Ingredients for a public housebuilding revolution

Ingredients for a public housebuilding revolution

A year ago today we launched New Civic Housebuilding, setting out our vision for reviving England’s tradition of building attractive, affordable homes. With the newly rebranded Ministry of Housing and its agency, Homes England, talking up their role in transforming house building, and the new National Planning Policy Framework due next week, this feels like a good moment to assess progress.

The need for public housebuilding

The government commitment to building a lot more homes is an essential first step. As we’ve long argued, any attempt to really increase supply must include a major increase in public housebuilding. That’s not just because by far the biggest need is for the most affordable homes – those for social rent in the most expensive parts of the country. Much greater non-market supply is also essential if we are to get the overall housebuilding numbers anywhere near the 300,000 per year target. And a public housebuilding programme will be essential if we are to transform our dysfunctional housebuilding system to a more sustainable mode – one that actually delivers for local communities and the wider economy, for the long term.

To be clear, by ‘public housebuilding’ I don’t just mean councils building or homes in any particular tenure. I mean building non-market, genuinely affordable homes, by bodies that are primarily aimed at the public good, not maximising private profit – as we set out in our vision for the New Civic Housebuilding. That includes councils getting back into development, but it also means a new generation of development corporations, a breakthrough in community-led housing models, and housing associations raising their ambitions.

And yes, controversial though it may be to some, there can also be a role for public-private partnerships and fully private schemes in the New Civic Housebuilding. There’s nothing wrong with making a profit from housebuilding. It’s an economically productive but also capital intensive and risky activity that ought to deliver fair returns to investors, after all – as long as that motive doesn’t trump the public interest in delivering high quality, affordable homes. Sadly, too often it does.

Public sector developments

So how is the revolution going? The short answer is, not brilliantly – but there are grounds for hope. Annual house building by councils is now consistently above the three-figure lows recorded throughout the 1990s and 2000s – but is still less than 2% of the level achieved in the 1970s, and only 8% of the 1980s. What’s not in doubt is the new spirit of innovation and willingness to build among councils. Forthcoming work by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and the Association for Public Sector Excellence (APSE) shows that most councils are actively trying to build by whatever means they can, despite having their hands tied by government restrictions on their finances, unfair viability rules, and uncertainty over whether they will be forced to sell off any homes they do manage to build.

The housing association front is also looking interesting. At two huge sites in London – Barking Riverside and Thamesmead – housing associations are taking on a major strategic role in leading large scale housebuilding. These are huge, challenging sites requiring massive investment, with long histories of neglect, punctuated by occasional outbursts of over-claiming by politicians, invariably followed by further drift and inaction. They need precisely the sort of long term, public interest investment we’ve been calling for – and that housing associations are well placed to provide.

The long list of initiatives, partnerships, public bodies and private companies that have had a go at developing the old power station sites on Barking Reach is a depressing roll-call of policy and market failure, going back to the early 1980s. The ungainly London Thames Gateway Development Corporation never achieved much. Cynics might say it was the first of the current wave of Development Corporations In Name Only, as it lacked all three of the key powers the real development corporations have: land ownership, concentrated planning powers, and the ability to raise finance. A private-sector led attempt failed to get off the ground, largely because its plan depended on the public paying for a new train line that never came.

When L&Q took over the private share in Barking Riverside two years ago it became the largest project ever undertaken by a housing association. A solution to the transport problem has finally been agreed, and L&Q have promised to quadruple the speed of delivery. It’s early days, but it’s finally looking promising for what has optimistically been branded ‘Barcelona on Thames’. Let’s hope this – and Thamesmead just across the river – can pioneer a new model of association-led urban regeneration that prioritises the public interest.

Private sector developments

And on the private side? There’s something of a small to medium-sized enterprises (SME) revolution going on at Graven Hill, Bicester, where Cherwell District Council is using its land to enable England’s first Dutch-style custom-build development, creating opportunities for multiple innovative small builders. The beautiful urban extension of Newquay at Nansledan – which includes 30% tenure blind affordable housing built in traditional Cornish styles – is progressing nicely, led by private landowner the Duchy of Cornwall and delivered by three local builders. These schemes show that speculative development isn’t the only way things can be done – and that enlightened landowners and private firms can do the right thing if they chose to.

So it’s early days, but all the elements of a genuine New Civic Housebuilding revolution are there. Now we need the government to really get behind the innovators and use its planning, investment, and delivery powers to bring these ways of doing things out of the margins and into the mainstream.

Visit our New Civic Housebuilding website to find out more about our vision for housebuilding.’