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County potential to unlock housing development remains unrealised

Source: PSE - April/ May 16

Cllr Martin Hill, leader of Lincolnshire County Council and a spokesman for the County Councils Network (CCN), discusses the need for a joined-up approach to unlock housing and infrastructure developments across the country.

The issues of housing construction, home ownership and planning reform transcend governments past and present, regardless of their political leaning. The truth is that despite numerous revisions to the planning system since the Second World War, there has been little to no measurable impact on increasing the rate of housebuilding to meet demand. 

The advent of Local Enterprise Partnerships, Local Plans, the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), the National Infrastructure Commission and now combined authorities ensures that the landscape and relationships required to deliver housing and infrastructure are rarely static. What’s clear is that a joined-up approach to decision-making is required if we are to maximise the potential of our local areas. A fragmented system only serves to build in complexity, bureaucracy and, by proxy, delays in implementation.  

Failing to unlock potential 

Counties share the government’s ambition to build the quality and quantity of housing needed to meet the demands of population growth and to jump-start economic growth in every corner of England. 

After all, counties account for 86% of our nation’s landmass, and in recent years have delivered over 50% of national housing development. However, their potential is not being fully realised.

We all know that there is a dearth of funding in the public sector, in particular for local government, as a result of the government’s commitment to its deficit reduction programme. Less money of course leads to competition between tiers of government, council departments and other parts of the public sector as to how to prioritise this funding. The cake is getting smaller and we need to be smarter about how that money is spent. 

The reality of the situation is that the incentives available to stimulate housing growth do not provide sufficient remuneration to upper-tier authorities, in particular county councils, to meet infrastructure costs. 

In two-tier areas the county council provides the infrastructure, yet are not in control of many of the mechanisms for securing and distributing funds such as the CIL and Section 106. When I talk about infrastructure I am not just talking about roads, but vital services such as the provision of school places, buses and social care services. These services are at the heart of delivering cohesive and sustainable communities. 

Freedom to fund infrastructure 

This is why the CCN has proposed that counties should be given greater fiscal freedoms to find innovative ways to fund both localised and strategic infrastructure schemes. Greater London and now Greater Manchester are able to raise a region-wide CIL to fund strategic infrastructure projects, so why can such a scheme not be extended to counties? 

The CCN has also long advocated a strategic, whole-systems approach to planning. In order to maximise the potential of a whole area it is imperative that planning, infrastructure funding and delivery are brought together to ensure that economic and population growth can be supported. 

Such an approach does not have to be reliant upon a combined authority being formed. Governance arrangements to hold strategic planning and infrastructure mechanisms could and should be flexible, depending on the needs of the local area. This could be in the form of a county and district partnership, or alternatively they could be held at the upper-tier county level. 

The delivery of essential infrastructure is not an option, it is a must, if the government is to deliver on its ambition to boost economic growth and stimulate housing construction. It is imperative that all areas have equality of access to the mechanisms for raising funds, or we risk disenfranchising some areas at the detriment of local people and businesses.

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