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Key worker housing provision in Science Cities

Key worker housing campus at Eddington, Cambridge (Mecanoo Architects for the University of Cambridge - photographed by Greg Holmes)

Future Cities Forum held its housing debate this week looking at cities such as Cambridge, Oxford and London with specific problems in housing key workers and attracting talent. During the pandemic it has become clear that there should be new consideration for providing homes where key workers do not struggle to commute long distances to work. Popular cities such as Cambridge have - in recent decades - presented a problem for workers on low salaries affording housing near to hospitals and the university because of high prices for both owning and renting.

The forum asked the following questions:

How do we continue to attract talent to over-heating science cities when housing costs are out of reach to those moving to work there?

Is building on top of existing housing infrastructure - 'air space' - the answer?

How far is the pressure on social housing in London having a knock-on effect for key worker homes?

How can we avoid silos of key worker housing being built with lack of proper infrastructure and facilities?

Cambridge University has established a strategy to tackle the problem of housing shortage for university staff and key workers and has built a new community at Eddington, north west of the city but with transport links to the centre. Director of Estates, Graham Matthews told the forum that the mission of providing key worker housing was at the centre of its plan:

'When market housing is broadly out of reach, how do we attract talent, operational staff and researchers to work for us when most accommodation is quite a long way from the city.?

'We established a strategy to tackle this problem, to develop significant volumes of key worker housing. When the metro system is built, Eddington will only be a couple of stops to the centre. Three thousand small housing units are available with a substantial number for key workers and facilities for a complete community. It is built on a greenfield site with over 100,000 square meters of research space and graduate rooms, a community centre and hotel, a large care home, retail, a school and a nursery.

'The university adopted a carbon zero strategy for 2038 in its design. How to reduce carbon emissions from the 700 buildings that make up the university is a challenge but at Eddington, there were proposals from the outset for a low carbon estate. At the moment, all heating is on a district heating system and over the next 18 months we will move to a water heat pump solution. '

'The Eddington model can be transported to other cities. It is based on our research from around the world. But I would stress again that the important key here is community and place and integration of industry with commerce. Deriving our masterplan depended on community - otherwise it would have failed. Facilities must be put in ahead of the housing. We want to attract people out onto street and attract buzz.'

Could providing 'air space homes' where housing is built on top of existing buildings be the answer for some cities? There has been interest in London for this to enable key workers to live close to hospitals for example. However, Valerie Conway an experienced surveyor working for planning firm David Lock Associates, explained how difficult it is to identify suitable sites. Existing buildings are built up to the boundaries and with the nature of sites, there is very little storage for building materials.

She stated that it is also important to work with existing owners who will be affected during the build and that there are fire safety considerations across the whole of the building being worked on:

'Therefore there is a lot of work for a small percentage gain. There is also the concern that these dwellings will lose key worker status in a change of tenants. There should be put in place a shared ownership product including a buy back arrangement, attached to that location in perpetuity. It could be helpful to look at health facilities, space around them for building and a closer look at public sector land.'

Valerie also highlighted the need for good data for outcomes that actually deliver:

'We have no national policy of affordable housing but it is interesting to note that Reading Council thinks if you bring in new offices it leads to housing development where you are creating a whole community. The commercial sector is realising the importance of bottom line and commerce is stepping in where the government is failing. The impact of Gross Development Value means places can be measurable.'

However, Graham warned that although data is important it is also imperfect and we should be very careful not to follow it too slavishly:

'The world is changing' he said 'and data is just part of the bigger mix. We cannot solve the housing problem on our own but nor can the council. It has to be collaborative - this is critical in achieving in-roads.'

Colin Wilson, Head of Regeneration for the Old Kent Road, London Borough of Southwark talked about ongoing conversations with hospital trusts and universities such as Guy's and St Thomas':

'These conversations can be very political in London, with massive housing waiting lists. Southwark is keen to provide key worker housing but getting the balance right with limited resources is tricky. We can refuse planning if there is no social housing in applications. The pressures throughout the system knock onto key worker housing. Local authorities can with political leadership can get a clear message about how transport and good public realm interlink. We can require civic benefits to be delivered. The Section 106 process works by off-setting costs of social housing by selling expensive flats, mixing communities and aspiration. People who live in Old Kent Road have aspirations about where they live. They want universities there and are open to change but are very clear they want their families to benefit from it.'

