What do councils bring to the house building table?

Houses, building, homes

Although they have been out of the game for a generation councils are rising to the challenge and starting to build houses again. The policy barriers that prevent them from acting as freely as they would like are legion, but there are some really encouraging signs of creative dynamism across the country.

Their role is likely to be decisive in the future, but we will have to be clear about what local government brings to the table that others don’t.

This was a topic of discussion at an LGiU-Mears roundtable, hosted by Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council this week.

It was striking to see the wide range of issues faced by housing officers from different councils in a relatively small geographical area. These included:

  • Fast population growth linked to specific expanding industries;
  • Availability, access to and price of land;
  • The cost of development on brownfield sites;
  • Gaps in knowledge of the intermediate and middle market.

It was also evident that different councils are seeking to tackle their challenges with different tools and that they will need to pursue a range of options to deliver in their local context. Setting up commercial companies owned entirely or in part by the council, partnering with neighbouring authorities, and looking at alternative models like community land trusts all feature as tools to help get developments off the ground and to generate revenue for house building.

That this activity is being replicated in other parts of the UK is encouraging, but there are plenty of ways that central government could support it. If Westminster is to be won over, though, we’ll need a clear and convincing USP for local government.

What do councils bring to the table? Is it land? Brokering deals? Propping up the market when it fails? Or are they just another player in the commercial house building business?

Whatever the specific approach of individual councils it certainly seems that they are able to provide a long term view of what is needed in the area and strategic leadership to align the various partners to provide it. We need to remember that housing is a team game.

There are related challenges, however.

First, they will have to find a way to enact development at sufficient scale to meet the need, but also to pique the interest of the developers that they will have to work with. All of the models and approaches being adopted in local government have costs attached, so the question is how to make them economically viable. Regional and partnership-based approaches will be essential here, and could lead to interesting developments such as regional land strategies.

Second, the emphasis on enablement, specifically set out in the House/Elphicke review (see LGiU’s briefing here), will need to be backed up with actual powers to deliver, perhaps by shifting the emphasis in planning and development control departments so that councils can make requirements on delivery, or by giving councils greater power to intervene in the land market.

Thirdly, there it will be important to look at where these powers sit with the council. Does it sit in the planning department, in regeneration, in housing, or elsewhere? It’s likely to sit across various offices, in which case the challenge is to align priorities and ensure there is a team mentality internally as well as among the various delivery partners.

Ultimately this agenda is about place shaping and giving local government the support to help deliver on their ambitions to house communities.

Please get in touch if you would like to discuss this project: andrew.walker@lgiu.org.uk 

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    1. This is a very cogent piece of writing and I am very pleased that council housing is becoming considered again. When councils were allowed to build freely, it kept down the price of private homes. It also helped to solve a housing crisis after the war. However Mrs. Thatcher allowed them all to be sold off at a reduced price and put the burden of house ownership onto some people whom could not afford it. Others were bought by people whom had sufficient money to buy a private house but didn’t. Others by rich buyers as investments. Young couples were robbed of a start up home, this problem has never been solved. The danger is that the Tories will again sell off any housing stock that helps the poor viz Cameron’s pledge to sell of community housing association stock. I cannot see a council taking the risk again. By building houses only finding them sold off at a discount to the rich.

    2. Sadie Smith says:

      About three years ago Sandwell Council held a seminar which included people from the industry.
      I had previously been concerned that we had sites with planning permission where there had been no activity.
      One of the most worrying things about the day was the number of builders who told me that it had been impossible to build for ‘about thirty years’. I did find that a touch improbable. They were quick enough to build on gardens.

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