Olivia Harris is the Chief Executive of the Dolphin Living housing charity and the Chair of the Westminster Property Association.
As we start to look forward to the recovery, it is right that the government focuses on sustaining and creating jobs, especially within the key sectors of hospitality and tourism. The whole property industry has a critical role to play in supporting this agenda. This is especially through the increased provision of housing in inner London that is both accessible and affordable, for not only those key workers who have been providing essential services during the current crisis, but those working in the very sectors the government is actively seeking to support.
Although we are still very much in the response phase of the current COVID-19 crisis, significant attention is already being paid to the recovery phase, and the detailed plans to facilitate the gradual re-start of the UK’s economy. As well as recovery, there is also the longer-term lessons learned from the pandemic to ensure that the country is better equipped in the future to deal with any future public health crisis.
Whilst it is too early to draw firm conclusions and recommendations, both from an economic as well as a societal perspective, one obvious consideration is starting to emerge strongly. Namely, we need to ensure that, as a country, we have a much greater resilience across key public sector roles, such as health and social care, and that we fundamentally review the definition of a ‘key worker’ to recognise those workers, often in relatively low-paid jobs, who keep the UK functioning.
Nowhere is this recognition more needed than in how we look to develop national, regional, and local housing policies that embed resilience right at the heart of the communities where these workers are needed the most. Underlying this resilience is the need to house key workers in locations close to their work, regardless of broader housing market pricing.
For many years Dolphin Living have championed, in a London context, the need for those workers who “keep the city alive”, as well as the need to increase the supply of key worker affordable housing in locations these workers want to live.
This reflects our primary charitable objective of providing homes in central London at below market rents that allow working Londoners on modest incomes to live close to their place of work. Our residents comprise not only those traditional key workers who have played such a crucial role during this crisis, such as health workers, the emergency services and teachers, but also those who play a key role in delivering and supporting London’s infrastructure over the longer-term. Dolphin Living fundamentally believes that the need for housing for key workers in central locations has been evidenced by the coronavirus pandemic and the shift to new ways of working.
This crisis has forced us to challenge many of the assumptions we have made about how our cities function. In particular, we need to reconsider the notion that we can accommodate key workers on the fringes of London and beyond, yet still depend upon them in times of emergency to be available 24/7, often with little or no transport infrastructure to support them. This approach will surely result in a loss of key workers to central London as long commutes are even less desirable in light of the pandemic.
As a response, we need to fundamentally review how we provide sustainable critical services alongside additional investment to support housing for keyworkers where they are most needed. The current issues relating to transport capacity, given social distancing requirements, disproportionately impact upon many of those we would define as key workers, who often cannot afford any alternative other than public transport and cannot work from home. However, that is not to suggest that we should be seeking to deliver these new homes without some consideration around the locations and housing key workers actually want to live in. For it would be a mistake to look to re-create the police accommodation blocks of old without any notion of genuine and real choice for the key workers upon whom we all rely.
This notion of locational choice is something we have spent a considerable amount of time reviewing following polling that we commissioned YouGov to undertake. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that commuting time is a top priority for working London renters: 56 per cent ranked the distance or travel time to work in their top three priorities, and over a quarter (27 per cent) ranked this factor first. Similarly, 55 per cent ranked having public transport available within ten minutes’ walk in their top three priorities, and a fifth (20 per cent) ranked the factor first.
When we analysed the findings further, we found that a clear majority (65 per cent) of working London renters believe that an acceptable commute time is up to around 45 minutes, and nearly all (92 per cent) think it should be no more than one hour.
Housing delivery in recent years has focused on those in the direst need, both economically and socially, subsidised by market housing that in London is unaffordable to median earners. An unintended consequence of this approach, in high-value areas particularly, means that little thought has been given to the needs and wants of the key workers upon whom we rely, as highlighted by this pandemic.
Therefore, we are asking that the government’s recovery strategy commits to a massive expansion of affordable house building, including a significant proportion of intermediate rental housing, within London, as part of the overall pledge to support the capital’s economy.