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Features - Home sweet home

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Housing remains one of the biggest challenges facing local government. Sarah Webb, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, and Merron Simpson, head of policy, write an open letter urging leaders to champion social housing.

Dear council leader,

At the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) we believe there can be few roles these days that are more exciting or fulfilling than being a leader or a local politician. You are in the privileged position of being able to influence organisations and action far beyond your council’s own boundaries, to bring energy and impetus to the work and direction of your area and to improve the life chances of thousands of individual citizens.

Whether or not you have adopted the latest place-shaping or place-making rhetoric, your role in transforming your local neighbourhoods and communities has never been more important or more challenging, and this includes the homes in your area.

Please don’t stop reading even if you have transferred the old council-owned housing to a housing association or arm’s-length management organisations (ALMOs), or plan to do so.

We’d like to encourage you to see the business of ensuring a fully functioning housing market as being key to your place-shaping role. We’d like to ask you to champion what is often called ‘housing strategy’ as a crucial element of that visionary place-shaping function. And we’d like to ask you to use your influence to ensure the life chances of your citizens are enhanced by having access to an affordable, warm, safe and secure home.

A balance of housing 'vital'

Whether in rural or urban areas we now understand the imperative of having a balanced housing market on the economic success of an area. We now understand the importance of good housing in supporting healthy communities and strong educational performance.

We know we need to tackle housing if we are to reduce our CO2 emissions the list goes on. An excellent built environment builds the confidence of visitors, investors and citizens alike, and decent housing enhances individual life chances.

But there is a huge job still to be done. The truth is that effective leadership in housing and regeneration is, at best, patchy. Improving regional economies will be stifled without attention to the housing on offer to incoming as well as existing residents. Life chances of people living in the poorest areas will continue to be compromised unless ways can be found to reconnect them to the working and learning worlds and to de-stigmatise their neighbourhoods.

And progress on the big issues of the day will not be made unless individual councils take the lead and make things happen locally. These issues include how to reduce the 27% of the UK’s carbon emissions that come from housing and how to meet the housing requirements of an ageing population. It’s not housing per se that is important here, but the extent to which investment and action in housing and related services contributes to other desirable outcomes locally.

At a national level, we are emerging from decades of relative political indifference towards housing, with a new government agency, the Homes & Communities Agency, to work with you to deliver housing and regeneration outcomes.

There are also new models for delivering housing that put local authorities back in the driving seat enabling you to reinvest some of the value locked into your assets back into the community. Sheffield, Bristol and others are, for example, working in partnership to build thousands of new homes on council land for shared ownership through local housing companies, giving them long-term investment potential in the area.

Housing reforms

But as you know, there is much more to housing and regeneration than increasing supply. Just before Christmas, housing minister Yvette Cooper MP announced a raft of housing reforms.

Among them are:

  • Pilot projects for local authorities to pioneer a modern housing options service, bringing together advice on housing and employment, and not just for those in crisis

  • A new fund to kick-start the transformation of the least mixed and most deprived areas

  • Resources to address overcrowding

  • New sub-regional, choice-based lettings schemes making it more easy for people to move house across local authority boundaries

Leaders' role

Whether or not you own housing in your area, your role as both creator of the ‘housing vision’ and as enabler of housing delivery cannot be overstated. You have at your disposal land, planning powers and the combined resources of your many private, public and third sector delivery partners to make your vision a reality.

New resources will be available soon, if you are one of those councils who meet their housing targets, in the form of£500m from the Housing Planning Delivery Grant, and you could use some of this to develop this strategic housing role.

Whether affordable housing in your area is managed by you, your ALMO or housing association partners, you must exploit the fact that these landlords are rooted in their communities and in touch with their residents in a unique way. They are also fantastic investors in social capital, supporting livelihoods by promoting learning and working opportunities by, for example, sponsoring city academies.

And they provide a gateway to social mobility. That’s why the Financial Services Authority is supporting CIH to work with landlords to help their residents improve their ability to manage their personal finances. And, of course, it’s not just about affordable or ‘social’ housing. Private landlords, volume house builders and local developers are also operating in your area, bringing land and resources to the table.

Your role is to bring these various resources together in a co-ordinated way so that the sum is greater than the parts. This must be done in a way that avoids duplication and delivers your place-shaping vision. Only you can broker agreements, co-ordinate action and harness resources across tenures and if you don’t, who will?

Leadership 'lacking'

So why are we appealing directly to you? Well, our recent work for the Improvement & Development Agency suggests that many local authorities are not well enough equipped to provide the sort of strategic leadership in housing that is needed.

Our work with senior officers leading strategic housing teams across the country showed that only seven percent believed building sustainable communities should be a local authority priority, while only two percent said creating mixed communities was important.

What is perhaps most surprising is that only 17% said that balancing housing markets was important, even though this has been a priority of government. And while a balanced supply of decent housing clearly contributes to a host of corporate outcomes, many have struggled to find a place for housing in their local area agreement.

And if you are still to be convinced then let’s remember Bill Clinton’s comment: “It’s the economy, stupid!” As Bristol City Council’s leader Helen Holland (Lab) knows, her city’s economic success must be shared by all its citizens and used to regenerate and revive its disadvantaged communities, something that will be impossible to achieve without consideration of the role housing plays in improving life chances.

Local economies are stifled by non-functioning housing markets ones in which workers can’t afford to buy or where deprivation and poor housing is driving people away. And no amount of city centre regeneration will compensate for this.

As today’s place leaders you can have economic renewal and eliminate poverty, you don’t have to choose. It’s right to put the economy first, but we mustn’t forget to transform our housing at the same time, both to complement the kind of economy we are looking for and to make sure everyone is in a position to benefit from increased prosperity.

And, just in case you are feeling singled out unnecessarily, our study for the IDeA also exposed a huge shortage in skills to deliver this strategic housing role, with 82% of respondents saying they find it difficult to recruit people with the right skills one for us to work on.

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