The 18th and 19th century saw a paradigm shift in how employers valued their workers. Realising the productive benefits from having a happy and healthy workforce, many companies ceased to merely use and abuse people at will and began investing heavily in quality housing for employees, creating thriving communities throughout Britain. Now, in the depths of a housing crisis, has British industry forgotten the benefits of model villages and stopped caring about their workforce outside of working hours? Joe Bradbury investigates:
There are at least 28 model villages in Britain, built from the late 18th century onwards by landowners and industrialists for their workforce to live in… but what exactly is a model village? Put simply, a model village, town or city is a designated place providing a high standard of housing, typically built by an employer for their workforce - conveniently located near to the workplace but far away enough for it to feel like a separate entity, with integrated community amenities and attractive physical environments in which to thrive and raise children (future employees!) in. In this context, the term "model" was used to describe a concept that would attempt to set the standard for other villages and communities to follow or imitate. The very term itself evokes ideas of aspiration, hope and dreams of success – all integral emotions for a happy, healthy and productive workforce, I’m sure any employer would agree!
So if we are largely in agreement that happiness and wellbeing are good foundations for a strong business model and that happy people = higher profits, why do Britain’s biggest private employers no longer feel the need to accept any degree of responsibility for their workforce housing needs outside of working hours? At a time when homes are needed more than ever, unemployment is high and the skills gap is widening, isn’t the old concept of a model village perhaps needed now more than ever? I should stress at this point that the purpose of this article is not to point an accusatory finger at private enterprise, asking them curtly to solve all of our local community housing needs. However, at a time when the private sector is progressing faster than the public sector (largely due to privatisation) maybe the question should be raised – do the UK’s biggest private employers have the potential to make Britain Great by creating a model for Europe to follow?
From Port Sunlight - built to house Pears Soap employees - to Bournville, home for Cadbury’s Chocolate factory workers, much of the housing in Britain still standing from the industrial period has undoubtedly been shaped by very large private companies. As the idea caught on across the country, towns were built for for miners, mill workers and factory staff; sprouting up seemingly everywhere and gradually evolving into the garden city movement.
Translate this old method into modern times and many issues immediately become apparent, largely due to the increased population from 19th Century times. The first Census in 1801 revealed that the population of Great Britain was 10.5 million. It now stands at 64,596,800. This means that there are significantly more people to home in 21st century Britain, therefore building new towns and model villages would be unfeasible and end up likely littering our beautiful countryside. Is this a good enough reason not to provide housing for staff, or is it an easy get-out clause? Are there other options rather than building a whole new town?
Employer-assisted housing as a featured benefit of employment within a company could be one avenue for increasing employment whilst simultaneously meeting modern day housing demands. Since the death of 100% mortgages, it has become more and more difficult for people to get the 15-20% deposit required in order to buy a home, especially if they are living in rented accommodation and paying somebody else’s mortgage. So much so, in fact, that the average age for buying a first home is now 37.
How would this work? Perhaps as a reward for valued long-term and proactive workers, an employer could offer the incentive of a shared mortgage on a house or flat nearby, whereby an employer covers a small portion of the overall cost of a house. When an employee then sells that house, they then repay their employer in full, coupled with the value of appreciation on the employer’s share of that home. There would of course also be the option for the employee to buy their employers share within that house at a later date when their financial position allows them to do so. The benefits of this concept are two-fold; the workers can buy a home that otherwise they might not have been able to afford on their own and the employer receives loyalty and hard work from their workforce. The money made when homes are then sold (or heaven forbid, repossessed) can then be reinvested in the scheme, providing housing nearby for other employees.
The assistance of an employer in funding accommodation doesn’t just need to be offered to those who wish to buy, it could also be offered to workers who would prefer to rent a property instead. For example, an employer could construct a residential area on land owned by the company, or purchase units in nearby developments that they offer for rent at below-market levels. Or the employer could pay a share of the rent of units that employees find on their own.This might seem farfetched at first, but think about universities, local governments and hospitals that already do this to provide accommodation for staff and students alike.
As already mentioned, the purpose of this article is not to point fingers at industry giants, who already play an integral role in society by providing jobs and financial security for hundreds of thousands of British people every day. It merely serves to get people thinking about how we can realistically succeed in ending the housing crisis within a generation. The change has to come from within, using innovative and forward thinking processes and progressive policies. The idea of employer subsidised housing is just one suggestion. It is by no means a new idea, it is something that has been tried, tested and proven to work throughout our industrial history. Perhaps by recognizing that both employers and employees will prosper when a workforce lives closer to a workplace, coupled with the environmental benefits of shortening workers’ commutes in cars, buses, trains and taxis, could just be one method of tacking the housing crisis head on, in an eco-friendly and people-friendly way. It is often said nowadays that there is no such thing as a job for life anymore. Perhaps, by adding a little more value to a person’s life besides a decent salary, employers could change this country and this world for the better. With great power comes great responsibility!