It’s clear the supply of new homes is failing to keep pace with demand, despite the best efforts of councils.
So what steps could local authorities take as the credit crunch bites builders and would-be owners or tenants alike?
Part of the answer might lie with the housing initiatives devised by the four winners of the Beacon awards’ Homes for the Future category.
Best Practice 1: Bolton MBC
Bolton MBC had two problem sites — a rundown hostel for homeless people in a former workhouse, and a block of flats that did not meet the decent homes standard and was too expensive to refurbish.
Dominic Conway, head of Bolton Community Homes, a partnership between the council and social landlords, says: “The staff at the hostel, Clare Court, provided a very good service, but the running costs for heating and repairs were an issue. And it was outside the town centre, so a long way from the services that residents needed to access.”
The former Housing Corporation turned down plans to build a new hostel. The answer was an innovative approach — selling Clare Court for development to fund a rebuilding programme on the site of the flats that included provision for homeless people.
The development, called The Mere, was a partnership between the council, two housing associations and developer Contour Homes.
“We had a really good relationship with the developer and the housing associations, which rested on the council providing the land at below market value,” says Mr Conway. The partners then won £3.3m funding from the corporation.
Now there is a mixture of two to four-bedroom houses, apartments and bungalows at The Mere for rent, sale or shared ownership, and across the road are 24 modern units for homeless families, named Benjamin Court.
“The shared-ownership properties came on stream just as the housing market took a nosedive,” explains Mr Conway. “So we changed tack and have put these properties up for rent — we hope people will ‘try before they buy’.
“At first you may not succeed but we maintained a commitment to the scheme, had a clear plan and demonstrated this was a project that could deliver — we gave the Housing Corporation an ‘oven-ready’ scheme with everything in place.”
Best Practice 2: Sheffield City Council
In Sheffield, the city council developed a new financial model and a Residents’ Charter to tackle three 1960s housing estates that were coming to the end of their life.
The Scowerdons, Weakland and Newstead estates comprised timber-framed homes with flat roofs, suffered from structural problems such as leaks, and did not meet the decent homes standard.
However, the 809 properties were “very popular with residents due to generous space standards”, says regeneration project manager Stephanie Scott. Around a quarter were in private ownership. “One of our biggest challenges was getting residents on board.” An option appraisal, carried out by a task group including local people, concluded that demolition was the best way forward.
The council, social landlord Home Group and local people agreed the charter. This gives people the right to return to a new home and to choose whether to rent or buy, either outright or through shared ownership. “The charter is a massive commitment and that allowed us to go forward,” says Ms Scott.
A complex financial instrument was developed and approved in January 2006. Called a scheme account, it links credits from the sale of new homes on the estates and the value of affordable rented housing to debits, which are the development costs. The council provides the land and the cost of demolition.
“We have a scheme that works even in the current climate with the assistance of the Homes & Communities Agency,” says Ms Scott. Although the final grant figure has not yet been agreed, it is in the region of £50,000 per unit.
Although the recession is inevitably biting, the council, Home Group and the HCA are working in partnership and are committed to maintaining the long-term objectives of the scheme.
Best Practice 3: Greenwich LBC
Greenwich Council was faced with 120ha of derelict and contaminated land on the Greenwich peninsula.
“We realised we weren’t big enough to do it on our own,” says Peter Brooks (Lab), deputy leader and lead member for regeneration. “We needed partners — builders, developers and landowners.”
The council formed the Greenwich Waterfront Development Partnership. Chaired by deputy mayor Allan MacCarthy (Lab), it meets quarterly to ensure any problems are tackled at the earliest possible stage.
The aim is to build 10,000 mixed-tenure homes by 2021 and create a commercial district employing 20,000 people.
Greenwich is also developing smaller sites, such as the former Royal Arsenal in Kidbrooke.
Cllr Brooks says: “It was a big leap of faith to invite people in and share our knowledge. You are opening your books to landowners, developers and the private sector, providing information you wouldn’t want in the public domain.”
Senior staff of Berkeley Homes, one of the largest developers in the borough, are “often in the town hall letting us know what the business plans are and we let them know what our plans are on a confi dential basis”. At planning meetings, Cllr Brooks or other councillors involved in these relationships declare a conflict of interest and leave where relevant.
During the credit crunch, the council is monitoring each development closely. Cllr Brooks says it is prepared to revise s106 agreements or be flexible about issues such as the mix of tenure to keep sites on track.
“In the last recession, if companies went off site they didn’t come back for 10 years. I don’t want that to happen this time.”
St Helens Council faced industrial decline and a legacy of poor housing stock. One obvious site for development was the former Vulcan Foundry, on the edge of Newton-le-Willows.
There were no prospects for commercial use of the site, once famous for building railway locomotives. But it was a sensitive location, bordering a historic conservation area originally built to house factory workers.
Melanie Hayle, team leader in development control at the planning department, says: “One of the big challenges was decontaminating the site.”
Careful liaison between the Environment Agency, developers, planners and the council’s environmental health team was essential. “It’s important to talk to the experts and get everyone to work together on the urban regeneration agenda,” says Ms Hayle.
Now the site has been decontaminated and is ready for development, with a mix of homes, from one to five bedrooms, with affordable housing evenly distributed around the area.
The style will reflect Newton’s mix of 19th century townhouses, villas and workers’ cottages.
A new local centre will offer space for businesses to serve the local community, such as convenience stores or pharmacies.
Residents were keen to retain the old factory sports fields. “We had to hold the ring between the developer, Sport England and the sports clubs,” says Ms Hayle. “In the past, it would have been quite different and we may have sat back and let people come to us but now we have been much more involved in consultations and discussions.”
FIND OUT MORE
Mike Hows,Assistant director of the Greenwich Waterfront and strategic regeneration.
Tel: 020 8921 5363 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gill Ackrill, housing strategy and enabling manager.
Tel: 020 8921 5630 or email: email@example.com