Housing ‘in the middle of a renaissance’

26 Jan 18

Council housing is undergoing a “renaissance”, according to a leading official at the Ministry of Housing Communities & Local Government.

Rebecca Shrubsole, deputy director for Right to Buy and local authority housing, told a CIPFA housing conference yesterday: “There is huge potential in council housing.

“There has been a big shift in how government sees it, and also in the importance of tenants’ voice, particularly after the Grenfell tragedy.”

The £1bn allocated by the chancellor towards easing the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap was one of a number of steps being taken to expand the supply of local authority housing, she said.

The funding was being targeted at councils facing the highest affordability pressures, who will have the opportunity to bid for it.

There was also potential for it being seen as a “proof of concept” opportunity for lifting the HRA cap altogether, said Shrubsole.

CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman earlier called for just such a measure.

“The HRA is acting as a constraint. We need to remove all caps on council house building, and promote its benefits,” he told conference delegates.

Whiteman welcomed the prominence being given to social housing by the government and chancellor Philip Hammond’s pledge in the Autumn Budget to build 300,000 new homes a year.

“But the government is now on the hook for this. Housing has been the biggest government policy failure for over 30 years. There can be no more excuses for not achieving targets,” he said.

Nor would the recent name change to the department “make a jot of difference” unless policy changed too, he warned.

Steve Partridge, director of Savills housing consultancy, and a CIPFA housing panel member, also stressed the need for “a change of mind-set” on social housing.

“We need to get away from the idea of council housing as ‘welfare’ – as a cost on the public purse - and see it as an investment, which local authorities run as a business,” he said.

For this to happen there needed to be a self-regulatory prudential code of practice for the HRA.

And local authorities bidding for the  extra borrowing money should not have be “bumping up against their debt cap. They need to maintain a buffer,” he insisted.

Other speakers at the conference explored some of the legal, financial and legislative issues that impact on local authority housing, and innovative developments in local housing partnerships.

Sajid Javid, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, has announced a “wide-ranging top to bottom review” of social housing, in the form of a green paper.

The government is also conducting an independent review of housing planning reforms, under the chairmanship of Sir Oliver Letwin. An interim report is due shortly.

Many of the issues discussed at the CIPFA conference will be explored in depth in the spring edition of PF Perspectives.

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