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A place to call your own

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Since the introduction of the right-to-buy in the 1980s, more than 1.5 million council homes have been sold off. But now rising house prices have priced thousands out of the market.

Paul Bettison (Con), chair, Local Government Association’s environment board

Cllr Bettison does not believe there is a standard approach councils should be adopting. "For some local authorities, building new council homes will be appropriate. I already know of some which are interested in applying for funding from the new Homes & Communities Agency. But for those that have had large-scale voluntary transfers it will be surprising if that is what they want to do.

“They have a strategic duty for housing that is making sure there is enough employment and the area is attractive to live in. Ensuring this vision turns into reality is a huge job and is a challenge for many councils.”

Cllr Bettison also says local government should be working with registered social landlords to ensure new social housing is developed by using s106 powers and perhaps selling land it owns at discounted prices for social housing.

And he believes local employers should be encouraged to develop shared-equity housing schemes. “Councils should use their initiative. Why not get employers thinking about buying homes with a view to sharing the ownership with their staff? I don’t see this as any different from traditional social housing.”

Richard Samuel, chief executive, Thanet DC

Mr Samuel, who before becoming a chief executive held positions in housing departments, says many of the problems councils are currently wrestling with date back to earlier national policies.

“I think the fundamental problem is that there is not enough cash in the system to replace the stock that has been lost in the last 25 years through right-to-buy. We are in a situation where supply outstrips demand and that causes problems. I have not really ever been able to understand why successive governments have restricted councils from building.

“If we have land available to provide housing why can’t we develop it ourselves? Obviously, some councils would not be interested in doing this, but there would be a large number that would.

“All council house building used to be funded through borrowing which was repaid over the following 60 years or so. I see no reason why it could not work again.”

And while Mr Samuel acknowledges the planning system has a role to play, he maintains it can only have a limited impact. “One aspect that has been quite problematic is that in the past we have had land that had quite a low value and that makes it hard to get agreement on s106. What is more, it is hard to make long-term plans on the basis of s106s, as you don’t necessarily know when developers will come forward.”

Ron Round (Lab), leader, Knowsley MBC

Cllr Round believes ensuring affordable, decent homes are available is an essential part of the job of councils, but that does not necessarily mean building them.

“Our role is not to provide housing we do this by working with housing trusts leaving the council to concentrate on initiatives to make Knowsley an attractive place to live and work. Knowsley is in a good position to achieve this because we work with a focused group of housing trusts to deliver social housing. The majority of it is managed by Knowsley Housing Trust, set up by the council in 2002.

“Our partnership with them is strong and has led to an innovative approach to developing social housing, including the North Huyton New Deal for Communities project, which has been developed with Knowsley Housing Trust and private builders to build almost 1,500 mixed-tenure homes.”

He adds work to tackle homelessness, improve education and encourage inward investment is something councils should pursue to complement social housing.

Duncan Kerr, chief executive, South Kesteven DC

Mr Kerr likens social housing to the Rolling Stones, saying they have both been around so long they have become a “peculiarly British institution”. And he adds: “It’s difficult to imagine life without them even though it’s 30 years since either of them offered us anything memorable.”

But joking aside, he believes some serious challenges need to be addressed. “Since council housing made its surprising return visit to the national consciousness when right-to-buy became the biggest privatisation ever, our national policy has been in some disarray.

“For macro-economic reasons that I have never understood, let alone been able to explain, housing associations have been genetically engineered to survive in a parallel universe. They may look the same, but the physical laws to determine how they are funded is entirely different.

“As I remember from watching Star Trek, moving between universes is a risky and expensive business which is presumably why large-scale voluntary transfer creates so many jobs for consultants. I can’t imagine how anyone can think that the present arrangements offer the most effective way of meeting the critical need we have for affordable housing.”

He says that in the future politics must be put aside and council housing and housing associations should be placed on exactly the same financial and legal footing.

“This would mean returning to councils the financial freedom to build as well as manage. Alternatively we could sell off the entire back catalogue of council housing and step as a nation into a world where councils only focus on their strategic role.”

Kris Hopkins (Con), leader, Bradford City MDC

Cllr Hopkins sees councils as enablers, rather than builders of social housing. “Councils should secure the provision of affordable housing and provide a full range of accommodation and tenures,” he says.

“Local authorities should be seeking to work effectively with both registered social landlords and private developers to provide intermediate housing options for the variety of low-cost home ownership models as well as for rented accommodation.”

And he says the use of the planning system is essential in this. “We should be using our s106 powers and driving regeneration and development in our localities with the aid of supplementary planning documents.

“Based on housing-needs information, we should be reducing the trigger at which s106 kicks in to make sure need is met.”

Rob Tinlin, chief executive, Southend-on-Sea BC

Mr Tinlin says developing social housing in an area like Southend is a challenge.

“Our focus is increasingly on developer provision and contributions through approved local development framework and s106 agreements, close partnership with key registered social landlords, more effective use of our own estate and parcelling of our land to deliver in bite-sized chunks of new social housing.

“We are presently site-cramming, delivering multi-site schemes and pursuing spot purchase in the private housing market.” But he admits that “all of these approaches merely nibble at the edges of our challenge.

“The answer may, in part, be financial, but it certainly isn’t a simple return to the ‘good old days’ of local housing authorities. As our arm’s-length management organisation matures it needs to be empowered to develop strategic alliances.”

“Local authorities need to be less fettered to facilitate provision, maximising developer delivery or contributions through far better use of s106 or development tariff.

“Build if necessary and certainly, in intimate city regions like ours, see the bigger picture and work across artificial boundaries to address needs in full catchment areas and deliver the essential links between housing, travel, work and play.”

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