Councils are back in the business of building homes and it’s desperately needed. The facts and figures of the country’s housing crisis are well rehearsed. Britain has only ever met society’s demand for housing in the decades when councils contributed millions of homes on top of private sector supply.
There is ever more appetite from councils of all political persuasions to deliver more themselves. In Ealing, we have delivered around 500 council homes over the last six years. We’re scaling up now to build one of the largest programmes in London: 1,200 genuinely affordable homes at the lowest rents. And we’re far from alone in having this scale of ambition.
At a national level there has been an ideological turn around on council housing and social housing. In 2015 the Government pledged to force councils to sell their highest value council homes to fund right to buy for housing association tenants. Today the HRA cap has been lifted and there is grant available from Homes England and the Mayor of London for councils to build again.
Indeed, the key demands of the sector over many years have been met. We argued for the HRA cap to be lifted. It has been. We argued for subsidy at significant levels for council housing. We now have it.
Looking at councils from a developer’s perspective, we are in an enviable position. Access to low cost finance from the PWLB, grant programmes and developable land already in our ownership. Furthermore, we are far less dependent on the sale of private homes to fund our affordable housing. As the housing market continues to drop, housing associations and the private sector will struggle to deliver more affordable housing. That’s not the case for many local authorities.
This is the moment to seize the chance to re-establish councils as a major provider of the homes in our communities into the future. The onus is now on councils to show we can deliver.
However, it will be far from easy. The skills and expertise of the past have been largely lost. We start from a low base: the council homes built last year were delivered by just six local authorities, of which Ealing is one. Councils are seeking to scale-up a new area of business at a time when our organisations are under unprecedented financial stress. And time is tight. For example in London, by this time next year, we will be halfway through the political terms of the London boroughs and the GLA grant-funded housing programme. We will either be set up and delivering – or not. In many places, it’s in months rather than years that we will be able to make a realistic assessment about councils’ ability to build at scale again.
If we don’t there are plenty of critics in central government and the private sector who will be proven right in their traditional opposition to council building.
As an official at the DCLG some years ago, I occasionally went to the Treasury to argue for more freedoms to scale up council building again. CLG civil servants approached the Treasury with a level of trepidation akin to Frodo approaching Mordor in Lord of the Rings – and typically with less success. Our arguments received short shrift. We heard the familiar orthodoxy that prevailed then, and in many places now: councils don’t have the ability (despite the millions of homes built since the war); that housing was essentially a private sector activity, and that we should liberalise planning and sell our land to developers (despite the 470,000 homes with planning consent unbuilt by the private sector).
The failure to deliver the sector’s housing programmes now would close the door ideologically and financially to this renewed role in our communities.
So, we are all invested in each others’ success – but there are a few things we can do to give ourselves the best chance. Rebuilding the lost development capacity, skills and expertise is, in my view, a huge challenge. As we build it back up again, we need to share resources and people across council boundaries as well as what we learn: our mistakes and successes. Every authority competing for staff to set up their own development functions is counter-productive in time of austerity and will take too long.
We also need to grow a new cadre of housing professionals to sustain our activity. As I’ve been reviewing the CVs of potential staff, especially those with decades of experience, at the bottom is often training or a first job in a council. Many of our social homes today are the result of historical council investment. The same is true of many of our most experienced housing professionals. It’s time for a new generation.
We also need to take our communities with us. Council housing does not enjoy a universally popular reputation among the general public (and sometimes our tenants).
High quality, attractive homes, communities where people will enjoy living, public services and green spaces should be as much our story as rents, tenure, units and supply. We want our communities to be the biggest advocates for our developments and to keep housing high on the political agenda.
Reclaiming our role as housing providers at scale again is within our grasp. It’s over to us to show we can do it.
Tony Clements is executive director of regeneration and housing at Ealing LBC
For the latest in housing news, including a look at the councils embarking on large-scale housing projects, see The MJ Housing Supplement June 2019