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23/10/2017

Restrictions must be lifted to make way for more council homes

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Housing construction / iStock-641025504

As the government begins to talk seriously about backing council house building once again, Ian Graves says it's more than just money and promises that are needed

The Prime Minister’s announcement of a £2 billion funding boost to develop a ‘new generation’ of council homes could spark more local authority-led building projects. However, current restrictions will need to be lifted before any progress can be made. Although a positive step in the right direction, is it radical enough to make a real difference to housing supply?

The announcement has been well received in principle, despite a lack of detail about how the additional funding will be spent. The government has identified correctly that in order to build more homes on the scale required to address the current housing shortage, it will be essential to get councils more involved in the process. If proof were needed of this, the last time 250,000 new homes were built in a single year was back in 1978 and more than 40 per cent of them were built by local authorities.

While it is obviously a good start, the funding pot set aside to get councils building again is only enough to create around 25,000 extra homes by 2021. More funding will be needed to address the urgent need for more social and affordable housing, which has increased significantly over the last 30-40 years since councils stopped building. And the money isn’t just needed for construction – planning departments will need to be resourced adequately to cope with a greater number of applications.

"Restrictions affecting the ability of local authorities to borrow money, and the ways in which they can spend it, will need to be relaxed"

A lack of funding from central government is only part of the problem however. Current restrictions affecting the ability of local authorities to borrow money, and the ways in which they can spend it, will need to be relaxed to facilitate more council-led housing developments. If the Right to Buy is maintained, councils will need to be allowed to retain 100 per cent of the proceeds so that they can be reinvested in more housing. Council will also need further certainty over future rents to guide their investment plans.

There is also a concern that local authorities lack resources such as the professional skills needed to deliver housing developments and it is clear that they will need to work collaboratively with housing associations and private sector developers.

One of the more unexpected benefits of encouraging councils to build more homes may be that they will experience the planning process from a different perspective. This could help them to understand the frustration and cost caused by delays. It could also create opportunities for local planning authorities to take a more proactive and strategic role, advising councils on suitable sites for development.

It may also be time to rethink current restrictions related to building on green belt land. There is a popular misconception that equates green belt land with the open countryside. In fact, a significant amount of green belt land is of low environmental value. By pinpointing green belt sites that might be suitable for development, councils and local planning authorities could deliver much-needed new homes for local people in some of the country’s most sustainable places.

The government has set a bold agenda to get councils building again but it must now demonstrate that it is willing to commit to more funding in the future, whilst taking immediate action to remove the financial and planning-related restrictions that are holding local authorities and housing associations back. If this happens, council planners will need to be ready to support councils strategically as they attempt to provide more new homes and win the hearts and minds of the local people at the same time.

Ian Graves is a legal director in the planning team at Shakespeare Martineau

Photo | iStock
 

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