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George Clarke: My bold vision for the future of UK housing

The UK needs bold, ambitious action if it is to tackle its housing crisis head-on. The Big Issue asked architect, TV presenter and social homes advocate George Clarke what he would do if he was in charge of housing policy
Robert Jenrick is "only interested in home ownership", George Clarke told The Big Issue. Photo: Channel 4

George Clarke is an architect, a very busy television presenter (currently filming FIVE series) and a committed Big Issue ambassador. He’s also a proud proponent of social housing, a vocal critic of the government’s housing policies, and a genuine expert when it comes to how to build for the future. 

Given the housing crisis and the worrying likelihood of an imminent rise in homelessness, shouldn’t we be listening to experts? We say yes. When the country is crying out for affordable, high-quality, future-proofed, ecologically sound housing – let’s hear expert voices on the state of the nation’s housing, on planning rules, on how we house people now and into the future. 

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And Clarke is the expert when it comes to these things. So we asked him what he would do if he was in charge of housing policy. And over the course of 90 minutes, he offered up his expertise, passion and vision.

George Clarke: If I was in charge of housing policy…

A new plan for planning

As an urgent priority, I would change the planning system. I would make it quicker and more streamlined but still accountable in terms of design standards. The planning system and our slightly antiquated way of categorising how people live and work is not right for 21st-century living. It hasn’t caught up with the realities of how people live. 

We live in a very, very different age to the time before online technology. Back then, we were at home when we were at home, and when we went to work we sat behind the desk or stood in the factory. Then, when we wanted to do leisure stuff, we went out to do that.

Now someone could be sitting in a cafe with a laptop writing a book. Or creating a piece of artwork in the foyer of a commercial building. And look at all the people working from home now – many of whom will keep working from home even after the pandemic. 

The way we live and work and create things and physically use buildings has completely changed. So the Use Class system that says “that’s a retail building, that’s commercial, that’s residential, that’s light industrial” has become redundant. Obviously, you don’t want someone building a light industrial building next to your bedroom but people can work and produce and make from anywhere and the system hasn’t been updated.

Fix the Permitted Development Rights system

The main idea behind my new show Remarkable Renovations is converting buildings that have fallen out of use to be lived in. We’ve got everything from a picturesque barn in a field in Harrogate through to a high street bank and disused retail spaces. 

New Permitted Development Rights rules mean certain classifications of buildings can be converted to residential use without planning. And that’s good – if it’s being done by good people

If people want to produce good architecture, then those relaxed planning laws give them flexibility to get on and do it. The guys I’ve been meeting aren’t big developers. They’re people who want to create genuine family homes for themselves.

But Permitted Development Rights can get us into a very messy world, with no minimum space standards on commercial buildings being turned into residential flats. We’ve seen the ones I call the double-glazing-salesman-developers who say, let’s get as many flats in the building as possible, we don’t give a shit how small they are, how well they’re designed or how maintenance-free they’re going to be to live in. 

Schemes have gone ahead where bedrooms don’t have a window. Even prison cells have windows. So I have been lobbying the government and pushing on social media to say, Permitted Development Rights is a good thing in principle – but you have to set minimum standards. There has to be design guidance. You can’t just convert a building and do what the hell you want – that can lead to slum building. In my series, we show that when it works well, it’s really good.

1471 George Clarke pic2
Home ownership to housing crisis: Thatcher hands over the keys to a sold council house in 1979, but she failed to replace a lot of the stock Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Change the tax system to stop the dominance of Thatcher’s mega-developers

If you work on an existing building, you pay 20 per cent VAT on all your building materials. For a new build, it’s zero VAT. This was brought in by Margaret Thatcher, because she wanted to stimulate the economy for developers. She created all the big PLCs of today, really. Persimmon, Bellway and Barratt, the seeds for those companies were sown by Margaret Thatcher because she pushed them to “build, build, build” – on green belts, on school fields, everywhere. 

The government should charge zero VAT whether it’s new builds or retrofit. Why should new-build developers have a tax incentive when someone who does retrofit does not? Bricks and mortar are our history. So many buildings in this country have got a story to tell.

In Remarkable Renovations I analyse the history. Even if it was a barn conversion, why was that barn built? What was it used for? Who was the farmer that built it? How has it changed its purpose over the years? Why did it stop being used as a barn? You get a different story each time. They’re all unique. And all that history is eradicated when buildings are demolished. If we can encourage people to preserve these great buildings, with their fascinating histories, while expanding the housing stock in this country it’s win-win. 

Go green to counter fuel poverty

You’ve got companies developing all this fantastic green technology – but it’s not being rolled out at scale. At the minute there is massive pushback from the big house builders against improving ecological standards in new-build homes. They don’t want to do it. Taylor Wimpey said they were not going to install clean renewable heating technology in new houses. 

