How the world might not end

If you think green building is a niche topic, head down to Ecobuild. It’s not only one of the largest events in the UK, but the largest in the world focusing on sustainable construction and architecture. More than 50,000 people came to ExCeL in east London for Ecobuild 2011 – and when I was there, most of them were trying to fit into the conference hall where Brian Cox was speaking. But there were a great many other contributors over the three day programme, with a very diverse range of views and interests. I edited a blog on the Ecobuild site in the months leading up to the event, which meant I got to talk to them about all sorts of things including why climate talks fail, the truth about eco-cities in the desert and why Christmas houses might not be a total sustainability nightmare…

A dignified end

“Would I be surprised if this person were to die at some stage in the near future?” That’s probably not a question many of those working with homeless people will feel comfortable asking themselves. But according to a new NHS guide to end-of-life care in hostels, it’s something they should bear in mind if they’re going to fulfil their clients’ last wishes and offer them a dignified death. It may be the only certainty, but death remains a difficult subject for both hostel residents and workers. In this article for Inside Housing, I spoke to the guide’s authors about starting difficult conversations, coping with serial bereavement and resisting the urge to force a “Cilla” moment.

A new pair of glasses and an Oyster card

Imagine you’d been sleeping on the streets for more than 40 years, and someone gave you £3000 to spend on anything you liked – what would you buy? That’s exactly what happened in a groundbreaking pilot project in London, when homeless charity Broadway gave 15 long-term rough sleepers personalised budgets and support to spend them however they chose. The results have far surpassed their cautious expectations. Eighteen months on, nine of the men are now in accommodation, some after decades on the streets, and both they and the professionals involved in the project believe the same approach could work to tackle homelessness elsewhere, as I found out in this piece for Inside Housing. The men’s requests were humbling – a new pair of glasses, a hearing aid, an Oyster card – and the average spend was just £794 over the first year. Broadway’s project will continue, but the Department for Communities and Local Government was reticent as to whether it would become official government policy – even though it not only appears to work, doesn’t cost very much and aligns perfectly with the ideals of choice and personalisation in public services.

Less than zero

In May, I edited a Building magazine supplement for the Zero Carbon Hub, the public-private organisation helping the construction industry meet the target of building zero carbon homes by 2016. It’s a tall order, not least because “zero carbon” means reducing the energy homes consume not by 100%, but 150%. For an explanation, and plenty of information on how it can be done, you can read the supplement here.

“He sullied his mother’s name for a flat in Didsbury”

With nearly 1.8 million people on the UK’s housing registers, tenants who sub-let or unlawfully occupy social properties are definitely on landlords’ radars. But tenancy fraud is no bright target bleeping clearly across the screens – it’s a murky, ill-defined blob that is difficult to detect, can surface anywhere and may disappear on closer inspection. The only certainties are that there’s a lot more of it than social landlords may realise, and that their legal bills will be massive. For Inside Housing’s legal supplement, I investigated their options.

Who REALLY lives in a house like this?

The Audit Commission suspects 50,000 social homes, worth more than £2bn, are occupied by people who aren’t entitled to them. But even though tenancy fraud appears to be rife on Britain’s council estates, it’s devilishly hard to detect and even harder to prove. For this Inside Housing article, I got to grips with the very complex legal tools at housing officers’ disposal, and discovered that detective work is definitely not the preserve of the police. Family photos, children’s toys, even toothbrushes can all be dead giveaways – but only if you know what you’re looking for.

Aviva’s logic-defying price rise

The coldest winter in 30 years just cost insurers a further £650m, hitting balance sheets already reeling from a string of extreme-weather-related losses. The vast majority of property damage claims related to homes – 60,200 claims out of 66,600 – so it’s not surprising that insurers are putting up prices for household insurance, raising policy excesses and, in some cases, pulling cover from the most vulnerable areas. Some, like AXA, have been open about it, saying premium levels are no longer sustainable. Its rate rises will be concentrated in the most exposed postcodes, for people over 50 who are most likely to be away at the coldest times of the year, and for second homes and buy-to-let properties. Others are more cagey: Aviva is investing in ultra-precise flood mapping technology to determine, for example, which houses within a postcode are at the bottom of the hill. But its spokesman was adamant that it won’t use this information to give higher quotes to vulnerable homeowners, only to offer better prices to the safer ones. Hmm…