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Call for more housing deals cooled by lack of capacity

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The Homes & Communities Agency wants to do more housing deals with councils but lacks the capacity to do them on a large scale, the organisation’s deputy chief executive has admitted.

Tom Walker said councils “can’t underestimate” the importance of housing to the prime minister but warned local authorities against simply trying to build homes in “isolation”.

Mr Walker was previously director of the government’s Cities and Local Growth Unit which played a key role in driving the devolution agenda. During a fringe session at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers summit in Manchester he said: “I want to put the emphasis on a deal-based, place-based focus. What the HCA is offering through my leadership is an offer to deepen that engagement with places across a breadth of issues.”

The HCA, along with officials from the Treasury and Department for Communities & Local Government, are in discussion with a number of councils about bespoke housing deals, which could include additional freedoms over borrowing to build more homes. LGC has previously reported how the Treasury said Leeds was making “good progress” on securing a housing deal in time for the Budget on 22 November. Three other areas – Stoke, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Newark & Sherwood – have also been in discussions with the government over bespoke housing deals and LGC understands they too are hopeful of securing an agreement this month.

Mr Walker said: “I know a deal-based approach has its disadvantages as well as its advantages, but it really helped us to make progress on things we never thought we’d achieve.”

Mr Walker cited devolution to the West Midlands Combined Authority as an example of that. 

Areas promising to build more homes on top of their original estimates are the ones that the HCA is willing to speak to about a potential deal, Mr Walker said but he added: “Are we set up to respond to that fully? No.”

However, he said he was “making the case” to the Treasury for councils to be given “more freedoms and flexibilities” on various central government funding pots to help deliver more homes as he recognised asking councils to bid for funds for specific projects “drives you mad”.

Mr Walker also urged councils to make sure they have access to the commercial and professional skills to deliver more homes, even if they are not directly building them, but warned councils against “diving straight in” to build their own homes. He said the the HCA wanted local authorities to be more strategic and work with other councils and partners to deliver the housing numbers areas and sub-regions need.

Housing minister Alok Sharma told LGC last month the government “will consider” withholding new homes bonus payments from councils that fail to adopt a local plan.

Mr Walker warned the “consequences will ratchet up” for councils which fail to adopt a local plan as “the political wind is against you”.

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