Peter Lamb, Crawley councillor writes on the difficulties of build sufficient new council homes.
We live in very challenging times, an era when many long-running issues are coming to a head and at times it can seem difficult to know exactly what an incoming Labour Government should prioritise.
For those of us on district-tier authorities, homelessness is by far the most pressing issue we face. The combination of increasing numbers being unable to afford private sector housing and large shortages of social housing are resulting in councils facing record temporary housing costs, putting at risk the survival of other services and forcing hundreds of residents to put their lives on hold.
At the same time, scientists are clear that if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change then as a planet we need to have collectively reached net zero by 2050. This will be an extremely tough target to meet and will require huge amounts of capital expenditure by the UK Government over the next 27 years. Consequently, there is a risk that other priorities for major capital investment, such as council housing, are sacrificed in the rush to hit net zero.
Fortunately, this is not inevitable. In fact, the reality is that council housing provides, by far, a greater opportunity for reaching the UK’s climate goals than could possibly be achieved through private sector housing.
Let’s start with new construction projects. Councils do have the ability to require that all new development within their area contain sustainability requirements through including these within their Local Plans. However, in practice this ability is hampered by two things.
The first is that every Local Plan needs to be signed-off by a government-appointed planning inspector in order for it to take effect and the national framework they are required to assess the plans against has been increasingly rigged in favour of developers over time. As a result, were a council to include the sustainability requirements necessary to avoid a new property from having to be retrofitted by 2050 as part of the effort to hit net zero, no planning inspector would sign-off on the plan. Worse, any sustainability requirements placed on a developer reduces the other requirements which can be included in the plan if it is to be approved, such as those relating to affordable housing.
Secondly, even when a Local Plan has been agreed, developers can avoid having to fulfil requirements if they can demonstrate that the development wouldn’t be ‘viable’ if those conditions were included. I won’t go into the detail of how this is done, but suffice to say that when you are the only one with all the figures, it isn’t hard to create a set of numbers which inflate the construction costs and deflate predicted sales prices in such a way as to meet the requirements of government-appointed district valuers.
In contrast, the only limit on councils in setting sustainability requirements for their own developments are financial. This shouldn’t be understated, as even for a council such as my own, with a large retained housing stock, it is a constant struggle to finance sufficient numbers of new properties to outpace those lost to right to buy. Despite being one of the top-ten performers in the country for delivery of new council housing, in the time it takes us to build four new council properties we lose three to Right-to-Buy.