Aligning local priorities

London councils are plotting how the various parties involved in regeneration and housing can join forces to create investment plans that accurately tackle local needs, Aaron Cahill reports.

London: councils are working with the mayor on cohesive development
London: councils are working with the mayor on cohesive development

There is much speculation about how new funding and governance arrangements are going to pan out under the coalition government. With the spending review outcome due next week and a decentralisation and localism bill soon to be published, uncertainty about what will emerge is inevitable.

Interested parties would do well to look at what is going on in London. The mayor, in partnership with London Councils, published a framework for devolved delivery in August setting out how new arrangements for pushing powers down might work.

In advance of this, councils have been working with the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) to develop borough investment plans identifying housing and regeneration priorities that require funding.

The HCA's narrative has been one of a "single conversation" with local authorities that would help build a consensus on what needs to be done, where and at what cost to a manageable timeline.

In a time of austerity, effective investment planning is more important and hopefully some housing and regeneration work can still be undertaken.

London authorities are major landowners. A significant number still own their housing stock. Historic planning obligations have been banked and future resources will be generated.

Significant resources could also be released to a short timescale from the housing revenue account subsidy review. Along with ongoing commitments, a programme of investment can be developed.

This has been happening at various rates across the capital. The framework paper recommends that devolved delivery agreements be struck between the mayor and local authorities, building on the single conversation investment planning process.

The idea is to tie local authorities' investment plans more closely to the mayor's housing and wider London Plan strategic objectives for the capital.

In practical terms, these agreements will define investment priorities, outline development plans over a three-year period and set out an indicative budget over a similar time frame, presumably dovetailing with the spending review timetables.

The framework also looks to local authorities to identify housing and non-housing resources to maximise local delivery with wider place-making and socio-economic objectives.

The mayor's intention is to offer flexibilities to boroughs. This could include creating a single pot giving councils leeway to move funding between projects, direct local investment decisions, select delivery partners and fund projects that meet specific needs.

The aim is that this will apply to the HCA programme. Until legislation is enacted, arrangements will be based on a partnership approach that the mayor, the HCA and councils have bought into.

Some local authorities may not choose to enter into such agreements, especially where housing issues are not considered a priority. One of the big questions is how boroughs will organise their response to this new agenda.

Apart from attempting to resource it with people and processes at a time when radical rationalisation is being freely discussed, this raises issues of how councils will deal with this change and engineer a new way of working.

Part of this will be about taking on a stronger project delivery leadership role. Another element will be the adoption of project and programme management techniques such as Prince 2 and Managing Successful Programmes, which are freely used elsewhere.

It may also involve rationalising the various capital programme teams that exist in councils. It must involve housing and planning officers reading from one script rather than two.

Some of these issues emerged in a short research project by JVM Consultants completed in April on how the single conversation process is developing in London.

This found enthusiasm for the process on the part of local authorities but some disappointment that other statutory bodies were not fully engaged. It also revealed recognition that alignment of local strategies will be necessary to ensure that investment plans are based on a coherent reflection of local priorities.

Local authorities are the great survivors and change merchants in the political and governmental landscape. But there is a need for realism about what can be delivered in this new and challenging environment, beyond the mantra of "more for less".

The target date for devolved delivery agreement arrangements to be in place is next April, so planning should now be firmly in place.

The reduction in public subsidies available for housing and regeneration puts local authorities in the unenviable, but correct, position of deciding where resources should be applied in their areas.

Historically, councils could afford to be indifferent about how much subsidy was being granted to housing associations to deliver new affordable homes, as it was money that they felt that they had no control over.

Is it possible that under a regime where they have a more direct say over the funding of housing and regeneration in their areas, local authorities will do a better job than their predecessors in delivering more and better housing outcomes for less money? From next spring, we should start to find out in the capital.

Aaron Cahill is a senior consultant at JVM Consultants. JVM's Single Conversation report is available from aaron.cahill@jvmconsultants.co.uk


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