As LGiU is embarking on a new project, in partnership with Mears, to help local authorities build more houses, our attention was drawn to this BBC piece from last week, which asks why it has been so hard to build.
The article cites a survey which shows that 95% of house builders thought the target of building 200,000 new homes a year by 2016 was unachievable, largely because of an inoperative planning system. Yet, others argue, numbers of approved applications are on the increase. Of course there is a big difference between planning approval and houses built.
Others have argued that access to land is the most important issue and that local plans often do not identify the land necessary to meet housing targets. Greenbelt is a particularly important issue, which overlaps with land and planning. Developers sitting on land and unnecessary restrictions on housing associations also come up as big preventative factors.
It was the argument that “the state no longer builds” that piqued our interest, though, as it asks important questions about the role of government, specifically local government. Expectations of councils are shifting, with a large consensus forming that they do have an important part to play here, especially, as Kate Henderson, of the Town and Country Planning Association argues, “the private sector is incapable of delivering on its own”.
This does not necessarily mean councils doing everything, from planning and funding, right down to actually laying the foundations. But it does indicate that they have a part to play as “house building enablers”. As the upcoming government review, conducted by Keith House and Natalie Elphicke, will show, there are plenty of authorities doing bold, innovative things, to leverage money, and build the necessary partnerships.
Local government offers something that the private sector cannot. While building houses is a vital part of regeneration and development, these also require less utilitarian elements like good design and as a means of supporting, curating and developing communities, house building relies on an ecosystem of services, jobs, schools, parks, high-streets. Combined efforts to bring these, often rather disparate, strands together hints at an expanded and ambitious role for local government.
They might not be council spades in the ground, but it seems that councils do have an important role enabling them to break the soil.
All of which necessitates synergy between different council departments, notably housing and planning. Many argue that councils have lost the skills that allow for that more creative thinking, and for close working between departments, because they have been forced to play a diminished role in recent years. Replenishing skills and capacity will be essential to develop bold aspirations and visions of what councils can do.
For some councils this might mean developing a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the market so that they can, for example, make a firm business case and back up their programme. Others will need to build their capacity for creating strong partnerships and close network with developers and housing associations.
These are indeed big challenges for aspirant councils, but they are by no means insurmountable.