Phil Prentice: We all used to live in town centres, why can’t we live there again?


Ahead of a panel session at IdeaSpace in Glasgow this week, Phil Prentice of Scotland's Towns Partnership says the solution to housing problems could lie in declining town centres

BEING severely limited or completely locked out of suitable housing options is probably the single biggest social injustice faced by those under 35 years of age today, with private renting becoming the norm and average rents now more expensive than a mortgage in large swathes of the country.

The typical age of the first time buyer in the UK is now 36. The spare bedroom to enable saving and then the bank of mum and dad is almost always required for the deposit, banks are reluctant to lend post financial crisis and while low mortgages are keeping the wider economy on life support, for young people on low incomes and in insecure employment it's almost impossible to find one. 

Mortgage approvals are picking up slowly from the lows of 2009-2014, mainly because of low rates, but house building is still sluggish with a shortfall of 14,000 per annum compounding the problem and driving more young people towards the private sector housing market. 

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Even with the highly commendable approach from the Scottish Government, which is committed to spending £3bn to build an extra 50,000 affordable homes, of which 35,000 are to be social rent stock, this still leaves us with 150,000 Scots trying to get into appropriate social housing, a similar number acknowledging they have no other option but to struggle on in private rented accommodation and the same number again seeking their first step on to the property ladder. 

That's almost 20 per cent of the current working age population, although in reality this figure will be much higher given those over 35 will most likely already have a home. 

We are all aware of how critical a well functioning housing market is to the economy: it encourages social mobility and allows for upsizing and downsizing as well as supporting jobs in planning, finance, construction, banking and legal sectors. 

And our ageing demographic also needs a new approach. Many of our elderly are property rich and cash poor and struggle on in properties that are hard to manage and unfit for purpose.

With the Community Empowerment Act now in place and public sector pension funds seeking an ethical home, why can't local communities start looking at delivering housing solutions back in their town centres? 

So, is there a ready made solution?

At the same time, our town centres are facing the perfect storm: many are at a crossroads with the continued drift of talent and youth to city economies; structural changes in retail where we use tablets online, click and collect, and out-of-town and destination shops; the ongoing impact of the economic recession; dysfunctional property and housing markets; welfare reform; less disposable local income; and a fast shrinking public sector. 

The issues are complex and there is no silver bullet solution, but a good start might be to link these two problems together. Towns already have the required infrastructure and utilities. A lot of retail units will continue to close, the public sector estate will shrink and a lot of space, above ground floor offices and shop retail, is already currently fallow. 

There is a lot of space to play with in all of that, including, for some, start-of-life and end-of-life housing solutions blending new communities together.

So with the Community Empowerment Act now in place and public sector pension funds seeking an ethical home, why can't local communities start looking at delivering housing solutions back in their town centres? 

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With the town centre first principle beginning to gain traction, could we ensure that every strategic housing investment plan and local development plan had an element of town centre living? Could funding from the Affordable Housing Supply Programme be used to mainstream this approach? Add in commuted sums and developer contributions and we could make a start.

This approach delivers on low carbon and on social justice, it creates appropriate local housing options as well as delivering on social and economic outcomes, and it puts vibrancy, security and footfall back into our town centres.

Phil Prentice will join award-winning architect Malcolm Fraser for the 'A new vision for housing in Scotland' panel session at IdeaSpace in Glasgow Science Centre on Thursday 13 October. The event is free to attend. More details and the full programme for IdeaSpace can be found here.

Picture courtesy of Mister G.C.

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