Leaders meet with Minister to discuss barriers to housing delivery

20th January 2017

Cllr David Finch (Leader of Essex County Council and member of the Wider South East Political Steering Group) articulates why government must listen to councils and business if it wants to deliver on its housing ambitions.

Council leaders in the East, London and the South East have teamed up to find a way to support sustainable growth, including housing.

Together our 159 councils are home to 24 million people - 43% of England’s population.
We are aware that with such a large number of people residing in these regions, housing growth needs to keep up. But despite providing nearly half (44%) of England’s new homes in 2014-15 - an increase of 75,500 – we are still falling woefully short.

Our research has revealed that a lot of this is the result of developments stalling. Our councils are granting enough planning approvals to meet our identified housing needs – the reality is that completions are failing to keep up.

Greater London Authority figures show London has a pipeline of approvals for more than 260,000 homes.  It is thought that the gap between approvals and delivery is also high in the East and South East, and that current figures collated by the DCLG and the recent LGA studies underestimate the scale of the challenge.  Consequently, even on a conservative estimate, there are at least 66,700 unimplemented homes with permission in the South East. And in the East an LGA study in 2015 found that at least 40,300 developments were granted permission by local planning authorities and still have not been built. 

Tackling the problem

The Wider South East (WSE) Political Steering Group is a small all-tier forum with geographical and cross party political representation from across the WSE, with members nominated by the East of England LGA, South East England Councils, London Councils and the Mayor of London.  It was established in December 2015 by council leaders across the WSE to help councils across these three interconnected geographies work together on some of the biggest economic growth challenges facing local government. Naturally the need to address the housing crisis affecting all parts of the WSE was deemed a priority. Councils in the WSE recognise that delivery of housing is key to our local and collective economic growth ambitions. Councils across the WSE recognise that building stronger relationships with developers, as well as finding ways to addressing the challenge of land-banking by some developers capitalising on the housing crisis and increasing land values is central to this task.

Working together

The WSE have agreed to harness their collective strength to address barriers to housing.
This means bringing together the force of the partnership. But although the group were adept at working out what needed to be done, we recognize that in order to deliver on the programme, we needed to work closer with a wide range of stakeholders and partners, including central government and developers.

We wrote to Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid MP the pinpointing the issues and proposing solutions. A meeting with Gavin Barwell MP, Minister of State of Housing and Planning took place this month.

The group want ministers to look at:

  • how new local discretionary powers can enable councils to work with the housing market to encourage quicker building.
  • how councils might play a more effective role in tackling the lack of skilled construction industry workers.
  • the progress that can be made by freeing up finances to build affordable homes at scale.
  • how to help ensure delivery of critical infrastructure and free up the ability of councils and other infrastructure providers to invest.

Problems and solutions

Currently councils lack the power to incentivise or require action by landowners and developers with permission to build.  But councils could work with the housing market to encourage quicker building if they had more local discretion, for example they had the ability to charge financial penalties on unnecessarily stalled permissions.

Another issue to address is the skills gap - the lack of sufficient skilled construction industry workers is crippling the house building industry. There are simply not enough builders to do the work.

On top of this, securing sufficient new affordable housing must be seen as a priority.
The Mayor of London and some councils beyond London are already working on new models of delivery here including asset-backed companies. But more can be done, such as removing the benefit cap on supported housing, as this makes most supported housing unaffordable to councils or Housing Associations. Infrastructure is also critical to unlock sites for jobs and housing growth, but existing deficits on infrastructure investment hinder this across the Wider South East – including investment to upgrade road and public transport links as well as the other social infrastructure communities need.

We would welcome discussions with government on how to help ensure delivery of critical infrastructure and free up the ability of councils and other infrastructure providers to invest.

Moving forward

Identifying the key hurdles – and potential solutions - is just the start. Without urgent action, delays to building will continue to hinder local and national growth ambitions and stifle the supply of housing – including affordable homes. Our aim is to continue to collaborate to support sustainable growth and work with central government and wider partners for immediate change.  We hope our meeting with central government will help councils and partners to deliver on their aspirations for housing growth and see faster delivery on sites with unimplemented planning permissions.

As featured in the Municipal Journal on 12 January.
 

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