‘Where Can We Build More Homes?’

From homes above shops, to building over the UK’s railway lines, a panel of industry experts met at UK Construction Week to discuss where we can build more homes in order to meet the Government’s housing targets.

Speaking at the Regeneration hub on Tuesday the 9th of October, was Brian Berry, CEO of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB); Julia Riddle, director at Castle Planning; Bill Price, director at WSP; John Patch, technical consultant at the Association of Specialist Underpinning Contractors (ASUC),Willie Watt, director at Nicoll Russell Studios Architects; and chair Rolf Neilsen, associate partner at C.F. Møller Architects.

After being introduced by chair Neilsen, Brian Berry was the first to speak of the panel members. He began by noting that 1967 was the last time the country was building 300k homes a year, citing a complex planning system, tough land acquisition, a fall in SME builders, and the growing skills crisis as some of the reasons behind the industry’s current pace.

Berry believes that building above shops in UK high streets could provide the space for a significant number of new homes, as researched in the FMB report “Homes On Our High Streets.” While he said that there are many challenges involved, with expenses such as new access, fire control and acoustic insulation, Berry told that there are ‘untapped’ opportunities across the country. He also added that town centre homes can fit a wide variety of demograph- ics, including older people for close amenities, and younger residents for the night life. As shops are shutting across the UK, Brian hopes that high streets could be reinvented as living, entertainment and food hubs in market towns.

Bill Price followed Berry, discussing how building over railways could provide a large amount of space in dense areas such as London. The suggestion didn’t come without its caveats, Price listing the dangers of trains running off of tracks, fire, noise and vibrations as issues that must be dealt with to build above rail lines. The benefits he mentioned however were that there is no extra land required, and the new structures can create an attractive junction across the tracks to join up the city. He mentioned a few rail overbuild projects that provide examples of success in this area, including Royal Mint Gardens at the Docklands Light Railway station, a development above Twickenham rail station, and a 50-storey residential block over the rail tracks at Principal Place, Shoreditch, near Liverpool Street Station.

According to John Patch, utilising brownfield land is the only way to meet the targets. He referred to figures from the CPRE report, “From Wasted Space to Living Spaces,” which reported that councils have identified the capacity for at least 1 million new homes on brownfield land. He suggested three reasons that may be holding up the development of brownfield land: planning, fiscal issues, and site conditions. Patch reported however that the tools to deal with new foundations have vastly improved over the last ten years, and have become far more cost-effective.

Julia Riddle, herself a director at a planning consultancy firm, acknowledged that the challenge of planning was mentioned by each panel member. She said that the Government is clearly pro the delivery of new homes, and planning policy should further indicate this. Riddle argued however that different councils often have different issues with planning, and local pressures will frequently stop building projects in their tracks if they are deemed unsuitable for the area by locals.