Building more social and affordable housing could save UK government £1.5 billion a year

Duncombe Barracks, York, designed by Mikhail Riches Architects
Duncombe Barracks, York, designed by Mikhail Riches Architects

Investing significantly more in social and affordable housing could save the UK government an estimated £1.5 billion a year overall by eliminating substantial costs related to homelessness, according to a new report led by UCL researchers.

The report, published today, coincides with the launch of the Social and Affordable Housing Initiative, a coalition led by UCL, internationally renowned architects John McAslan + Partners and Dolphin Living affordable housing charity, to establish impactful strategies to address Britain’s housing crisis. The coalition brings together experts from multiple sectors, including architects, engineers, public health specialists, charities, as well as the public and private sector.

The report says that reductions of costs in the areas of housing and other benefits, in health, social, homeless and criminal justice services, and in unemployment and children’s lost education, would lead to savings of £1.5 billion annually, if homelessness were reduced to a minimal level. This figure, the report says, is an under-estimate, as it does not include all the costs in these sectors, or wider beneficial impacts on economic growth, productivity and life chances.

This scale of saving is possible because the costs of homelessness in the UK, encompassing people in temporary accommodation and insecure or inadequate housing as well as rough sleepers, are an estimated £6.5 billion a year, according to the report.

The savings estimate is based on the report’s proposal that government subsidy be gradually raised up to £5 billion a year over the next five years or so (up from £1 billion currently), to enable the building of 72,000 additional social/affordable homes a year (over and above the 28,000 a year currently). By comparison there are approximately 150,000 homes built annually by private housebuilders.

Co-author Professor Rosalind Raine (UCL Applied Health Research) said: "The housing crisis impacts on individuals, families and communities directly and indirectly. It is possible to tackle the holy grail of improving everyone’s lives, with benefits accruing the fastest for the most vulnerable. Our report does not rely on polemic but on published data. This summarises the evidence on the health and wider social impacts, the economic costs and savings, and highlights exemplars of social and affordable housing which can feasibly be scaled nationally."

The report, by a cross-disciplinary team from UCL, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, lays out the wider economic benefits of building more social and affordable housing. This includes increased council, income and corporation tax revenue and greater economic growth and productivity, as well as reductions in the extensive health and social costs associated with homelessness. It is widely acknowledged people who are homeless or in precarious housing suffer worse physical and mental health and poorer access to health care, leading to higher healthcare costs and more disability benefits.

The report also spells out how its social and affordable housing targets could be met and highlights recent successful examples of affordable and sustainable housing that could be scaled nationally.

It argues that new housing should be a mix of social-rent housing, partially discounted affordable housing, and dwellings to be sold or rented at full market value, both to subsidise the costs of the social housing and to prevent ghettoisation. It notes that the bulk of new social and affordable dwellings would need to be provided by local authorities.  

The report’s exemplars include both new housing and retrofitting existing dwellings:
  • A housing scheme at Goldsmith Road in Norwich by architecture firm Mikhail Riches for Norwich City Council.
  • Back-to-back housing on McGrath Road in the London Borough of Newham by Peter Barber Architects.
  • Further Mikhail Riches designs for seven sites for York City Council, two of which are under construction.
  • RG+P Architects working with Dacorum Borough Council on reusing brownfield sites in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, and surrounding areas.
  • Mikhail Riches’ retrofitting of a brutalist housing estate in Park Hill, Sheffield.
  • The retrofitting of the Agar Grove Estate for Camden Council by Mae Architects and HawkinsBrown.

Co-author Professor Murray Fraser (Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL) said: "These exemplar schemes are among the best social and affordable housing designs anywhere in the world and could inspire the highest quality mass housing in the UK.

"Both retrofits and new housing should aim for a Passivhaus standard which not only limits carbon emissions, but nearly eradicates fuel poverty for generations due to its high energy efficiency."

The publication of the report coincides with the launch of the Social and Affordable Housing Initiative at the Royal Society of Arts in London on Wednesday 4 October. The event, which is also online, will include a presentation from the coalition’s panel of experts where their plans will be shared and discussed with an invited audience.

The newly formed coalition aims to:
  • Develop a transformative national housing plan that will seek to resolve, once and for all, Britain’s affordable, social and homeless housing crisis through policy changes that will provide around 100,000 social/affordable homes dwellings each year.
  • Work with national policy makers, local authorities, architects, private builders and developers to investigate innovative design solutions for a new generation of high-quality and low-energy social/affordable homes for new and retrofit housing opportunities, using new technologies to deliver the scale of output needed.
  • Plan a Social and Affordable Housing Expo across the UK with the ambition to match the extraordinary aspirations and long-term positive outcomes of the 1951 Festival of Britain, creating momentum and irreversible change for good.

John McAslan, founder of John McAslan + Partners, said: "The UK has one of the least affordable housing markets in the world and the highest rate of homelessness in Europe. Urgent action is required now to address this.

"With some of the finest architects, engineers, public health experts, housebuilders, educationalists and creative power, Britain’s community of makers, thinkers, designers and doers need to be mobilised now to put social and affordable housing at the top of the societal agenda".

Olivia Harris, CEO of Dolphin Living, said: "In advocating for accelerated and greater provision of affordable housing we need to remember key and critical workers who have historically accessed social housing. To create and maintain balanced communities and a workforce who can meet the needs of our communities, new affordable housing should include specific provision for homes for discounted rent for workers on modest incomes."

Mark Greaves

E: m.greaves [at]
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