the greenest option
From the Sunday Times, 11th Dec 2011
Across the country 2m
families need a home.
George Clarke knows
where 1m can be found.
I first came across the scandal of Britain's empty houses when I was living in London and travelling back to the northeast to visit my family. I saw people moving out of their good terraced houses that were then demolished. It didn't make sense.
I asked Gateshead council why the houses couldn't be brought back into use, but it just talked about policy - the Pathfinder scheme set up by John Prescott, Labour's deputy prime minister: the idea was to get rid of cramped flats or terraced houses and replace them with a nice new house with a front garden.
That didn't happen. Taxpayers spent billions of pounds emptying homes and demolishing them, but very few new properties were built in that area - and you'll find the same all over the country.
Today there are 1m empty homes in Britain, of which 350,000 are empty long term. That's equivalent to a city the size of Leeds. At the same time we have 2m families who need homes.
I met a man who refused to leave his flat in Gateshead, in a road where everybody else had been moved out. He said it felt like living in Pompeii. Eventually he gave up because he had a ground-floor flat and the roof had been stripped by vandals, so rain was running down his walls.
The real scandal is that 10 years ago those houses were upgraded with insulation and efficient boilers. It cost the council £60,000 to empty each house and relocate the residents, then thousands more to keep the houses empty or demolish them. That's crazy.
I've seen empty homes just across the road from homeless hostels. And hostels are expensive for taxpayers, too.
Councils say nobody wants to live in two-up, two-down, back-to-back houses. Well, people might prefer a detached house with a garden, but there are many out there who would love those homes. I met a former soldier who has no permanent home. Now he sleeps on a friend's sofa that is too short for him, while his son sleeps in an armchair.
I met another family who changed homes nine times in 13 years, moving from one rented property to another. Moving all the time affected the children's schooling and the place they were then renting was full of damp - they had slugs everywhere and the wiring was so dangerous they carried a lamp when they went from one dark room to another. I was shocked.
We do have to adapt the current housing stock, but we could knock two small homes into one. My own house is not very big and I've got three children, so I've done a side extension and a loft extension and built a basement. I've spent time and effort into making it into a fantastic family home. We are brilliant in this country at reconfiguring our housing stock but councils struggle to get their heads round it.
I have been working on a campaign to get empty houses back into use. A lot of councils and housing associations were scared to get involved - because if you have been responsible for creating many buildings in your area, you will be a bit embarrassed. But Birmingham agreed to help and we converted a building with three flats that nobody wanted to rent into a house for a big family.
It's not only about poor areas. I stood on a corner in Mayfair, central London, and saw six empty houses each worth £20m. I want to get them back into use. At the moment, if your house is uninhabitable you are exempt from council tax. I think you should pay quadruple the standard rate
We need to stop the demolition and to set up a fund that landlords can dip into for a loan to do up empty homes. We can't compulsorily purchase from private landlords, because everyone has the right to do what they like with their property.
But if we had cheap loans, people could afford to make homes habitable and the rent would cover the loan. People can do a lot of the work themselves. I met a couple in Liverpool who spent just £3,000 doing up a house in a deserted street. There was no feasibility study, no application for funding. It was just a question of identifying a property and getting on with it.
What has been amazing is that since the television programme I made about this problem was broadcast, I've had tens of thousands of emails from people wanting to know how they can help. Groups have come together, contacted their council and asked what they can do to take over the empty homes in their street. They're saying why don't we do it? Nearly 100,000 people have signed our petition, enough to take it to parliament. Grant Shapps, the housing minister, sent a message saying that he had signed.
I'm not a politician and I don't want to come across as a naive architect. I know the industry well; I've been in it since I was 16. And my grandfathers were builders. I've proved that we can bring empties back into the system in an affordable way.
To find out more about the Great British Property Scandal, see tinyurl.com/cr6s3qa
From the Sunday Times, 11th Dec 2011
There's more than meets the eye in the Sunday Times article reproduced in full on the left:
In 2008 the Building Research Establishment at Watford held a series of seminars on the future of the UK housing stock. It was painfully clear that the country had no hope of meeting the Kyoto carbon-emission targets by the current policy of demolishing old homes and replacing with new.
At one of those seminars Ian Robinson, CEO of the Affordable Housing Development Company told a gripping tale of the renovation of some of Liverpool's decrepit houses, not one or two at a time, but by complete streets at a time. By this means, whole districts were lifted out of dismal despair into vibrant communities in one fell swoop, and isolated householders marooned in a sea of tinned-over windows saw their lives thereby transformed.
Check out Tancred Street, Skerries Road and the Rockfield Project
Yet four years on, Google Street-Map still shows how little has been achieved since then.
Now here's the thing:
If all those old windows had been refurbished and upgraded with new SupaSash sliding frames instead of being replaced by shiny new uPVC, many tons of embodied carbon would have been saved, and 100-year-old windows would have been given the prospect of surviving another 100 years as 21st Century windows. *
* Upgrading just one average-size old wood sash window with SupaSash instead of replacing with uPVC will save around 300kg of carbon
(that's 660lbs in old money - more than 1/4 of a ton)
GROW MORE TREES, AND LOCK CARBON AWAY FOR A CENTURY OR MORE WITH SUPASASH MADE FROM ACCOYA