There’s nothing new about employers building houses for their employees.
George Cadbury wanted to build a place full of green spaces, where industrial workers could thrive, away from city pollution. By 1895, 143 cottages had been built and Bournville Village was born. Another business industrialist with similar philanthropic ideals was the ‘soap king’ Lord Lever (now Unilever) who built model villages in Port Sunlight and Thornton Hough in The Wirral.
The merits of this type of housing provision is certainly worth re-examination. Some businesses have already touched on the idea, including Deloitte, which has helped younger staff with securing London rental accommodation. Companies that build homes for staff could help meet the UK’s demand for affordable housing and would make sure homes are built in a range of tenures.
From a business perspective, employers would not only be providing a benefit that will attract talent and improve staff retention, but they could be making a sound financial investment, too – investing in residential property assets or taking on a development project is usually pretty lucrative.
Government policy could help make this a reality, either through incentivising business through tax breaks or deeming these homes eligible for grant funding, which would improve their viability. Reducing planning risk and delay could also help; we already have an established route for conversion of office to residential, so couldn’t similar relaxations be applied to land owned or purchased as a business asset?
One key area where we’d like to see more of this is healthcare, a sector which is also under massive pressures but has significant potential. There’s already a strong relationship between health and housing. Both dominate the headlines, both affect us all. This presents an opportunity for a rational business investment that will get both sectors working together; regeneration of the NHS estates could be key to unlocking more affordable housing.
And we’re already putting this theory into practice at our Woodbridge development in Frimley, Surrey, built on land belonging to Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust. We’ve converted a locally-listed hospital building to create one and two-bedroom homes (used until 2013 as a children’s health centre by the Trust), and a collection of newly-built family houses and apartments. Nearly three quarters of the properties have been allocated as key worker accommodation for local doctors and nurses.
Woodbridge provides clear evidence that this financial model works and we believe it provides a strong template for co-operation between property developers and the NHS.
We can improve key worker housing, provide much-needed funding for hospitals, boost the amount of affordable homes and bolster our property market. All the romanticised model village needs is a 21st century re-think.