How data could democratise the broken housing market

DemoDev is a Birmingham-based project which utilises land registry data to identify small plots of council-owned land that could be used to build genuinely affordable housing.

They hope to work with Birmingham City Council to unlock these plots of land whilst creating a sustainable and local supply chain through their partner, the open-source building firm WikiHouse.

DemoDev stands for democratising development, and it’s exactly the kind of innovative and community-led approach to housing the UK needs if it is ever going to get to grips with its amplifying housing crisis, as Planning News found out when it met DemoDev co-founder Andy Reeve at their Birmingham offices.

Disruption

Reeve, who has a background in data analysis, started by asking questions about how space was used in Birmingham and how best it could be unlocked.

‘People don’t have the tools to challenge these things so housing stays within the small realm of people who do know what’s going on,’ he says.

‘We want to get people engaged with it so we can change the conversation but it’s not always going down well.

‘A lot of people would prefer that didn’t happen as they might see us as getting in the way.’

DemoDev works as a mapping software tool that applies some clever algorithms to detect empty land and after exploring the open data that the Land Registry release, they found spaces for a potential 3000 homes in Birmingham.

The sites are usually unusual places that are not traditionally ripe for development, such as corner plots or areas once home to transport infrastructure.

Reeve hopes that it will eventually be available online so people across the country can use a searchable database against attributes such as ownership, plot specifics and proximity to services.

‘We want people to use it in the right way and make it as valuable and useful as possible, rather than a big map which can be quite intimidating,’ says Reeve.

The project is still in its early stages but in March, DemoDev won the Urban Challenge Award for an idea that could use technology to solve housing problems in the West Midlands. They won a £10,000 grant as well as support from the West Midlands Combined Authority as they work towards a pilot programme in the region.

The paucity of affordable housing in the UK is an issue that has risen sharply up the news agenda in 2018, and a joint investigation from Huffington Post and the Birmingham Mail revealed that of the 4,768 houses approved for development in the city during 2016/17, just 425 approved were lower cost housing.

Reeve believes DemoDev can be a tool to help kickstart affordable housebuilding in the city, and they have partnered with WikiHouse, an open-source modular housing platform.

Users can design and order a timber frame house through a local supply chain and see what the house is going to look like and how much it’s is going to cost in real time, down to how many screws will be needed.

‘It’s been designed so it’s as straightforward as possible. You can put it together with your mates,’ says Reeve.

‘There are no construction professionals on site so it brings people back into the construction system and allows you to do a proper self-build if you wanted to.

‘WikiHouse creates a full supply chain and every element is a local multiplier,’ he adds.

‘It’s a local, digitally powered supply chain. This is what DemoDev is eking into. We’re looking at new technologies to understand where digital can play a role in the housing market.’

Reeve says the next stage is looking at how to build a framework for SMEs and builders so they can navigate the quagmire of local authority planning and access land quickly.

He believes it might be possible for an overarching planning consent that covers the entire city, rather than dealing with every micro plot individually.

‘The innovation will actually come in the really boring stuff such as how do you get the council to release land quickly and affordably,

‘So much of the problems with the housing crisis are around land.’

The land conundrum

A map of the West Midlands, showing only empty small sites which could potentially be built on.

The question of why some land is built on and some is not, is complicated.

Reeve admits that trying to get to the heart of the matter has been a frustrating process.

‘Initially, we thought everybody will want to know about this and we can just start building houses!’ he says.

‘But we came across the bureaucracy and power dynamics that come with these assets.’

Like every major city in the UK, the housing supply in Birmingham has been heavily dependent on the big developers who have regularly exploited loopholes to provide the bare minimum of ‘affordable’ homes, if any at all.

It’s a model that is ‘no longer viable,’ says Reeve.

‘Especially on small sites, which collectively represent a significant area of undeveloped land in the city,’ he adds.

According to Reeve, it’s not just private developers who are exacerbating the housing crisis either. Birmingham Municipal Housing trust was set up in 2010 by the city council to kickstart council housebuilding.

‘They monopolise all the land and act like any other developer who can choose when they develop the land and stop anything else which might be competition for them,’ he says.

‘Because this process isn’t very transparent, and is opaque, nobody can interrogate or understand it. There’s no conversation.’

‘They look at how much they can build to increase their pipeline of future revenues, rather than looking at what’s the right thing to do now.’

‘That’s when the developer framework mindset kicks in for the council and they build what’s right for the market rather than what’s right for people.’

Planning News has approached Birmingham City Council for comment.

Future is now

Andy Reeve’s extension, which he designed and built using WikiHouse.

Reeve believes this broken housing market has stifled growth and innovation around housing and stopped Birmingham from reaching its full potential.

‘Birmingham has the same landmass as Paris but they have seven million people we have one million,’ he says.

‘Most cities could be a lot denser and you can still do that in a sensitive way.

Reeve used WikiHouse himself when he made an extension on the back of his house with help from his friends.

His dad, who has worked as a bricklayer for over 40 years, was impressed by this new housebuilding frontier.

‘He had no idea what was going on but was amazed by it all.

‘He’s very much focused on building out of bricks but the pure cost and skills needed for bricks mean if you want a concerted effort to increase housing supply you can’t rely on one technology.

‘He understands this is the way housebuilding should be going.’

Thomas Barrett

Journalist - follow him on Twitter

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