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Local authority housebuilding – where are we now?

by Dr Janice Morphet FRTPI

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Since 2017, Dr Ben Clifford and I have been undertaking research on the ways in which English local authorities are providing housing.

The first two phases of the research, funded by the RTPI, involved a 100% ‘desk survey’ of all councils, a direct survey to local authority officers, a series of regional and other round tables and lastly specific case studies.

The round tables were an important element of phases 1 and 2, particularly those organised through the RTPI’s regions. Local authority planning and housing officers took part, and the events provided an opportunity for councils to share their experiences, positive practices and current concerns with us and their colleagues.


Latest research phase

The third phase of the research began in 2021 and has involved a further series of roundtables – this time held online - across the RTPI’s regions convening planners and housing experts to share their experience of what is happening in their authority. We are very grateful to all the RTPI’s regional coordinators and committees for supporting these events.

We circulated a list of research questions before the events and discussed these on the calls. Each region tackled the discussion slightly differently, and we now have a very rich series of responses from across England that we will be able to write up alongside the other research.


The effect of Covid-19

During the phase 3 round tables, we have been particularly interested to find out whether the COVID pandemic has had any effects on the increasing of local authority engagement in the direct delivery of housing. This engagement might be through the use of the Housing Revenue Account, a council company, establishing a registered provider, disposing of land for housing or specific partnership relationships with private, public or housing association partners, or a mix of these.

We were interested to learn that the pandemic appears to have increased local authority commitment to engaging in housing provision – partly through concerns to provide temporary accommodation but also through direct development.

We have found the same experience through the desk and direct surveys. We were also given detailed accounts about why councils are not engaging in delivery, although these appear to be in a minority.


Internal working arrangements

We were also interested to find out whether councils had changed any of their internal working arrangements for direct housing delivery over the last two years. A significant finding in 2019 was that councils that delivered more housing were establishing focused teams to achieve this. We were also interested to learn if there had been any changes in the organisation of the planning teams to manage the council’s own planning applications for housing.

We heard that there have been some councils that have created new and expanded teams but mostly there have been incremental changes in practices which are apparent two years later but not the outcome of any specific review. For some, where the council’s housing development programme has grown significantly, specific teams have been established or assigned these planning applications.

Other issues addressed included the increasing use of modern methods of construction, the use of passivhaus or higher environmental standards and the support provided from Homes England, LEPs and Mayoral Combined Authorities. We will discuss all of these in more detail in our report, due to be published later.


Planning negotiation in housing delivery

However, the main concern arising from the round tables, and elsewhere in our research, is about the detailed practices of planning negotiation in housing delivery. These include the point at which the design and distribution of affordable homes secured through s106 was best negotiated, the issues about the longer-term costs and maintenance of ‘tenure blind’ apartment blocks and how early a housing provider should be identified for these s106 dwellings in the planning application process.

While we heard of considerable frustration from some local authorities, we have also heard of a range of practices that are being used across the country to reduce the costs of long-term maintenance and service charges for tenant and organisations taking on this housing.

These will be set out in more detail in the final report as we consider that they will be a major contribution to the practices of local housing delivery across the country. They will also become increasingly important if the post-pandemic priorities for councils engaging in direct housing delivery continue.


>> Janice Morphet FRTPI is a Visiting Professor in the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London and is a Design Council Built Environment Expert. She is currently a member of the RTPI’s Policy, Practice and Research Committee.


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