By Roy Ledgister, Founder and Director of the Convivia Group
As Covid-19 has forced us into isolation, the change has been difficult for many to accept. Lack of association outside of our households and confinement within a solitary space is proving challenging. The sudden shift of lifestyle has presented us with news stories of celebrities struggling to make the adaptation, yet enjoying multi-million-pound homes graced with pools, grounds and gyms. The one-hour exercise window we were afforded proved inadequate as we craved more outdoor time.
The electronic devices we have hitherto craved have done little to ease the suffering. In the face of adversity, we have realised that what we crave is human interaction. Every Thursday at 8pm, our doorstep clap of appreciation for our NHS heroes is as much an opportunity for us to interact with one another, albeit over fences and hedgerows. Neighbours we barely acknowledged hitherto are now part of a rewarding community. We applaud, cheer and smile together in a gathering so rewarding that for many, it recurs weekly in an otherwise empty calendar. As creatures of association, cabin fever and lack of interaction are significantly impacting on our well-being.
These difficulties are compounded further for those forced to isolate in lesser social housing conditions than that enjoyed by our celebrities? Such individuals routinely entertain their families within their houses with little financial ability to participate in what is offered beyond their front doors. Are we now experiencing a snapshot of their life existence?
With the walls closing in on us and our movements curtailed, we have been robbed of the power of choice. The pecuniary advantage enjoyed by many not requiring state assistance has little value in the Covid-19 environment. Where we once enhanced our well being with expensive gym memberships, we are levelled with only an hour of external exercise. Notwithstanding gaming devices, keeping our children entertained is proving arduous for most. Covid-19 has proved a sombre equaliser.
We have been forced to keep our body and minds occupied with our homes as our only resource. In doing so, we have come to realise that though are homes are our castles, the size and specification of the building matters little in times like this. When considering social housing, the ability to engage in community and enjoy amenities that promote well-being is equally important.
The attitude to social housing hitherto has for so long equated to it being ‘better than nothing’. Market forces rather than malevolence drives such an attitude. Development land is a scarce commodity and has a commensurate value attached. Social rents are at such a level that an ‘affordable home’ is seldom affordable. With expectations very low in the sector, we make no pretence of trying to deliver social ‘homes’. Instead, we are happy to simply create ‘housing’ which falls short of enriching lives. We deliver the absolute minimum in order to tick the box of providing roofs over desperately needing heads and little more.
‘Social Housing’ occupies its own category of quality in the development sector, sitting below medium and luxury offerings. ‘Social’, is often interchangeable with ‘what is the minimum we can get away with’. With specification aside, often lip service is paid to the provision of additional amenities. There is minimal consideration for the well-being of the occupants as we endeavour to save them from homelessness.
Some commentators rate the quality of social housing on the amount of space provided. To do so misses the point, if the additional square footage does nothing to enhance the users experience. Inadvertently such an approach reduces the amount of accommodation provided. Our post war planning policy is perhaps too antiquated to meet modern-day needs and the measure of suitable housing requires modern yardsticks. Perhaps the focus should be based more around the delivery of useable living space and amenities that develop community and enhance well-being.
Where the success of social housing is often measured against its lesser alternative, little creativity is required to deliver an enhancement over and above homelessness. As a starting point, the benchmark should be one where we compare our current social housing with what ‘should’ be delivered. In light of our recent experiences, we should then don our aspirational hats and consider what ‘could’ be, if we are to provide social housing worthy of acclaim. There may be an argument that the threshold should surpass that of the private sector where pecuniary freedom offers occupants a number of experiences outside of our homes. The provision of communal gyms and other amenities considered extravagances in social development ought to be reclassified as essential.
Any space that encourages the mental and physical development of its occupants is as important as the building fabric that guards them from the elements. Communal space must capture the spirit of the halcyon times where we looked out for one another. In creating that network of community, parents are enabled to further their own aims and goals with the benefit of enhancing the lives of all beneficiaries of social housing. This of course is far easier said than done, particularly in light of the gargantuan spend that falls to be repaid post Covid-19. Suppliers of social housing must be more creative now having the benefit of insight into what life may be like for the social housing user. They need to focus on delivering life enhancing ‘social homes’, and stop ticking boxes that simply deliver ‘social housing’.