We’ve all read the stories. You know the ones I mean. They appear roughly three times a week in the Evening Standard, as regular as a 9am double espresso to get the cogs whirring.
“Average prices hit record highs in London”
“First time buyers forced out of the Capital”
“24-year old single males working in PR have no chance of getting on the property ladder”
Every time a twenty-something opens a page with one of these headlines on the Tube, there is a palpable sigh and a swiftly executed turning of the page. This is the resigned acceptance of the twenty-something that the dream of property ownership, ingrained at such a young age, is as quixotic as a winning a tidy sum on the Euromillions.
Like many, I’ve followed the travails of my fellow twenty-something in Estates Gazette, who is attempting to rent in zones 1 or 2 for less than £400 a month. From houseboats, to Ikea-esque flat-pack container boxes, the challenge represents a wacky foray into the world of affordable renting. Tim Lowe I salute your endeavor! (Well worth a look: http://www.egi.co.uk/news/video-update-young-professional-and-priced-out/)
But for those of us who would like to own a home at some point this century’s solutions seem very few and far between. Help to Buy on the surface has helped. In September 2014 the government announced that 48,000 have brought a home using the scheme, which looks set to either to be expanded or wound down in the next few years depending on which expert piece you read on which day. This has been no panacea though, it remains inaccessible to many and raises the spectre of future housing bubbles and price inflation yet again.
So one turns one’s attention elsewhere to see a solution for the capital’s housing problem. Again, not a comprehensive panacea, but Pocket Living, and similar innovations which are gradually emerging seem to be a credible part of the solution.
Headed by the loquacious Marc Vlessing and his business partner Paul Harbard, Pocket Living is a property developer targeting first time buyers earning less than £66,000 a year who live or work in the borough where a development is delivered. It is novel, and it is gaining traction.
The idea is simple. They deliver small flats by conventional standards, but use a mixture of innovative techniques to make the spaces as comfortable and spacious as possible for the home-owner. The pay off is that the prices are significantly lower than the local market rate, meaning flats are sold for as little as £220,000. When a homeowner to sell, the local authority will then offer the flat to individuals who fit a certain criteria. The prices, in London terms, are staggering, and the process of selling, fair and democratic.
In October 2013, all 33 London Council’s and the Mayor of London announced that they would be investing £21.7m into the developer. This sort of political recognition and financial investment is almost unheard of, and demonstrates that this is a model which has caught the imagination of London.
One of the company’s most recent successes was in Hackney in early November 2014, when the company successfully secured permission for 31 new flats on the site of an old pub next door to Hackney Downs station. The council’s report considered that 29 of the 31 units (94%) were classed as affordable, a staggering figure almost unheard of in the property industry. The application was approved and Pocket Living look to be moving elsewhere, offering hope to those of us desperate to get on the property ladder at some point.
Pocket Living CEO, Marc Vlessing, told the Guardian in 2013 that in London “There is no point delivering 500sq ft flats because they [first time buyers] cannot afford it…So we said is there a format that works, that is really nicely designed and has everything you need from a starter home that is 400 sq ft?”
In answer to that question, it seems that Pocket have cracked it. If they, companies pioneering new approaches to housing such as Fizzy Living and Y-CUBE are to escalate their levels of delivery, with support from both the political and planning worlds, London may have part of the solution to its current housing crisis.
Whether there will be further moves at the national level to support the likes of Pocket Living is frankly, anyone’s guess. In the widely anticipated Lyon’s Housing Review for the opposition, there was no mention of supporting these sorts of providers, although Fizzy Living did get a fleeting namecheck. Labour has committed itself to building 200,000 homes annually by the end of 2020 but quite how has not yet been set. Similar pledges have come from the Lib Dems and Conservatives but with little detail to boot. At the Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron announced that if elected, his government would deliver 100,000 discounted new homes aimed at first time buyers, built on brownfield land and facilitated by the waiving of the CIL levy. Providers like Pocket Living are ideally placed to help deliver this, but the detail is yet to be finalised.
So here’s one suggestion that could help further alleviate the problem. The public sector is sitting on a raft of surplus land, across the country and in the capital, which is currently administered by the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). The HCA should be tasked with identifying suitable parcels of land that could be released to innovative providers of low-cost, high density and innovative housing in the capital in order to help deliver more homes in the capital and generate more receipts for local authorities through development. Where possible, schemes that offer a significant level of affordable housing should be exempt from the Mayoral CIL.
That’s one broad idea that could help but it is up to our politicians to lay out their plans in the coming months. If I were Brandon Lewis or Emma Reynolds, I’d be paying close attention to the work of Vlessing and co. He might just have one answer to the housing crisis, in his back Pocket.