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Forum is Free: Crises of Housing, Energy and Cost of Living

First on the panel to speak was Oona Goldsworthy, Chief Executive of United Communities Housing Association. Oona described the current shocking situation in Bristol West where the average person spends 40% of income on rent, and 200-300 people apply for each house that UCHA offers. The Homes for Britain campaign is fighting back, uniting housing federations, trade unions and charities, such as Shelter and Crisis, in common interest of affordable homes. Oona highlighted availability of land as key, calling upon Bristol City Council as a major landowner to act. She argued for faster, intensive house-building, and the use of cost-effective solutions like retro-fitting.

Mike Roberts, of Happiness Architecture Beauty a development company that works with Kevin McCloud was next up, offering a contrasting vision of quality over quantity. Mike argued that the built environment is key to health and happiness. He explained how HAB crowdfunded £2 million enabling it to create custom-build houses, giving people real choice. He compelled us to look beyond buildings to the communities and collective possiblities they create, for example car sharing, reducing personal and environmental costs. Like Oona, Mike called on the public sector to lead in setting standards, rather than seeing land as an asset to be stripped of value.  

Bristol Community Land Trust’s Keith Cowling then gave a personal account of their journey to build 12 houses in Bristol. BCLT acquired funding four years ago, yet the council offered them only one decent site in two years. Keith argued the government ‘willed the ends without willing the means’, championing localism and the right to build, yet doing little to actually empower community groups. BCLT was ultimately subjected to endless delays, having to become a registered provider and wade through compliance to draw down government funds. Despite the difficulties Keith is optimistic, hoping to mobilise young people to build their own homes. In the meantime he awaits the all clear so BCLT can finally get on site at Fishponds Road and crack on building 12 affordable houses.

The final speaker, Shankari ‘Shanks’ Raj Edgar, Founding Director of Nudge architecture and design group, described how she strives to create beautiful spaces whilst adding social value. Projects have included Temple Studios, the Engine Shed and a temporary jungle and tree house erected for OVO Energy. Shanks highlighted the interconnectedness of social wellbeing, environment and economy, and the detrimental effect of over-valuing GDP. Like the other panellists Shanks saw an important role for the public sector in building affordable homes and regulating rents. On an international level she argued we should work closely with the EU. She finished by expressing the urgent need to engage children in environmental issues from an early age.

After the speakers, Jackson Moulding of Ecomotive, called upon the audience to make themselves aware that Bristol City Council is currently assessing Bristol’s housing needs for the next twenty years. He urged people to register their interest on the council website so that it can become a people-led process.

This provoked discussion on the current hammering that local councils are taking, and the need to calculate the savings that more affordable housing could make. The council and the private sector need to work together to hit objectives yet still create value.

An ex-Bristol City Council worker in the audience claimed controversially that there simply is not enough land in Bristol to keep up with demand. This was challenged by the claim that Bristol owns more of its land than any other local authority in Britain. Others argued the council needs to innovate, utilising high-density spaces, building up not sprawling out.

Audience questions raised numerous interesting points: examples of European countries with affordable housing markets; the value of creating homes for life; the definition of affordable housing; and how homes link to permaculture and the reintroduction of biodiversity into our ecosystem.

One young man criticised the dereliction of the Carriageworks, neglected for over 25 years. Darren argued for a devolution agenda that would enable the Carriageworks to become a genuinely community led development. To add action to this assertion the room was informed there were Carriageworks re-development objection forms available to fill in after the talk.

Darren summed up the evening’s debate in three strands:
1.      There is a huge role for the public sector and a moral obligation to create affordability.
2.      House-creation needs to be part of a community process, with greater and earlier community involvement. We need active engagement, a Klein-esque ‘blockadia’ in getting together and demanding change.
3.      We need devolution: a commitment to a real democratic process, where we have control to design the communities we want.

The next Forum is Free will host Bristol's Big Transport Debate at the Arnolfini on the 2nd of April at 7.30pm. Come and join us! A full list of Darren's upcoming events and hustings can be found here

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