Housing – Less Stirring. More Doing

Jan 13, 2014

The Lodge, Dark Lane

Like decorating, winning an election is all about the preparation. In the same way that screw holes in walls are filled with Polyfilla and skirting boards are precisely sanded, ensuring victory at the polls is no different to doing your utmost to make a refurbed room attract approving smiles.

So it is that 2014 is the year that dust sheets are now being laid and scaffold towers erected by the main political parties in order to ‘WOW’ you in May 2015 with a job that makes you swoon all the way to the ballot box.

Today, Labour’s paint pot of choice stirred in anticipation is that of HOUSING, with chief decorator Emma Reynolds, newly installed shadow Housing Minister, announcing today her wish that 200,000 homes will be built under the Labour banner if elected in 16 months time.

This is a well worn pledge. Every incumbent administration and those opponents that covet them has waxed on about restoring the balance between housing supply and demand. It’s a tricky subject given that our population continues to increase annually yet our land mass does not and with much of it protected by green belt status, conservation areas and the like. It’s not an easy nut to crack. But that doesn’t stop politicos promising this, that and the other in order to win you over. Some would be forgiven for surmising that where housing promises are concerned, words come easy yet the substance of their assurances sadly lacking when the keys to the doors of power and handed to them.

Emma Reynolds’s speech today states that a Labour Government would force councils to identify and release small building plots under their ownership in order to boos the number of self-builds built. Currently, the number of individual plots developed by would be ‘owner occupiers’ is around 14,000. In 2012, 98,280 housing starts were achieved says the DCLG, the government department in charge of housing.

And so an aspiration of 200,000 new builds each year, as recognised as the necessary number, is some 102,000 units short currently.

Emma and Co will have to go a LONG way to transforming 14,000 plots into 102,000 so that the gap is bridged. A seven fold improvement in fact and which, in truth, just isn’t going to happen. Despite the political enthusiasm.

But Ms Reynolds is on to something here, as indeed were the Conservative led coalition when they announced a focus on self-builds too in late 2011 (albeit that little happened thereafter). Because one of the answers to a lack of building (just one, not the WHOLE answer) is to focus on councils.

Warley Training Centre

In my other role as a councillor in my home town of Brentwood, Essex, in 2011/2012 I was handed the role of Asset Panel Chairman with the overall responsibility for overseeing the councils land and premises book. This turned out to be an area that had been completely neglected for many, many years and whereby the council didn’t even know what it owned. Seriously. The resulting analysis by a colleague and I discovered that the council owned shops, pub premises, swathes of land, former schools that laid derelict, billboard sites, decrepit community halls that were unfit for use and even acres of prime town centre land that turned out to be worth over £1.5m an acre and that had been purchased for car park use decades prior, for a tenth of that value and that had been left to weeds and dumped rubbish trolleys. All have now been identified, assessed and some sold to the considerable benefit of the tax payer (£5.7m in total) and which will provide 48 housing units of all types and sizes, sorely needed in a borough that currently only manages to build 34 homes a year, total. Brentwood is a small council. Just imagine if an entrepreneurial, strategic approach were similarly applied to all of them?

This approach is simply NOT being seen elsewhere. But why not? Too involved? Too specialist? Too politically ‘hot’ perhaps?

Brentwood’s local authority cousins, Essex County Council, I wager are sitting on hundreds of acres of buildings and and that should be scrutinised and could be developed. An example (taken today) is pictorially demonstrated above as has languished derelict for years.

I’m not advocating that all such land is automatically concreted over,  of course. But as land owner, let alone by any planning diktat, councils are in control of what is built and where and are in a prime position, indeed THE prime position, to assist the building of homes across the UK. Private housing; big homes; starter homes; social housing; affordable stock…. it can all be achieved if councils were to get their fingers out.

There is an irony to the fact that councils are tasked with being instrumental in the planning process in ensuring that adequate residential property is built. I say irony yet it’s actually verging on the criminal that they themselves are the bottleneck to supply. Government and its multiple departments too though. Did you know that the Ministry of Defence has over 7000 empty dwellings under its ownership?

The answer to the country’s housing crisis and some would say, a more consistent property market, lays right at the door of those that can do the most.

It’s time that the private sector and its commercial expertise were engaged across councils to begin the process of analysing publicy owned assets and dealing with them using innovation and expertise that UK councils clearly lack.

But it’s not just about being  photographed with your overalls on and your sleeves rolled up. You actually have to finish the job too.

It needs to happen and frankly, the political party that actually puts in place such a strategic solution will get my vote. And maybe yours….