Housing MJ: The rebuild starts here

By Jackie Sadek | 30 August 2020

What to make of the seemingly endless ‘reforms’ emanating from Whitehall in the teeth of this pandemic? I can’t comment on the proposals for local government reorganisation (I’ll leave that to The MJ) save to say I know enough to realise it will be utterly exhausting. But I am seriously struggling with the recently published Planning for the Future White Paper.

My view, and that of most of my colleagues in the property industry, is please do not attempt planning reform unless you are going to do it properly – which this white paper almost certainly does not. In any case (as the Local Government Association and others have wearily pointed out) rodding the planning drains will only ever improve the flow, not the quantity of new homes – a figure determined by the laws of supply and demand, not political wishful thinking.

And – I’m wailing now – why introduce more uncertainty now of all times? We do have other, rather pressing, preoccupations right this minute. I was always taught that you should fix the roof while the sun is shining. Clearly I’m a bit old fashioned. Trust me, when this pandemic is over the housing crisis will still be with us, after all, it’s been several decades in the making.

Property expert Peter Bill and I have just completed the finishing touches to our opus about the housing crisis (called Broken Homes – faults, factoids and fixes for the housing market). We started writing it in July 2019 but it remains to be seen whether our timing is brilliant or abysmal (spoiler alert – we have no magic bullets). But one of the partial solutions we advocate is a benevolent stewardship type model, which takes its inspiration both from council housing and from way before that; going back in history to look for good models of high quality, popular and locally affordable homes, many of which were provided by the private sector. ‘Model villages’ built to house workers in places like Port Sunlight, Bourneville, New Lanark and Saltaire. Another touchstone was the old estates built by the likes of Guinness and Peabody. We concluded that it can be done. Because it was done.

But who is going to do it now? Actually, we take the view that it really doesn’t matter, as long as it is done, so we would argue that local authorities are well placed to take the lead. Sadly the days of the borough architect, the borough surveyor and the borough engineer have gone. But you can choose a good partner who can bring those skills. In Broken Homes we champion the models pursued by the likes of Urban & Civic, Harworth Estates and Grosvenor, and now unashamedly being emulated by my own company, UK Regeneration. And there are signs that this market is expanding, with folk who want to take a long-term interest in the land, perhaps putting out serviced plots to the market, while retaining the overall control of the estate, and the ethos of social capital – a million miles away from the old ‘flipping’ brigade (the so called ‘land promoters’). It is pretty much a ‘stewarded house building model’ and – for those, like the inestimable George Clarke, who are calling for a return to council housing – it can be tended by either the public or the private sector. This activity is further boosted by Homes England, the Government’s housing agency, who has stepped up as master developer over the last few months, instilling confidence by creating development opportunities, providing a pipeline of sites for housebuilders of all sizes.

So, we mustn’t be distracted, we must plough on. Local authorities can hugely facilitate these new emerging partnerships: whether it is councils directly with housebuilders, or via Homes England, or private sector master developers working with local authorities – or any permutation or combination therein. The new models could provide a powerful boost to the local economy by people working together in partnership to rebuild.

Long-termism and resilience will be the order of the day. Local authority land owners can seize this moment to play a key role in rebuilding our local economies. Now is the moment for you civic leaders to put your hands up for growth.

Jackie Sadek spent decades working in regeneration before entering government as a special advisor to Cabinet minister Greg Clark. She is now developing 1,500 homes in Central Bedfordshire.

• Broken Homes by Peter Bill and Jackie Sadek will be published by Troubador in October 2020. books@troubador.co.uk

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