Comment: New money for old rope?

New funding for affordable homes is welcome but we need the policies to catch up, says architect 

Theresa May’s offer of £2 billion to fund more council housing is a welcome step, but money alone won’t unlock building capacity, argues Victoria Saunders 

 ANOTHER party conference season has brought with it another welcome round of positive announcements from the Government for the UK housing sector. To solve the “biggest domestic policy challenge of a generation”, Theresa May has lifted the borrowing cap for local authorities and pledged a new £2 billion pot to deliver desperately needed affordable homes across the country.

Victoria Saunders
Victoria Saunders, managing director of Stockport-based btp Architects

As part of this, it is hoped that councils and housing associations will progress new developments that may have been seen as too risky.

In theory, I stand by the likes of the National Housing Federation and the Federation of Master Builders in welcoming these potentially game-changing announcements from our Prime Minister. But in reality, knowing the backdrop against which we’re all working, we still don’t have the clarity we need on a number of other policies. Money is clearly a huge requirement of being able to deliver the affordable homes the nation needs, but it is part of a much bigger and more complex picture.

In addition to money, councils and housing associations need land to develop on. Take the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework for example. There was a time when powers promised to release certain areas of greenbelt land for development but two years on we still don’t have clarity. The latest is that it has been adjusted to make less green belt land available. Councils simply don’t know where they stand regarding release of land.

Registered providers (RPs) may not be short of money in the way they once were, but they are short of land. There is a danger that just throwing money at the housing crisis will actually increase the value of some sites which are ripe for affordable housing while subsidising the development of brownfield sites. In addition to this financial support from the Government, I’d argue we need to see a radical overhaul of planning to bring straightforward schemes forward much more quickly.

At the same time, let’s not forget that councils are still in austerity measures. Making a pot of money available for councils to bid for is welcome, but do they have the capacity and skills to deliver new homes at scale? Many councils have transferred their housing stock to RPs and have, quite rightly, devolved skills related to house building.

As partners to the sector we must be ready and willing to work with local authorities through this transformative period and support them through the upskilling process.

Another elephant in the room is infrastructure. If £2 billion has been made available for housing what about investment for new roads, transport links and even schools? We need more detail from the Prime Minister on how she will deliver £2 billionn of additional homes with no outline of infrastructure through councils which are already facing massive squeezes on their resources.

Essentially, until housing policy connects with planning departments, councils and housing associations won’t be able to maximise the financial opportunities announced by the Prime Minister. I experience the barriers of this disconnection frequently in my work.

Only recently our team was working on a scheme of 24 affordable homes. In order to meet planning regulations, we were required to incorporate a roof terrace to provide additional open space. Not an issue on paper but it then meant the development needed an additional staircase and a lift. Unfortunately, this made the scheme financially unviable and it had to be scrapped. Just one example of the barriers being faced up and down the country.

Having worked with councils and housing associations throughout my career, I am the first to champion their ability and commitment to deliver the homes this country needs. They are absolutely vital to the Prime Minister’s pledge to fix the broken housing market and it is clear that she recognises this too. These promises from the Government are steps in the direction we need to be going, but until the rest of the road is cleared, we will struggle to get to where we want to be.

Let’s see outdated policies renewed so we can get on and deliver the next generation of affordable homes.

NH

Victoria Saunders is managing director of Stockport-based btp Architects

 

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