The government have a Renewable Heat Incentive, where residents get money back for using renewable energy, but they need to bring in a law to say developers must use green energy and recommend products. That would greatly improve the building regulations. 

It makes sense for us to build in a green way. It provides additional levels of comfort in the home to the residents, reduces their energy bills and prevents fuel poverty. There are millions of people in fuel poverty, literally deciding whether to heat their house or feed their kids. People having to choose whether to eat or heat? We shouldn’t be in this position in this country.

A high street revolution

I’m someone who doesn’t believe really in the capitalist, globalised world. I’m pro-business and pro-profit – if you want to make a profit that’s absolutely fine. But it needs to be done in a very ethical way where your staff are looked after and we’ve got a moral duty to be as genuinely green and sustainable as possible. Because it’s frightening how much we’re ripping the planet apart to just make more, more, more, more. 

I’ve got a utopian dream. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. But if you walk down any high street, you’ve just got all the same global brands – Gap, H&M, even Boots (don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Boots). I’ve got this utopian dream that they’re all going to disappear to go online and all these cool, young, independent traders are going to start online businesses with a mini shop front and will be making green products and beautiful things. They won’t be selling T-shirts made by kids in Vietnam, the T-shirts they sell will have been made in Stoke-on-Trent, not transported 10,000 miles with a massive carbon footprint. 

Some of those massive brands would not be a big loss for us – and we could still buy from them online – but getting independent traders back on the high street would be amazing.

Fix the affordability crisis

If food had gone up by as much as housing over the last 30 or 40 years, it would cost £52 for a chicken and there would be riots in the streets. For some reason, we think it’s acceptable to burden people with more and more debt when they buy a house. So it’s not just a housing crisis, it’s a massive affordability crisis. 

Young people are struggling to get jobs at the minute post-Covid, young kids’ education has been affected and I am so worried about the evictions that are coming. We know for a fact that the levels of homelessness are going to go up.

I’m scared stiff about the affordability crisis. It worries the life out of me that we could have millions of young people permanently in private rented accommodation, where they don’t feel stable, and feel like they can be kicked out or moved on at any point. 

I was brought up on a council estate. We had absolutely nothing. But as long as my mum paid the rent every month to the Housing Association, we were all right. And they kept it affordable. So we felt stable and secure. It frightens the life out of me the pressures young people are going to be under. 

Build more social housing

The solution is to build more social housing. But the government haven’t got a fucking clue. They are overprivileged and they’re naive. They’ve got no idea what it’s like to have nothing. We don’t have enough state-owned housing to ensure the most vulnerable people in society have safe and secure housing. 

If the state owned a million more houses, we could put everybody who needed them in safe and secure housing and say: we’re not going to charge you rent but you need to start getting yourself back on your feet. You’ve got an address, now, once you’ve got a job we’re going to start charging you minimal rent. We want to give you a hand up, we realise you’re vulnerable or in a tough place, but we’re going to help. 

The housing is not there because we stopped building it. Right to Buy messed everything up. We had six-and-a-half million council houses across Britain, now we’re at just over two million. So four million have been taken out of the system and not replaced. 

You can’t have 100 per cent homeownership – which is all the government seem to care about. There are massive differences in wages and affordability. We need to have built more state housing. Now we’ve got nowhere for people who need help – they are all in B&Bs, temporary accommodation and honestly it breaks my heart every day.

Expand the focus from home ownership

Unfortunately our good friend [Housing Secretary] Robert Jenrick is only interested in home ownership. He doesn’t care about anything else. He’s got a linear way of thinking, he’s dependent on the powerful big developers to build as many houses as possible (the same developers who fund the Conservative Party). 

It’s not about what we build, how we build or where we build. There is no council housing or state-owned housing strategy. They’re not building for genuinely affordable rent. They’re not building for mixed tenure. We don’t have a retrofit strategy properly funded by the Treasury, which would change everything. And Jenrick hasn’t even got a self-build strategy at all. 

We could have a whole generation of talented self-builders using or learning skills and trades because they want to build their own house.

So the government are very narrow-minded. They’re not moving fast enough. And because of this, genuinely affordable homes that are exciting for young people to live in are not being built. It’s your standard four-bedroom houses built by the big developers going up all over the countryside. They look awful. Nimbyism is rife because nobody wants to see them built in their backyards and I don’t blame them. 

People don’t mind good-quality housing being built for their kids and grandkids. But not building rubbish for massive profits, quite often on greenbelt. 

Remarkable Renovations starts on July 21 on Channel 4 at 9pm

Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of losing their homes right now. One UK household is being made homeless every three-and-a-half hours.

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