Councils could be the key to unlocking the house building potential in local areas. They have the potential to facilitate partnerships and create the conditions for new development to thrive. We are not there yet, however.
LGiU’s research for Under Construction, released recently in partnership with Mears, shows that local government is not yet in a position to play that role effectively. The majority of housing officers responding to our survey had relatively traditional views of local government’s role in housing supply as direct deliverers. We also found that alternative models and partnerships, such as joint ventures, wholly owned companies and special purpose vehicles, were not widespread across the sector.
After years of underinvestment in housing departments, many local authorities lack the necessary skills and confidence, while structural barriers often prevent housing, planning, infrastructure and design priorities from aligning properly within organisations.
There are pockets of innovation that demonstrate some of the things that councils could do to make the most of the opportunities available to them and to enable housing development for their communities. Some of these are detailed in the report, which also makes some recommendations that may help local government to move in the right direction on this issue:
Promote leadership and innovation to turn political will into reality Local authorities are fast being expected to occupy a new role that involves facilitation, commissioning and adaptability. Housing strategies should fit with this wider shift.
Address their skills gaps Councils will need to develop their skills and capacities, in order to address gaps in market intelligence, viability assessment, procurement, design and partnership building. There are also significant gaps in construction skills, which councils would do well to address as part of wider growth strategies. Regional partnerships could help significantly with this.
Consider housing deals and combined housing authorities Councils should consider how they can place housing at the centre of their devolution proposals, especially in the context of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. This would also have the advantage of encouraging more long-term, strategic planning and could open up opportunities to pool resources and skills.
Rethink departmental structures Councils should consider how their departmental structures support or impede innovation and leadership in housing development. Implementing a comprehensive housing strategy requires teamwork and partnerships within councils. Organisational structures can have a huge effect on these relationships and councils should consider consolidating their planning and housing and regeneration teams.
Despite serious challenges there is a growing consensus around a positive understanding of what councils can do. But they need to step up to the plate to make the most of the opportunities available. Action may entail risk, but the opportunity cost of inaction could be far greater.