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Walkley: The rules of the game are shifting

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Homes England chief executive Nick Walkley has suggested the agency will broaden its focus to include areas with housing challenges that are unrelated to high demand.

At the LGC Future Places event on Wednesday, Mr Walkley was asked by Blackpool Council’s assistant chief executive Alan Cavill whether a council like his, which has social problems caused by an over-supply of poor quality rented housing, should “darken your door”.

While acknowledging places with high housing demand are a “more important” national priority at the moment, Mr Walkley added that “places which have social and housing problems that intersect will form part of the housing future”.

“We can talk to coastal communities with those social problems about how we can help you,” he said. ”The rules of the game are shifting now. It’s not all a money problem to be focused on high [housing] demand - but the argument has to be won across the government.”

Mr Walkley also said “enormous disparity of wealth is being created, which results in serious social tensions”.

He described spending time recently in Great Yarmouth, which he says has “every problem simultaneously, despite being a fantastic place”.

“[We are considering] how we make a pitch to an investor because it is really important to get investment [there]”, Mr Walkley added.

He also told attendees Homes England had “won a hard battle with the Treasury to accelerate sites”, with £450m now allocated for ”councils with land to deliver quantity on”, who Homes England is ”really keen to talk to”.

Founded in January last year to replace the Homes and Communities Agency, Homes England now has nearly 1,000 members of staff, with an expectation this will soon grow to 1,200.

Mr Walkley said the importance of the agency’s role has never been greater as the government struggles to hit its target of building 300,000 new homes a year.

“Against a backdrop of flat wage growth, affordability has run away,” he said. ”The numbers are shocking. In the ring around the M25 and areas attached to major urban conurbations, house prices are out of reach even of salaried professionals getting help from the bank of mum and dad. It raises the question of ‘is it viable to get people to invest in this area’.”

Mr Walkley added areas like the north West Midlands, where there has been significant improvement in delivery, the new housing is “still not chipping away at affordability”.

“Lots of people are just staying put and re mortgaging and the number of buyers is stagnating. We become ever more dependent on new supply. This is a market that’s stuck. When it’s unfrozen, it will look like a plug coming out of the bath and will have an effect on new supply – which is absolutely critical.”

He also emphasised the importance of having a comprehensive local plan in place, saying the absence of one is a barrier to inward investment.

“In capital scarcity, that will get tougher,” he warned. “I am asked regularly [by developers], why should I invest in this place when it doesn’t have planning foundations in place? This is the challenge.”

Mr Walkley said the “continually widening” productivity gap in the construction sector will be a problem “with or without Brexit” but added a lack of diversity in the housing market is “the most shocking of all”, as the supply chain of small builders is disappearing.

”When people say that developments all look the same, that’s hardly surprising, he said. ”It’s not just about disrupting the big six, but supporting small builders back into existence because we are not going to get the opportunity we want with the big companies.”

 

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