For a council, a housing strategy is a bit like a new domestic appliance.
You can see it is useful and you know you ought to have one, but you cannot decide where to put it and are unsure how it works.
Planning departments are expected to work with housing strategy teams.
In some cases they have absorbed them almost by accident. The function's physical and organisational location is haphazard. But it can give planning a sound basis from which to manage the land and infrastructure needed for new homes by predicting the numbers needed and tying together the finance required for affordable homes.
There is growing recognition that the uncertain role of such strategies and their erratic links with planning are a wasted opportunity and that strategies agreed by all interested parties would be valuable. This autumn the Housing Corporation, the Local Government Association (LGA), the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) and the Housing Quality Network consultancy have all set out their stalls on how housing strategies should progress.
Most councils have transferred housing management to a housing association or arm's-length management organisation (ALMO). That leaves strategy as a remnant of the housing department, rarely large enough to form a separate team. Planning Officers Society communications director John Silvester insists that close links with planning are desirable. "We need cross-fertilisation," he argues.
Bob Livermore is executive manager for housing services at West Lancashire District Council, which is conducting a stock transfer ballot. "We have not taken a final decision on where housing strategy should go," he admits.
"We could see a case for planning, but also for regeneration, or we could see it as a matter for the policy unit. There were even suggestions that it should join environmental health."
Despite such differing views, there is a degree of unanimity that housing strategies should be the tool that identifies housing need, pulls together resources and helps planners to decide what land and supporting infrastructure will be needed. They could also be useful if the government's proposal to tie building land releases to local housing market conditions takes effect, since they can develop an accurate picture of this market.
"Guidance from the ODPM will require better and more effective understanding of how markets affect housing demand," says Silvester. "Planners will be charged with identifying land and releasing it over time, triggered by market demands. So we must all understand what is going on in them and we need a close relationship."
Housing Corporation chief executive Jon Rouse sees such strategies as a better way to direct social housing investment. The Housing Act 2004 opened the way for the corporation to give grants to ALMOs and private developers to build social homes as well as housing associations. Rouse told an LGA conference last month: "We cannot deliver without your help, participation and partnership."
Rouse accepts that local authorities are the bodies best placed to predict housing need and demand. Government policy now includes a clear expectation that local government "will use all of the resources and powers at its disposal to find new ways to deliver the necessary new housing, increase tenant choice, reduce homelessness and ensure balanced communities", he points out.
Since his organisation holds the purse strings for social housing, Rouse carries clout and he has some robust opinions on planning. He urges housing and planning officials to collaborate where council-owned land can be used for affordable homes. "The effective use of authorities' land assets is critical to the delivery of our programme," he insists. He accuses some councils of failing because "there are still sites locked into wishful employment uses that are unlikely to ever materialise".
Rouse may find less than universal favour among planners for his view that "there are a lot of great infill opportunities and chances to repair tears in the urban fabric that only the local authority can unlock". One person's "great infill opportunity" can be another's vision of over-intensive development.
However, the corporation is in a position to tempt councils to see things its way on rezoning and infill sites by backing its opinions with hard cash. This is the sort of tension that a housing strategy can help to mediate by providing an agreed programme. Planning powers are important to the corporation because a high proportion of its homes - up to 40 per cent in the South East - will be delivered through section 106 agreements.
Rouse criticises planners for delaying permissions. "It does not matter how much money we and government put into development if the sites do not come on stream," he warns. "Where planning decisions are held up it means that affordable homes do not get built." The problem is worst in London, where "far too many schemes are delayed as a result of hold-ups in the planning system".
His suggested solution is that where resources need to be prioritised on the planning side, they go towards people in the most critical housing need. Faced with competing demands, planning directors might raise their eyebrows at that prospect. Yet housing strategies could be the weapon to sort out these conflicting demands because they would show the scale of resources needed for housing to meet council objectives.
Silvester says that Rouse gives too little weight to the effects of the planning skills shortage and legal issues that fall outside planners' control. "Affordable housing section 106 agreements require complex negotiations between solicitors and these take time," he says. "It is true that the system does not fast track these agreements, but the legal issues are time consuming."
A paper published by the CIH and LGA this month seeks to put some flesh on the bones of housing strategy. The two groups suggest that councils should draw up two to three-year investment plans for housing and a broader 15-year vision. Rouse endorses the proposals, although given the time taken to develop schemes he acknowledges that an investment horizon of four to six years might be more realistic.
