Opinion: Housing – yes, we can

It is probably (I am sticking my neck out here) the belief of most councillors that the power to build council houses was abolished by Margaret Thatcher. This, coupled with right to buy, has led to a crisis in social housing which governments fail to tackle and councils can’t.

But a report commissioned by the Government as part of the Autumn Statement in 2013 has challenged local councils to have more confidence in what they can already do.

The Elphicke-House Report (pdf) published earlier this week, following a review by Natalie Elphicke, chair of Million Homes, Million Lives, and Keith House, Leader of Eastleigh Borough Council, contains 30 recommendations to both Government and Councils.

Councils should:

· not just process planning applications but enable housing completions

· look to develop themselves, either directly or in partnership with Residential Social Landlords

· use their existing borrowing powers and leverage to facilitate new housing.

The Report adds that councils are as efficient as housing associations in developing new stock.

Putting it bluntly it always has been possible for councils to build more housing, using its normal borrowing powers. There are some restrictions on how many homes can actually be owned outside the Housing Revenue Account but this is not actually the issue.

The real problem is simply getting bricks and mortar on the ground in units that people can afford to occupy asowners or tenants.

* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association

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  • I don’t know the detail here, but Councils in pre-IMF intervention days (before 1975) issued bonds for public purchase which were used to fund Council projects. We need to restore those powers to enable Councils to develop on a sufficient scale. I remain convinced that a large part of the issue in moving away from Thatcherite economics and Government centralisation remains accountancy conventions, and especially those applied to the public sector much of which was tied to the IMF intervention itself. Gradually the IMF is weaning itself off this approach, so it is time that happened in this country too. Clearly Lib Dems are not up for the challenge at present, judging by the “borrow too much under Labour” campaign line. The problem (as I may have mentioned previously!) is that Labour is actually too timid. As for our party, words fail me….

  • Helen Dudden 29th Jan '15 - 4:14pm

    The Lib Dem councillors in Bath were spending their time objecting to housing, the Inspector was called in.

    No interest in housing or housing problems.

  • We’ll never build more than 250,000 homes a year for a very long time, if ever. The political will simply does not exist. Heck, almost every day on the LibDem Bloggers list on right hand side of this site, you have LibDem MPs and councillors publishing their weekly efforts to prevent new housing being built nearby.

  • Helen Dudden 29th Jan '15 - 5:55pm

    Just what I have been saying.

  • Tony Greaves 29th Jan '15 - 6:01pm

    You are all missing the point. What is needed is more Council houses or Council-related social housing for rent. This is a different issue from the total number of houses. But Councils have been choked off from building new houses for fear that they will very quickly end up flogging them off for a song. Now the Tories want to apply right to buy to all social housing.


  • I do not think many councilors and/or council official have the skills to manage this scale of construction. Some county councils up to the mid 70s used to have the skills to design and supervise construction of motorways( Lancashire and GMC) but this expertise has been lost. Before any proposals are suggested there needs to be assessment of the skills needed.

    Many small sites cause problems because the developers lack the skills. Once estates covering hectares of land and involving hundreds of houses significant skill levels are needed.

  • “What is needed is more Council houses or Council-related social housing for rent.”

    …the type of housing that would undermine local property values even more that private housing. It simply won’t be allowed to happen on any meaningful scale. Many key voters also rent out property to secure a decent retirement income. State subsidised rental property will be detrimental to local rent levels, so again, you’re facing the wrath of those who decide elections.

  • A Social Liberal 29th Jan '15 - 8:10pm

    I agree with Tony Greaves. I very much disagree with the premise of the article. Councils WERE prevented from using moneys accrued from Right to Buy if they had significant borrowings.

    It is a common theme with the right, prevent the building of social housing in order to artificially raise the value of private housing. Last time using the ‘debt’ argument, this time by reducing the grants to councils and forcing them to raise the rents of public rents to 80% of the market average.

  • Of course, Charlie. But don’t use that as an artificial barrier to doing this.

  • PT I think we may be seeing the start of a rejection of timidity in politics after the election of Syriza. There are many urgent things to be done nationally and globally. We need to ensure they can be done with minimum disruption, see, for example, Tsar Nicolas’s posts on the Fossil Fuel and Insulation thread here.

  • Little Jackie Paper 29th Jan '15 - 8:49pm

    Tim13 – Do you think that when it comes to housing there has been any sort of, ‘timid politics,’ on the part of BTL landlords, the boomer classes, BANANAs etc?

  • Little Jackie Paper 29th Jan '15 - 9:25pm

    ‘It is a common theme with the right, prevent the building of social housing in order to artificially raise the value of private housing.’

