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James Maker: Counties need bigger role in house building

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Today the County Councils Network is playing host to its first major housing conference, with more than 70 delegates joining us for the launch of two major reports.

Five years ago, while housing and planning was already central to the work of our unitary members, it was a peripheral issue for most of our two-tier membership. Now as the government’s biggest domestic agenda, with positive reforms planned, it is firmly at the centre of CCN’s agenda.

Following the housing white paper, changes are proceeding at pace through a revised National Planning Policy Framework alongside investment through a rebranded and more powerful Homes England and the Housing Infrastructure Fund. The outcome of the Letwin review of build out will be the next phase in the reform agenda.

The housing and planning reports published by the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA) and planning expert Catriona Riddell go with the grain of government policy. They seek to promote innovation across our membership, and strategic and local collaboration between county, district and neighbouring unitary authorities.

While developments since 2015 remain imperfect from a county perspective, the direction of travel is good.

The introduction of the statement of common ground could well improve on the ineffective duty to cooperate. Powers introduced in the Neighbourhood Planning Act, which allow government to invite county councils to support districts in delivering local plans, are being tested for the first time in Kent and Essex.

At the same time, the Oxfordshire housing deal is a symbolic acceptance of the need for strategic planning to spread beyond city regions to shire counties.

The removal of strategic planning undoubtedly hampered efforts to get the nation building again, with the impact most acutely felt in two-tier areas where there remains a fragmented approach to planning for housing and infrastructure.

Both reports call for the government to go further in strengthening the role of county councils in the statement of common ground, and outline actions that government could take to ensure more county and district areas put in place statutory or non-statutory strategic planning frameworks.

Although freeing housing authorities to build has got the profile it deserves, the role of county and county unitary authorities in directly building homes and innovating with partners at strategic scale has not received the attention it deserves.

The analysis by the TCPA outlines how local authority housing companies at the county scale can deliver across a range of tenures, harnessing an entrepreneurial approach to maximising assets, public land, and taking a direct stake in the development process.

In the short-term, the implementation of the recommendations by Ms Riddell and more collaboration between district and county councils would help boost housing supply in counties, as would the scaling up of the activity described by TCPA.

Looking ahead, the housing spending review will dictate the future direction of policy, potentially putting in place longer-term financial reforms and resources to help all types of local government to support the housing agenda.

A conclusion from both reports is that despite the benefits of county-wide planning and the innovation shown by counties in creating housing companies, a Whitehall neglect of strategic planning coupled with the impact of austerity has reduced vital capabilities and capacity.

A united and collective voice for greater resources at the spending review could help ensure councils have the resources they need to invest in rectifying the situation.

But I would expect other changes. Major reforms to the New Homes Bonus at the spending review looks possible, coupled with another round of the Housing Infrastructure Fund to support major development and further housing deals, building on developments in Oxfordshire.

Such a direction of travel would make sense. We are already seeing significant changes to developer contributions and a shift in focus from revenue-based financial ‘incentives’ to targeted infrastructure investment. This recognises that more planning permissions without necessary infrastructure will fail to build the homes and communities this country needs.

For instance, a review by the Department for Communities & Local Government in 2015 concluded the New Homes Bonus hadn’t delivered its intended aims of providing funding for infrastructure.

Moreover, the way that funding is distributed through New Homes Bonus has imbalanced the local government financial system between regions and tiers, further hampering the planning capacity of strategic level authorities and reducing the funding they have to invest in infrastructure.

Regardless of any further planning reforms and the outcome of the spending review, the reports published this week show that through effective collaboration and innovation there is so much that strategic-level county authorities have to bring to the national housing agenda.

James Maker, head of policy and communications, County Councils Network

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