Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Expanding our environmental view

This is a piece I wrote for the People's Republic of Stokes Croft but I've also shared it here as I think it's an interesting topic that many don't quite see. The environment is not just land in the countryside, or parks and gardens, but it's avery space we inhabit, icluding our homes and so we need to expand our view of environmental issues to cover everything that covers. Which, I might add, is pretty much everything.....

In 1980 the right to buy council housing became law in the new Housing Act and thousands of people up and down the country achieved what they had never thought possible-a home that they owned. Little wrong with that  I hear you cry but in reality what happened was that, instead of reinvesting the monies raised by building new social housing for a population that was growing exponentially, that money was ring fenced by the then Tory government, and the growth of building of social homes has steadily declined ever since, whilst the prices of housing has risen at rate that is almost unbelievable. With land being seen as an asset, it’s cost has risen and average house prices, which includes the prices of all those once council houses, have risen alongside that at a rate that soon will make home owner ship by anyone other than the wealthy impossible. Average house prices in 1977 were still less than £10,000 where today the average price is around £190.00 nationally and in London and the South East that figure rises to just over £400,000.

Of course for the generation that were able to buy their council homes this has lead to the possibility of making huge sums of money on homes that were sold for enormously more than they were purchased for and these homes are now a part of the national housing stock and sold as such, meaning that they are now generally not affordable homes at all. Indeed the governments’s idea of an affordable home is one that is 20% less than its average cost which is still completely out of the average wageholders budget of £26,000 per year. With mortgage companies generally asking for at least a 5% deposit and often far more we have created a situation where we will have future generations renting and never being able to get onto the property ladder, already saddled with huge debts from university fees and relying on more and more unscrupulous landlords as need for housing outweighs availability.

Constantly we hear the cry that we must leave the world a better place for our children and our children’s children. That we must care for greenbelt, encourage more conservation areas and SSSI but rarely do we see housing mentioned as a part of this. However, how can it not be? Our environment is not just the outdoors, the countryside or parks, but it is everything we live in. It is our cafes, those areas in city centres between buildings, that grassed area behind the fence on an estate. Our environment is the space in which we live.

So on Stokes Croft, Bristol’s independent district where creativity is at the centre of so many lives, how can we look at a building that is threatened with a London developer’s plan of gentrification as any other than an environmental issue. Stokes croft, the area known for its incredible squats, its street art and its independent spirit, who fought as a community to keep Tesco at bay cannot be the place to put a gated community in any way. In fact, frankly, gated communities, designed with mainly safety and security as its main criteria, cannot possibly help maintain any form of independent spirit. The fact that only 7% of the dwellings will be affordable and that is likely to be just the 20% lower rate rather than social housing, in an area where the housing crisis can be seen every day, on the streets, ought to be seen as a scandal and a disaster for our future generations, rather than a positive solution to a building that has been crumbling for many years.

Positive solutions need to be the way forwards, looking at how we ensure people are safe and secure in homes they can afford and in communities where they feel they are safe and secure. Rather than continually looking at constant development at the outer edges of our cities of box type homes, we need to look at the building stock within our cities, leaving the greenbelt alone for our ever growing population, and looking at the amount of buildings that could be turned into decent homes within the city, where people will be able to be car free, and rather than looking at bus routes that stretch ever further out of the city, the routes can concentrate on the areas that are already populated. With a larger population living within city boundaries, parks budgets and budgets for urban landscaping could increase, helping the city to cope with rising temperatures due to our changing climate. 

With all this in mind surely at the centre of the Carriageworks plan should be community. The Carriageworks Action Group and Knightstone Housing have put together a plan with community at it’s heart, and that must be the plan that is implemented at the very least. Imagine a beautiful city centre community building, with homes that are affordable and with the quantity of social housing that Bristol city Council recommends in all housing schemes of 30%-40% available to people struggling to pay the ever increasing private rents in the area. Imagine that it has beautiful and productive gardens that are open for the entire community of Stokes Croft to use and which people can safely use as a path through to the area at the back of the building 24 hours a day. With small shops and workshops built in at affordable rents on the ground floor, it can also become a centre for micro businesses to begin and flourish, creating a truly local economy and holding the money spent within that economy, adding to it’s wealth, both financial and creative.

This should not be a dream. This is the vision of green and sustainable living that we must move towards if we are to create a world that we are proud to leave for our children. As a species we must stop looking at houses as assets and begin to look at them as homes. Only then can we leave a planet that we are proud of for future generations.