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John Fuller: Districts have a new, powerful incentive to get building

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It wasn’t only the prime minister dancing after her speech at the Conservative Party Conference.

Her announcement to scrap the borrowing cap on the housing revenue account will have caused a jig of joy to stockholding districts councils across the country now empowered to build more homes to tackle the housing crisis.

Houses are assets and it was always strange that Treasury rules on housing finance only allowed borrowing liabilities to be counted whilst disregarding the financial and social value of housing assets. With a conference twirl, Theresa May has spun round decades of fiscal thinking to deliver a new generation of council housing.

And districts, as the planning and housing authorities across two-thirds of the country whose role it is to manage local housing markets, are best placed to translate ambition into homes that build communities. Many districts will now have the financial flexibilities to deliver more affordable housing straight away.

This announcement, long called for by the District Councils’ Network, is also pivotal in the relationship between the national and local state. The baton for delivery is being passed to local people.

But in celebrating this welcome pirouette, we should not overlook many district councils with extensive housing potential, often with suburbs surrounding the largest cities, have transferred their own stock to registered social landlords. They therefore don’t have housing revenue accounts against which to borrow.

If the policy to reach its potential for everyone, councils without these accounts need access to borrowing flexibilities to ensure they do not miss out on the opportunity to build the new homes this country badly needs.

The national planning policy framework places new responsibilities on districts to manage local housing markets. Giving districts the fiscal tools to achieve this will help the country build 300,000 homes a year.

And it’s not just about houses. Good housing improves people’s physical and mental wellbeing. Districts can influence the wider determinants of health for people throughout their lives, including through supported living for those that rely on us most.

We continue to call for more flexibility on how right-to-buy receipts can be used and for the new homes bonus baseline to be scrapped.

But let’s not be churlish. Local authorities have been given a new, powerful incentive and tools to get building. We’re grateful that the “Dancing Queen” has responded to our “SOS.”. We can’t waste this opportunity.

John Fuller (Con), chairman, District Councils’ Network; and leader, South Norfolk Council

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