'The plan for the Old Kent Road which has brought in housing and (logistics) distribution sheds was a response from pension funds and councils and has been positive because of the Central London location for those sites. Covid-19 has meant that London Bridge has emptied out but local centres are thriving. Key workers are employed by places such as Pets-at-Home in Southwark, which has had a thriving business through the pandemic and those key workers have had to live nearby.'

At the Harlow Science Park, in Essex, Bruce Calton, Director at architects Scott Brownrigg stated that it is important to talk about creating real communities around social and key worker housing. The district council made a conscious decision to locate employment next to emergent community so that residents could live and work within a short distance of cycling and walking. We have enhanced the landscaping and all latter housing coming forward will have an accessible market square which we have been able to support.

'Some developers want to get in and out quickly but there should always be a long term plan to provide housing with good transport and social infrastructure. The worst approach can be to provide silos of key worker housing by itself. These places are then not suitable for a 24 hour way of living with nurses and doctors doing different shifts. I am currently working with a south coast NHS trust where there is a centre of clinical excellence with key worker homes - next to each other - just walk across the road.

'With air space in mind, buildings dating from the 1970s and 1990s have concrete frames and two-storey additions have been added to increase office accommodation but they could equally be used for key worker homes. There are a lot of these linear buildings across the NHS estates and the redevelopment doesn't have to touch the heritage buildings.'

'I feel sad when developers argue for reducing affordable housing in their developments and I do think that some of the local authorities don't push back enough. In the south east the private sale of housing pays for a great deal. When we are talking about critical mass at play, you have a big body of employers and employees as in Cambridge which is highly attractive to investors who can see a circulation of money, but without a critical mass it doesn't work so well. With housing development, you either have for instance a Bournville or a council or a commercial developer - all with different views on what long term is and that's where the problem is. The commercial aspect is a hard one. The need to bring in the pension providers is surely key alongside detailed Section 106 requirements.'

Keith Papa, Director at BDP joined the conversation saying that the need to get into science labs is still there, you wouldn't want to do some of the lab work at home! With Covid-19 we have an enforced flexibility. We are not seeing people so much because we are working at home but there have been upsides for family life. It is highly unlikely that we will return to full time work in one place. I think there will be mixed-place working. We won't necessarily work in homes all the time post pandemic but very close to home in flexible working places, perhaps five minutes away. This new idea of working more locally will probably provide opportunities for key workers to live near science facilities. It is the best of the 'village mentality' within our cities and will help future retail with shops being sustainable because people will be living nearby.

Carolyn Ploszynski, Head of Regeneration and Economy at Oxford City Council commented that we should think more broadly about key workers and the people in this group might include those working across essential retail and in vital services such as waste disposal. She added:

'I think we have the right balance through the Local Plan 2036 adopted last year. It developed a policy with bespoke employer-led affordable housing. We identified sites within both university and hospitals trusts and were able to see where hundreds if not thousands of key worker units could be built. It is not just about providing homes for nurses but also high paid consultants to work for hospital trusts, people who work in retail or collect bins. So it is not just based on a salary thresh-hold but about hard to fill jobs.

Director of Development at BioMed Realty, Orestis Tzortzoglou (who runs the science parks at Granta Park and at Babraham Research Campus near Cambridge) commented that companies coming into cities, often have a housing issue:

'Relocations can be difficult and early stage company staff who are often younger people end up having to commute much further away or have to share accommodation which is difficult in Covid-19 times. They often are not able to work from home. Apple and Amazon are going to build homes. Someone has to take a longer term view and there is no easy solution. The answer could be to team up with partners. We are operating in London, Oxford and Cambridge where there is more housing demand. The life sciences field has experienced a lot of growth with companies coming out of incubation so the right office stock needs to be available. There needs to be flexibility because young companies cannot provide funds to convert office space but we can plug that financial gap.'

This is the first of a continuing series of housing forums throughout 2021, so watch out for further details and join the debates.

Harlow Science Park (Scott Brownrigg)


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