You can’t build houses without land, and 3 million houses requires an awful lot of it. So how can the public sector help their friends in the private get their hands on it? Well, the recent green paper has some ideas

The housing green paper clearly set out the government’s ambition to raise the volume and quality of housing to address the twin challenges of too much demand and too little affordability. In it there was a tacit acknowledgement that although a great deal had been achieved in the past 10 years, the sector needed to change its approach to meet the target of 3 million new homes across England by 2020.

It may be obvious, but land – particularly brownfield land – and the way in which we use it is crucial. The government has stated that the current target to develop 60% of new housing on brownfield land will remain (we are currently achieving about 67%). This means about 2 million of the new homes are likely to be built on brownfield sites. Of these, the aim is to build at least 200,000 on surplus public sector land by 2016. I believe that if we get the land supply right, the homes, communities, infrastructure, business investment and jobs will follow.

Three chances

As well as setting out numbers, the green paper also points the way to three significant opportunities to improve the supply of land for housing and improve the quality and affordability of new homes. So, in other words, the government intends to demonstrate how the housebuilding sector can raise its game.

First, it recommends a greater, and more active role for English Partnerships, the national regeneration agency and government’s adviser on the reuse of brownfield land. The agency has recently demonstrated that it can realise the potential of surplus public sector sites. The hospital sites programme, for example, is on track to deliver £1bn of private sector investment by 2010 and has the potential for up to 15,000 homes across 96 sites.

This programme is also setting new practical standards, through English Partnerships’ quality and price requirements, and includes schemes with the latest methods of sustainable, cost-effective construction and low-carbon development.

The government wants to see more of this portfolio approach: generating receipts here, remediating there and masterplanning and developing elsewhere – and as such, maximising the opportunities from surplus public land to deliver new homes.

English Partnerships has been given a mandate, to go to ministries and other agencies and work with them to ensure that surplus land is released for high quality, affordable homes. This is a role that one would imagine will be taken up by the new homes and communities agency.

The prime minister has asked all government departments and agencies to identify their surplus sites. The green paper identified more than 550, and continuing work has now increased this number to about 900, including more from NHS trusts. We’re currently assessing the potential for housing on these.

By being more creative with surplus public sector land, we will give greater opportunities to developers to build
high-quality affordable housing and create communities where people choose to live

As the green paper makes clear, there is now a target of at least 50% affordable homes on surplus public sector sites, which includes low cost home ownership as well as rented homes.

Second, the housing green paper say that, as a landowner, the government should take greater responsibility for ensuring that land that is suitable for housing supports high quality development. This means that raising the quality and environmental performance of new housing through specific minimum standards, rather than relying on the planning system and market forces. English Partnerships’ quality and price standards will be minimum requirements across all surplus public sector land. This will involve, for example, achieving a minimum Code for Sustainable Homes level three on all new homes. English Partnerships already requires this and the Housing Corporation has committed to do so from April 2008.

Council housing redux

Third, it proposes that the local housing companies that councils are to set up with private sector developers be used to give local authorities a central role in providing affordable housing, as well as helping to provide market sale housing.

The local housing company approach, piloted by English Partnerships gives councils a direct say in the number and type of homes built on their land.

The planning system aims to make it easier to carry out sustainable development and allowing councils to retain shared ownership in the land that they provide can assist in this. They will also be able to use the returns from ground rents or any uplift in land value to invest more in housing schemes.

Such a move reinforces the aspirations that have been set out in regional housing strategies and local delivery plans, and will deliver more homes.

By being more creative with surplus public sector land, we will give greater opportunities to developers to build high-quality affordable housing and create communities and places where people choose to live. This is an ambition shared by the government and leaders in the housebuilding industry.