In the quest to create more homes, we need to help and incentivise local authorities to think outside the box to identify sites for development, and perhaps even more critically, redevelopment

Richard McCarthy

There is now universal recognition of the need for more homes. However, opinions vary greatly about selecting sites to build them on.

The first issue is undoubtedly planning. The immediate priority is for councils to get cracking with their local and neighbourhood plans. These represent a great opportunity to shape the detail of where development and future protections should be, consistent with national planning policy (the eminently digestible National Planning Policy Framework).

The fact that we still do not have an adopted local plan in each area puzzles me. As an urban geographer I am amazed that the development of a local plan and clear spatial vision for an area has not always been a priority.

The planning system can, at times, be a source of concern and frustration. We have much to be proud of about it but should not be afraid to be looking for ways to make it better both in its design and in its operation.  

Crucially, we need more sites of all sizes - from single-property sites through to major new developments with the capacity for many thousands of new homes. We can be more imaginative. There is not a fixed amount of vacant brownfield land – existing uses and buildings reach a point when they are no longer relevant and need to be replaced, often by new homes at a higher density. We can collectively achieve more here, by proactively identifying land and buildings for redevelopment, particularly from smaller or previously neglected sites. Only recently Capita, working through its joint venture with Barnet council, known as RE, applied for planning for 286 new homes on three sites owned by a local authority that hadn’t previously realised the land could be made available for development.

I am amazed that the development of a local plan and clear spatial vision for an area has not always been a priority

I would like to see all local planning authorities taking a more active role in this, both on their own and with partners. And we need to encourage local communities to play a similar role - we might be surprised by what is brought forward. We are working with one client to find 1,000 new homes from partial redevelopment of their existing portfolio. All my experience tells me more can be done, and that sometimes approaches with a greater emphasis on local needs can lead to more homes built.

I am not trying to deny the importance of large strategic sites, but we need many more sites and greater variety – in size, type and availability. This, in turn, should mean more opportunities for small housebuilders, many of which have found it hard to survive or start up over recent years, given the high cost of entry and often extended pre-development phase. 

We also need to hear the concerns of major housebuilders about the difficulties they experience when progressing large and complex developments. However, they need to provide more specific, practical “asks”, balanced by a clear offer to increase annual housing supply levels in return for measures to ease blockages in the development process.

As far as housing associations are concerned, it is clear some are working their balance sheets to enable the development of new affordable homes, supported by new market housing. However, this is not a universal approach and more can be done to enable and encourage more to follow suit. Few housing associations are really examining their existing portfolio to consider the value and community gain that could be achieved from targeted redevelopment. Individual properties are sold or transferred but the redevelopment of existing buildings and estates - other than council estates – seems to be a rare thing.

Local authorities themselves could play a more active role in developing out their own land and buildings, particularly where they have a retained housing stock. The reform of the Housing Revenue Account has proved to be a success. Surely, now is the time to release borrowing caps in favour of prudential borrowing limits and to allow local authorities to retain their Right to Buy receipts, as long as the full receipt is invested in the development or acquisition of new homes.

And let’s not forget the need for capital subsidy for new rented and affordable homes to both encourage and enhance the individual actions of housing associations and local authorities - but not to replace them.

And, finally, there now needs to be a debate about the value of competitive programmes of support for private rented housing (such as the competition run by the last government for funding for new-build homes for rent). These programmes are anathema to many entrepreneurs and investors, who favour more traditional open market interventions to stimulate private sector investment, such as targeted tax breaks. Could tax breaks that directly support and encourage the construction of new PRS homes, and that are then retained in the sector for an agreed minimum number of years, actually be a better way?

There is no single silver bullet. A range of actions and commitments are required by all those involved and above all else we need more sites – we need to get cracking.

Richard McCarthy is executive director for central government at Capita