Given councils' habitual dislike of earmarked government funding, the paper makes a controversial call for specific government funding for housing strategy work so that this small service is not lost in council budgets.
LGA environment board chairman David Sparks says: "Housing is about more than just bricks and mortar. It is integral to our communities, a tool for tackling disadvantage, a vehicle for regeneration, a cure for homelessness and the heart of healthy neighbourhoods."
The CIH and LGA are encouraged by communities and local government minister David Miliband's description of the strategic role as arising from a council's ability to "look at land use in an area and the operation of the housing market across all tenures - in other words to be a custodian of the community and not just a custodian of some of its housing".
This view ties housing strategy to the sustainable communities plan by emphasising that those working on it should move beyond the housing profession's preoccupation with social housing. But it also implies that planners should pay more heed to affordable homes. Indeed, the CIH and LGA paper argues: "Planning for housing provision is essentially a new element of cross-tenure housing strategy that is not carried out fully by housing or planning functions. It should be closely aligned with the planning function and inform local plans and it requires particular knowledge and new skills."
It calls for government support for programmes to develop staff with the necessary skills. It says that these are "currently few and far between, and where they do exist are largely self-taught".
The government wants strategies to cover housing of all kinds. The Housing Corporation wants medium-term strategies through which it can plan its investment in each area. The LGA and CIH want funding for strategy work to ensure that councils make sense of market-led land releases and funding for social housing.
Out of the debate emerges a future for housing strategy close to planning, providing a framework to assess the demand for land and infrastructure through accurate predictions and clear priorities. Done well, a strategy could be a powerful tool for planning sustainable development. This somewhat neglected corner of municipal activity could be about to come into its own.
Visionary Leadership in Housing: A New Future for Local Housing Strategy can be viewed via www.cih.org.
Housing Strategies Are Dead: Long Live Housing Strategies can be viewed via www.hqnetwork.org.uk.
SOUTHAMPTON: PUTTING THE CITY'S HOUSING STRATEGY TO WORK
One problem with housing strategy is the lack of clarity about its content. In Southampton's case, its regional context is the draft South East Plan, where the influence of rural councils has produced a house building target towards the lower end of the range of options considered.
"The strategy role here includes developing affordable homes with housing associations, bringing empty properties back into use, research, housing policy, advice and improving private sector homes," says Barbara Compton, head of housing strategy, development and private sector housing at Southampton City Council.
She explains that housing strategy decisions are influenced by national and regional policies as well as sub-regional contexts and local priorities. The picture on the south coast sees Southampton participating in the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire initiative (Planning, 23 September, p9).
The city also has to take the government's emerging preoccupation with neighbourhoods into account. Its strategy must help to create sustainable localities. The strategy and planning teams are working together to navigate these concerns.
"Priorities have been assessed in consultation with the local strategic partnership and communities," says Compton. "The priority is to have sufficient affordable homes. This is translated into a series of policies to deliver that goal. Housing strategy and planning work closely together. The key project at the moment is the local development framework."
Compton is satisfied that Southampton is already doing many of the things required to bring about a renaissance in the role of local housing strategies.
"Sub-regional work and the neighbourhood agenda will be key influences in how housing strategy divisions mould themselves over the next few years," she concludes.
HOUSING QUALITY: NETWORK CALLS ON SECTOR TO CONSIDER FULL RANGE OF SOLUTIONS IN DEVELOPMENT SITE SEARCH
The government's preoccupation with getting homes built could mean that other housing solutions get trampled in the rush for land, according to the Housing Quality Network.
A paper by Tim Brown, director of De Montfort University's centre for comparative housing, and North Shropshire District Council chief executive Nicola Yates sees a serious danger that housing will become too focused on new-build homes due to demands for economies of scale and efficient resource allocation.
"The sustainable communities plan has meant that many councils just look at it for new building and the land needed," says Brown. Tying land releases to housing markets and the government's emphasis on regional strategies risks local strategies being overridden by regional quangos trying to determine boundaries, he reasons.
"Regional housing boards are increasingly taking steps to move towards sub-regional strategies, with consultants identifying sub-regional housing markets," notes Brown. In his view, this trend could leave planners trying to make sense of land requirements across an area for which no single body has responsibility.
Such moves ignore collaborations by groups of local authorities, he adds.
He cites the Welland Partnership, which comprises Rutland County Council and the districts of East Northamptonshire, Harborough, Melton, and South Kesteven. The authorities have produced housing and homelessness strategies.
Yet Welland is not recognised as a coherent sub-region by the East Midlands Regional Housing Board.