no relevance or commitment to the community. We would not allow development to be dictated by the whims of developers or stuck within a reactive and conflict-rivven planning process.
And we would definitely not choose the results: the dreadful roundabout planning and Tescoland of Inverness, the stack-them-high condominiums of the Clyde and Leith, or the failed “regeneration” projects of urban Scotland, where well-meaning social housing providers have built boxes then ticked boxes, only for their public investments to end up failed communities within a decade.
Laudably, the Scottish Government says that they want us to start building high quality sustainable communities. But the Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative fails to describe a vehicle for delivering its aims
But strangely, it asks that developers should bring forward proposals of high quality, which can then access assistance for community consultation. Never has a cart been placed so firmly before a horse: as Comrie shows, the community must come first –then the development.
The government has to be the facilitator to allow our communities to grow. They should fund setting up urban and rural community trusts which can be used to provide a legal structure and an investment vehicle for communities to flourish. This is not a new idea – it has been done to great success throughout Dorset.
They should offer funding for master planning and community consultation and advice/education about where to seek professional help and what to look for (perhaps there’s a role for the Lighthouse staff here, where they could get in to communities and use their communication skills productively).
Once a long-term development plan is in place, local and central government should then help communities deliver their ambitions, by putting in infrastructure in advance, such as water and sewerage, local schools and roads. Service providers should plan for demand, rather than react to demand.
And the big bonus for the developers is that the unidentified risk in buying unserviced land is reduced – they can start competing on quality, building to the appropriate density and mix, as required by the masterplan.
None of this will help my friend who is still losing money and sleep. A consolation may be if his misery encourages the introduction of the Land Value Tax, which would flatten out the boom bust economic cycle, and stop the present angst happening to future generations.
But this needs leadership from politicians. As Gordon Brown chews over food shortages, and Alex Salmond picks his way through the litter-strewn streets of Glasgow’s east end, both would agree that they want to see sustainable, beautiful communities.
But sentiment is not enough – it is about delivery, and this is our opportunity. Wimpey and the like are down but not out, and when they awake, we have to put them to work – on our terms.