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To achieve its housing pledges the government must empower local authorities 


Councils are well-positioned to kick-start a housing revolution (Prospect's housing report is kindly sponsored by RICS, Sovereign Housing, Atkins and the Building Societies Association)

By David Renard  

Councils are committed to working with this new government to tackle the national housing shortage. We’ve been quietly getting on with the job by trying to build the homes our communities need, but there is still much to do.

The Local Government Association, which represents councils across the country, has long called on successive governments to reform the Right to Buy scheme, scrap permitted development rights and put in place the funding and reforms needed to end homelessness.

Councils are keen to take on their share of responsibility for building new homes, but we cannot do it without the powers to spark a genuine renaissance in council housebuilding at scale.

Over the last few years, councils have been trying to accelerate their housebuilding programmes to deliver safer, more affordable, high-quality homes with the right infrastructure. The removal of the housing borrowing cap last year signalled a real shift towards recognition of the important role councils play in addressing national housing need. This commitment must continue.

Enabling councils to resume their historic role as major housebuilders of affordable homes must be at the top of this new government’s agenda. The last time the country built more than 250,000 homes in a year, in the 1970s, councils built around 40 per cent of them.

However, it isn’t just about numbers; we need affordable, good quality homes. One of the greatest challenges facing councils is the constant extension of permitted development rights. These rights give developers greater flexibility to convert barns, office blocks and storage facilities into new homes.

The loss of office space leaves our businesses and start-ups without the premises they need to get off the ground and grow, and local residents lose out on access to local jobs—both of which underpin the success of our communities.

Equally, the rules allow developers to bypass the local planning system, which takes away the ability of our communities and local leaders to shape the area in which they live.

And there is, critically, no requirement here for developers to build affordable homes or support infrastructure such as roads and green spaces.

The latest figures show that since 2015, a total of 54,162 homes in England were converted from offices to flats—all without proper local scrutiny or planning permission.

But what does this mean for our communities and local authorities?

While this amounts to approximately 7 per cent of new homes nationally, in some parts of the country it represents a much higher proportion of all new housing. Office to residential conversions under permitted development rules accounted for more than 35 per cent of new homes in Harlow, Norwich, Three Rivers, Spelthorne and Slough in 2018/19.

The implications are clear. The government needs to work with local areas to tackle the housing crisis. It is vital that local leaders, who are answerable to their communities and have a real interest in ensuring their communities thrive, are given a greater voice in the planning process. 

Extending permitted development rules and building homes outside of the planning system is not the answer. 

Despite cuts to planning departments, the planning system is not a barrier to housebuilding, with councils approving nine in 10 planning applications and granting permission for 361,800 in the year to 31st March 2019.

Alongside scrapping these permitted development rules and properly resourcing planning departments, the government also needs to reform Right to Buy and reverse the freeze on Local Housing Allowance rates. Despite a rise in council housebuilding, the building of homes at social rent is at an historic low, leading to more and more families being pushed into the insecure private rented sector, which for many is simply unaffordable.

In order to support private renters’ access to affordable homes, the next government needs to restore LHA to at least the 30th percentile of rents and reverse the freeze which comes to an end in 2020.

In the last six years alone, more than 68,058 homes have been sold off under Right to Buy at almost half the market price, leaving councils with just enough funding to replace a quarter of the homes sold.

Councils are well-positioned to deliver more homes and kick-start a housing revolution, and by giving them the ability to retain 100 per cent of their Right to Buy receipts and set discounts locally, they can do just that.

A return to large-scale council housebuilding is the only way to boost housing supply, help families struggling to meet housing costs, provide homes to rent, reduce homelessness and tackle the housing waiting lists many councils have. This government needs to bring the country together. Affordable housing for all is a good start.

Read the new housing supplement in full

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