Government property chief backs closer working with councils to drive homes on public sites

Government property experts are keen to work with local authorities to explore how rationalisation of public land assets can help deliver homes, a Cabinet Office official assured delegates at the Planning for Housing conference yesterday.

Angela Harrowing speaking at the Planning for Housing conference yesterday
Angela Harrowing speaking at the Planning for Housing conference yesterday

Angela Harrowing, deputy director for disposals at the Office of Government Property, acknowledged that in the past the government has disposed of sites "without necessarily telling the local authority".

But she said: "We are now committed to early engagement where we are planning to release land in the future."

Harrowing, who leads the Cabinet Office's Asset Efficiency and One Public Estate programmes, pointed to Northwick Park in London and Mildenhall in Suffolk as examples of development proposals where rationalisation of land assets owned by a variety of public agencies has realised potential for creating new homes, as well as leading to more efficient patterns of public service provision.

"We act as a critical friend to development partnerships and we will challenge them where we think there are opportunities to go further and better," she added.

"We are in the foothills of a new approach that goes towards maximising housing delivery, but it needs creative thinking," she told a breakout session on opportunities to maximise delivery of homes on public sector land.

Tom Sykes, projects design manager at Transport for London, told the session that planning is "one of the biggest risks" for the mayoral body in achieving its target of building 10,000 homes on its land holdings by 2021.

"Mostly we try to work with the local authorities well in advance, so that by the time we get a developer on board we've already had three or four conversations with the borough about what we have in mind," he said.

Reconciling pressure for high densities in locations well served by public transport with acceptable design is one issue, he said. Proposals to redevelop car parks can also cause controversy, he added: "Councillors are likely to face public pressure not to lose parking spaces, even if they're not well used."

In a later session on local authorities' role as housing enablers, Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) policy officer Tom Kenny said the government's announcement this month that it will lift the cap on council housing revenue account borrowing causes uncertainty on whether local housing companies (LHCs), the vehicles set up by some authorities to provide public sector housing, will "continue to accelerate" their operations.

Kenny said the institute's December 2017 research report on the role of councils in direct provision of housing, undertaken with the National Planning Forum and University College London, will be followed up with a further study next spring and practical guidance advising council planners on how they can get involved.

More understanding is needed on the tension between councils' roles as local planning authorities and housing providers, he added. "The RTPI wants planners to be involved as much as possible in delivery, but they also need to understand the walls between those functions", he said. 

Colm Lacey, managing director and chief executive at the London Borough of Croydon's LHC Brick by Brick, said his organisation's involvement in affordable provision is a "response to market failure". "We weren't getting the pace, value or quality of development we needed through other routes," he said.

Lacey recognised that new council-built homes "are not exactly being welcomed with open arms" by existing residents in some parts of the borough. "Community engagement is a key challenge for our LHC and for others," he said.

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