Innovative solutions to meet the housing supply need

Robert Turner, new business manager, housing supply, London Borough of Ealing.

Innovative solutions to meet the housing supply need

How was the overall concept developed in the first instance? Who contributed?
We had some initial discussions with Sarah Denton (housing supply) around our existing services. We knew that what we were doing currently was not working and that demand was still outstripping demand. So we started looking at emergency housing generally – researching the kind of temporary, modular accommodation deployed after major disasters such as earthquakes. We recognised that the solutions used were helping to accommodate people who were in genuine distress – circumstances that we perceived as not that far away from the people we help on a day- to-day basis in Ealing.

This inspired us to develop lots of mad ideas on how we could best house those people who come to us in urgent need. This evolved over 18 months. We shared the ideas and they gained some traction within the organisation. We then put the idea out to tender and were intrigued to see who was brave enough to respond with an offer.

What are the three main aspects of this project which excite you?
The truth of the matter is that if there are sites that we can build traditional housing on, that's our first choice for that land. However there are sites that, for one reason or another, are not suitable for permanent buildings. Many are infill sites that are difficult to build on, some have underused facilities such as garage blocks that are a nuisance rather than a benefit. The potential of turning these into valuable assets is exciting.

I'm also excited about the speed with which this kind of accommodation can be delivered. Once we have overcome the challenges of this first pilot scheme, it should be possible to provide subsequent units quickly and efficiently. This will help us to achieve our one overriding aim, which is to provide a better service for our residents, particularly at such a difficult time in their lives.

Why is this project important to Ealing Borough Council and the community you serve?
We're in business to make the lives of our residents better. If we can achieve this in part by looking at the meanwhile use of land, making efficient use of the resources we have at our disposal, then we are doing our job properly.

We don't have a crystal ball to tell us what the state of housing demand will be like in the next 10- 20 years, but I suspect that the demand will still not entirely be met by current stock. It's also difficult to say whether repurposed shipping containers will be seen as appropriate accommodation in years to come. However, by adopting this approach, our successors will enjoy a degree of flexibility. The lease agreements allow us to change the use – perhaps into student accommodation; the units are mobile and can be moved to other sites and ultimately there will always be options – to retain the accommodation as it is, to move it and reconfigure it on another site or to repurpose it. That flexibility is invaluable and unique to this particular solution and product.

What issues or challenges will the delivery of this scheme help to resolve?
There's no doubt that we are in the midst of a housing crisis – this impacts on our daily lives and the lives of the people we support. The more emergency accommodation comes under our control, the better we can support people who find themselves with nowhere to live.

The important aspect of this scheme and others like it, is that it affords us consistency of supply – both in the number of units available and the quality and suitability of the accommodation. The facilities at Bordars Walk will help to remove the uncertainty. Currently we are competing in a crowded market and we have to take what's offered. We hope that by creating more accommodation which is under our control, we will save money, guarantee that it's fit for purpose and deliver a better service for our residents.

It's important that we treat people with respect, which includes not placing them in substandard or unsuitable accommodation. By taking this route we are spending slightly less, while delivering much better accommodation, with certainty over supply.

What challenges/issues have you overcome to deliver this project?

The challenges were many and varied. But I suppose the biggest challenge was that we were embarking on an idea that used concepts that are not the norm. Moving into the unknown made everyone much more cautious and many didn't really understand the strategy. This made the process much longer because we were steering an untried vessel through uncertain waters.

We are already experiencing a much easier journey on the second scheme.

There have been some technical issues along the way, but these involve practical problems that have been resolved by the building professionals and we will take these lessons learned through to the next project.

The financial and legal arrangements were more complex than we first envisaged, however in legal terms we went back to the simplest arrangement and the precedents are now set for future schemes.

We have discovered that when you adopt a non-standard approach, unplanned issues do crop up. However, once these projects become more familiar to people, we're hoping that the disproportionate amount of caution, which is time consuming will become a thing of the past.

It's true to say that the general expectations (from others) for this scheme have always been modest. So it's gratifying to know that there is consensus that the accommodation ‘is actually quite good'. I also suspect that perceptions are coloured by emotive connotations associated with shipping containers or ‘living in a box'. We're excited to see that the final product is regarded as not only appropriate, but a pleasant and well-designed scheme.