    Indeed. For 30+ years the right has told us that inflation is the great economic evil of our time. Just that doesn’t seem to apply to house prices.

  • Of course, LJP, there are huge vested interests in opposing any sort of development.

  • Neil Sandison 30th Jan '15 - 1:22pm

    We have to strike the right balance in our local plans between housing development ,a viable infrastructure ,and a qaulity environment in which to live. ie sustainable development.changes in the NPPF means like most councils developers are coming forward with speculative developments based on the fact that we do not have a 5 year land supply even though we want to produce 660 new homes per annum.We wonder if in some instances outline applications are more about land banking than housing provision.developers on economic grounds constantly argue that they are unable to meet our affordable homes targets and offer very low numbers indeed .Giving local authorities more borrowing powers so that we can match fund developer contributions would seem the only solution to this problem.

  • Tim13
    If one looks at construction and industrial failures a major cause is a lack of people with the required skills. Construction projects such as T5 and The Shard are successful because the UK construction industry has enough top quality people to undertake a few high quality projects. However, there is probably no industry where the the gulf between the best and worst is so vast: in chemical engineering there are not the ignorant, lazy, devious and criminal which infest the bottom of the construction industry. In the chemical industry, if there were some of the ignorant , lazy and criminal people one finds in the construction industry, plants would explode and people killed. If one wants to understand how bad the worst elements of the construction industry can be , just watch the TV series on rogue builders.

    A major aspect which is ignored is that many of the school leavers lack the toughness to work out of doors in winter. Historically many construction companies favoured those who had played rugby, either league o union, as the men had the upper body strength and toughness to work out of doors undertaking hard work.

    The idea that one can try and build enough quality homes without making sure that we have enough quality people and building supplies capability is laughable. In mid summer 2014 , I was quoted a 13 week wait for delivery of some bricks.

    Little Jackie Piper
    Actually many people on the Right have complained about how making mortgages easier to obtain post 1970 , has caused price inflation. Prior to 1970s many building societies required the following
    1. To have saved with them for 5 years.
    2. 10% deposit.
    3. Inspection of spending habits.
    4. Only 3x times husbands or man’s salary.
    5. Assessment of career prospects.

    What the actions 1-5 achieved was to prevent many working class people and women from buying properties, I hardly think many Liberals want to return to these days.

    If people want to increase homes in urban areas, consultancies such as WSP and Cambridge U are undertaking interesting work. One aspect which needs to be considered is building homes over public properties. Also reducing many of the rules on contaminated land which makes money for environmental consultants and causes prices to rise.

  • The lib dems are anti social housing and against low cost housing?

    Don’t believe me, find an area with a lib dem councillor, propose a social housing project there and they will be against it complete with focus leaflets of a man and a woman looking not amused next to an empty field where the homes are going to be built.

  • Helen Dudden 2nd Feb '15 - 11:39am

    Yes totally agree with you, yet mention student housing, hotels for tourists things change.

    In Bath, this is the situation, Don Foster himself was against housing, I could never understand why if an objection to one one build then discuss other options. We have a waiting list of over 5000, that’s those needing a home.

    Mainly if the mainly Lib Dem councillors have stood against housing.

    The city is being taken over by student housing and the university, they do not pay council tax, are mainly here for short coming into the city. There was even a solar farm on the outskirts, but not housing for social needs being the priority.

  • Neil Sandison 2nd Feb '15 - 12:09pm

    Whats this nonsense about lib dems not supporting housing ? . in my own ward i have supported housing that includes provision for people with learning difficulties .I have supported housing for the retired for people who want to down size to more affordable rented and leasehold accomedation . I have supported living over the shop accomedation in our town centre to provided accomedation for singles and couples seeking their first home and to help revitalise the town centre economy .I am working with a developer on a former brownfield site which will release land for 6,200 new homes What you will note is that did not lead to significant loss of high qaulity agricultural land . Each site must be judged on its merits .We should not fall into the build at any cost trap developers set us. all development must be sustainable.

  • Neil Sanderson
    If we reduce tax on brownfield and VAT on repairs it could increase house construction. It must be made easier and cheaper to build on brownfield or repair existing properties than greenfield: at present it is often the opposite. Some of the extreme ecological requirements make repairs to barns and similar buildings very expensive. It is absurd to make it more difficult to convert a barn to an office or a dwelling than build on a greenfield site.

    When new towns are built all the infrastructure, roads, water supplies ,sewage, electricity, gas , schools , shops have to be constructed : it is much more sensible to build on brownfield , where much of the infrastructure is present or only has to be enlarged.

  • Helen Dudden 3rd Feb '15 - 12:58pm

    Neil Sandison just because it is not the issue in your ward, things are different in other wards.

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