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Pioneering the future of housing

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2018

In an ideal world, housing should follow infrastructure rather than the other way around, says County Councils Network (CCN) Conservative vice-chairman and leader of Staffordshire County Council, Philip Atkins.

In June, CCN held its first-ever housing conference. The event itself was successful and was attended by over 70 delegates and featured the launch of two new reports. It was an important milestone for the network – with housing now firmly at the centre of the CCN’s agenda.

The casual observer may query this, bearing in mind a large proportion of councils within the CCN membership are county councils in two-tier areas that do not have planning and housing responsibility, but all of our member councils have place-shaping and infrastructure functions that are intrinsically linked to housing.

Secondly, housing is unquestionably at the apex of the government’s domestic agenda. In the past few years we have seen the housing white paper launched, whilst more recently the government has set aside billions for the Housing Infrastructure Fund, channelled extra investment into a rebranded Homes England, and revised the National Planning Policy Framework.

The two reports we launched at our event – from the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and Catriona Riddell Associates – take into account these reforms and offer challenge where they do not go far enough, whilst promoting stronger collaboration between county and district authorities and a closer alignment of housing and infrastructure functions.

The context behind the government’s reform agenda is important: it is now widely accepted that the housing crisis is not simply confined to London and the south east. CCN’s analysis shows that house prices in county areas rose at treble the rate of London’s last year, with the average county house price now some £100,000 costlier than properties in city and urban areas. It is a problem affecting civic leaders across the whole country, with a recent survey carried out for the County Councils Network revealing that 91% of county leaders perceive their affordable housing need as either ‘severe’ or ‘moderate.’

The TCPA’s report shows how many county councils and county unitary authorities are dealing with these challenges head-on, getting directly involved in building homes and entering joint ventures with the private sector to maximise public assets.

Hertfordshire is featured in the report, having recently set up a property company alongside Morgan Sindall Investments. This could ultimately deliver 6,000 homes over 15 years on council-owned land, with a gross development value of £2bn. These numbers are not small fry: this is a county taking a direct stake in housebuilding to deliver at a strategic scale, creating badly-needed homes across a variety of tenures for the local community.

Whilst these emerging practices showcase county innovation, there are barriers that are stunting our ambitions to do more to solve the housing crisis. More than two-thirds of counties said that a lack of skills within the council was a barrier, and half identified infrastructure delivery as a constraint.

Essex County Council is overcoming the skills gap by establishing a dedicated housing growth unit – and the county has been asked to help prepare Castle Point District Council’s local plan – but this is an exception rather than the norm.

A key recommendation in the report is for government to direct resource towards improving capacity and skills of county councils in planning. It also challenges the Treasury to amend ‘best value’ guidance on public land so that councils can sell land on the basis of long-term social and economic gains, rather than focusing purely on receipts. By improving the ability of councils to innovate to deliver housing, we can capitalise on our untapped potential, and have the peace of mind that public land is not sold for short-term gain online.

Both the TCPA and the Catriona Riddell reports support a strengthening of the statement of common ground (SoCG), a tool that encourages closer collaboration between district and county councils, particularly in housing, infrastructure, and economic growth. However, without ensuring that both authorities are formal signatories to a locally-devised SoCG, it will remain a toothless instrument. 

A closer alignment of planning and housing is explored in the Catriona Riddell report, which makes a clear recommendation to move away from ‘planning by numbers’ towards a place-based approach – with closer alignment of housing, infrastructure, and economic growth.

Strategic planning was abolished under the coalition after being scaled back under Labour, but there is definite merit to thinking about planning over a larger geography – with all councils in a local area coming together to outline the housing need and the infrastructure necessary to support it, over a strategic scale.

The benefits of strategic planning, and closer alignment of planning and infrastructure, are twofold: with closer collaboration between all local councils, the delivery of homes is accelerated, and it helps unlock vital infrastructure to go alongside these properties – new roads, schools, doctors’ surgeries and leisure facilities. In an ideal world, housing should follow infrastructure, rather than the other way round.

To this end, the Oxfordshire ‘housing deal’ is an important prototype of this ilk, with the county council and five district councils coming together to formulate a joint plan to deliver 100,000 new homes, backed by the necessary infrastructure.

Outside of city regions, county councils are best placed to lead conversations around devolution, infrastructure investment and housing deals as they provide strategic and established boundaries recognisable to their residents.

With another new housing minister in post, it is fair to assume the policy reform agenda will continue. But these two new reports for CCN show that through effective collaboration, innovation and strategic-level thinking, counties are already playing a major role in solving the affordability crisis.

If the government takes the report’s recommendations on board and closer aligns housing and planning over a strategic scale, backed by the necessary funding, they can do so much more.


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