Affordable housing vital for key workers

Public bodies including councils and NHS trusts should lead a major push to provide affordable homes for key workers in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Voice of Authority’s latest webinar heard.

Panellists Barbara Brownlee, from Westminster City Council, and Councillor Emily Davey, from Kingston Council, held a lively debate with sponsor EDAROTH’s commercial director Nick Towe about ways that key workers can be housed in the future. Brownlee said recent history is “littered” with failed initiatives for homebuilding for key workers, and asserted that post-coronavirus is a vital time to tackle the issue head-on.

“We need key workers in the city as much as anyone else”, she told the webinar on May 28. “It is impossible, absolutely impossible without intervention to make sure that happens.

“There is a real fear we hit a point in central London where every blue light worker – no one can get in (to work) in time. You might have a 24-hour Tesco working, but it won’t open because no management can get in to open it or run it, no one can staff the sweet counter.”

She said NHS trusts have access to unused land and should drive efforts to provide homes for their own key workers.

“If go back in history, big employers build houses for their employees”, she said. “It is much more sustainable to ask the NHS to have a long-term view about, strategically, how to deal with the number of employees they want, in a place like central London, and the cost of housing.

“It would be a much better conversation to discuss with them housing their own people.”

Davey said Kingston is currently building its first batch of council housing in the borough in 40 years, and agreed that public bodies can drive the process forward with the right tools from central government.

“How are we going to get our economy going?”, she asked. “That’s going to be through building. We’ve got to be the ones getting out there and getting building, so that then the knock-on effect to the local community will be great.

“There will be a financial impact of Covid-19 – how we are going to tackle it is through building and building on our own land.”

She said the private sector is reluctant to release too many homes on to the market, for fear of driving down sale prices, and agreed that a key worker home-building scheme would be “very popular” but must be done with the correct tools from central government.

“It’s not about the landlord, not about the landowners, it’s about the people we are trying to help”, she said.

“It’s not about getting a good deal for the landlords, the developers. If we are interested in key workers, we have got to come up with a product which puts them at the heart and actually what they want rather than what the developer, the council, and the private owner wants.”

The Homes for Heroes campaign has been established with the ambition of building 100,000 homes for key workers who have helped in the fight against coronavirus.

Towe said the campaign has “turned to spotlight on to key worker housing”, saying Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) could be employed to deliver homes when social distancing is still in place, and adding that a “change of attitude” is important on the issue.

“Terrible as it is this Covid-19 pandemic, it may give us the impetus to try and sort things out”, he said. “But we’ve got to try and be on top of it, rather than in a few weeks times when everyone’s let out we can’t let this fall back into the background.”

He pointed out that a lot of unused brownfield land is state-owned and can be used to provide new homes in a beneficial way for all parties.

“Let’s not sell that land, let’s use it to house the key workers, particularly the ones that work for those organisations”, he said. “That way it’s dual benefit – you can generate a long-term income for that land but you can have your workers close at hand, incentivise them to come and work with you and stay with you.”

The panellists agreed that any homes must be “genuinely affordable” so that key workers are not priced out of the market.

On Tuesday, June 2, The Voice of Authority is holding the Practical Steps to High Street recovery in partnership with Inner Circle Consulting. Join HERE.