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Chiefs challenged on lack of house building

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Chief executives have been challenged as to why their councils are not building more homes by one of the leaders of a Treasury review which looked into how local authorities could boost housing supply.

Eastleigh BC leader Keith House (Lib Dem) said councils already had the necessary powers and access to finance they needed to build more homes. However, he said that required leadership and staff with the right commercial skills.

Cllr House told delegates the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers summit in Bournemouth that governments past and present did not know how to tackle the housing crisis.

“We traditionally just whinge and say give us some money, give us some powers when actually we have got the money and we have got the powers,” he said. “So let’s stop asking for that stuff and think about what we can actually do and how we can help government get out of a hole which has been created over generations.”

Cllr House worked with housing finance lawyer Natalie Elphicke to produce a report in January which outlined how local authorities should play a more proactive role in encouraging house building in their areas.

During the session in Bournemouth on Thursday, Cllr House said councils could benefit financially from building homes to sell or for rent.

He said: “Why aren’t we all doing this stuff? Because we think we’re not allowed to. We think we have to go to government and get permission. You don’t. You’ve got those powers now.”

Local authorities needed people who are “astute” and can understand how councils could benefit from commercial property ventures, said Cllr House. LGC reported in June how the Housing & Finance Institute has been formally established and Cllr House said the body could help councils to become more commercial.

He said a shortage of skills was “one of the big fundamental problems” related to the housing crisis but added it was not just related to a lack of construction workers.

“Actually the bigger problem is the shortage of planners and property specialists within local authorities,” said Cllr House. “These people could be making you money and yet you don’t employ them.”

If councils are to truly tackle the housing crisis it would require commitment from council leaders, cabinet members for housing, chief financial officers, monitoring officers and chief executives, said Cllr House.

“If you can get that lot lined up the evidence says you will sort this and you will take responsibility for not just issuing planning permissions, which is what councils think their job is, but delivering homes because that is what the job really is,” he said.

Meanwhile, Haringey LBC’s chief executive Nick Walkley told delegates councils had “lost the narrative” on housing. While planners were often seen as the problem, he said 40% of the land bought in London in the last decade had been bought by companies which had yet to build on it.

Mr Walkley said that while his council was setting up a housing company he was “terrified” almost every local authority would do the same only for them to have to be closed down when the next economic downturn hit.

He thought councils should be thinking about how they can influence housing markets as well as having a “conversation about social housing and its role in society”.

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